Hank Williams III: Hellbilly Renegade

Shelton Hank Williams III could very well be Hiram Hank Williams Sr. sent back to Earth to offer Nashville its biggest kick in the pants since ? well, since the hard-drinking, womanizing, hell-raising Hank Sr. wreaked havoc on Music Row the first time around 50 years ago.

Unlike his rotund father, Hank Williams Jr. (aka Mr. Monday Night Football), Williams III is lean, has a face full of angles, sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes just like his legendary grandfather. On his first solo release, Risin? Outlaw, Williams III conveys emotion with the same lonesome, coyote moan that helped Senior score hit after hit during the 1940s and 1950s.

In concert, Williams has been known to exhibit his rage by screaming above a torrent of blazing guitars. ?We play a good hour, hour and a half of country. Then we?ll switch it up and do as much rock as we can.?

Growing up, Williams never dreamed he?d be staring down the barrel of being the next ?Hank Williams.?

?I always saw myself as a drummer,? Williams said via telephone while recuperating in Nashville. ?I never thought I?d be the singer or guitarist.?

A proud son of the South, born and raised in Nashville, Williams? accent drips with authenticity.

?I probably would?ve seen myself working on a farm, being that I was raised on a farm on my Mama?s side of the family.?

Despite the fact that Williams? father is one of the most successful acts in the history of country music, the only thing Williams III has inherited from the family legacy is the name. His father left when he was four and rarely visited. William III?s mother raised him the best she could on the modest salary of a retail clerk. Her boy was wild from the start. In junior high, Williams got expelled from school.

?One reason was that I had a zero grade point average. It was a really strict private school, very preppy, not-suppose-to-drink-and-smoke-on-the-weekend kind of school. I was pretty much doing everything in my power to get into public school. I wanted to get in the real world. Private school is good for some people, but not for me.?

Williams came of age in the 1980s during the height of his father?s immense popularity but paid little attention to the tunes country radio was cranking out. He was too busy listening to acts such as Black Sabbath, Slayer, AC/DC, Black Flag, Misfits and the Melvins. Known at the time simply as Shelton Williams, he left home as a teen to follow his dream of making it as a drummer in a rock band.

?I?m 28 now and I?ve been touring the whole country on the road since I was 21. I was a drummer in (the hardcore punk band) Buzzkill from the time I was 18 to 20 ? been involved in music since I was about 17.?

What caused Williams to abandon his $50-a-gig punk life and put on the cowboy hat? A $24,000 child support suit (the result of a one-night stand) and a $300-a-week marijuana habit.

?Yeah, for now (I still maintain the pot habit). My lungs are starting to reject me.?

Williams laughs, then coughs, his lungs rattle like a rusty steam engine struggling up a mountain.

?The last couple days I?ve been feeling pretty dry so I?m gonna have to get in the Willie Nelson mode (of moderation),? Williams mused. ?Or else just start making a lot of brownies or cookies ? something to that effect.? Quicker than a Slayer chord change, Williams? tone became somber. ?Yeah, the pot habit is still there. In fact, when I get done with you, I?m heading in that direction.?

After taking an offer to don the duds of his granddaddy and sing Senior?s timeless country classics, a strange thing happened to the young Williams ? he started to actually dig country ? ?old school country ? Johnny Cash, Webb Pierce and Wayne Hancock.?

?The depression, the loneliness, the anger. (Hardcore country and punk rock music) both relate to a darker side.?

Williams signed with Curb Records (home of his father), and Risin? Outlaw was released in 1999. The standout tracks on the album : ?If the Shoe Fits,? ?On My Own? and ?Blue Devil? were all written by Williams.

?I started writing country songs at least a year or two before I started working on (Risin? Outlaw). Curb was just rejecting all the songs that I was writing, so that was my big problem with them. I had to give up and do some of their songs.?

Never one to hide his emotions, Williams has been photographed in concert wearing a black T-shirt that reads: ?F- -K Curb.?

Risin? Outlaw is too raw for today?s tepid, mainstream country radio stations. It is a collection of hardcore twang ? electric, acoustic, steel guitars, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and drums ? that includes Williams III originals, a song made famous by Johnny Cash, ?Cocaine Blues,? and tunes penned by contemporaries such as Williams? buddy, Wayne Hancock. (In the liner notes of his album, the altruistic Williams encourages fans to check out Hancock.)

What makes the debut album unique is Williams? ability to bring the sheer energy of power-chord punk and fuse it with the two-step honky-tonk, white-man?s blues music of his grandfather. On his next country release, slated to hit stores January 2002, Williams was granted greater artistic control. He vows that the album is even rawer than his first.

?On the new album that?s coming out in January I got to write all the songs, and produce the album also. ?(Curb) only rejected one of my songs ? ?I?m Here to Put the D–k in Dixie and the C-nt in Country.?

?(On the new album) you?ll hear a massive difference. Definitely a big difference.?

Meanwhile, Williams and his Damn Band tour incessantly, passing the time on the bus as best they can.

?(We) listen to music … listen to music … and you know??

Williams playfully pretended that he was not going to admit to indulging in his favorite vice. After a long pause, he chuckled and then said, ?You know … smoking, drinking.?

He gave ?smoking? that extra umph just in case anyone might have thought he was only refering to tobacco.

Despite his reckless lifestyle, Williams claims he is not trying to follow Hank Williams Sr.?s footsteps and drink and drug himself to the grave before reaching 29.

?Pot and alcohol is a slow death. If I was doing coke and crank and shooting heroin all the time, then death might be around the corner. But, I don?t have a death wish or anything. I just live life and enjoy what I do. Variety is the spice of life,? Williams chuckled, ?and I need a little more variety I guess.?

Reflecting on why drugs are so prevalent in the music world, Williams stated, ?It could be from depression. Most musicians are head cases in their own little way. Your fans are always giving drugs to you. Always. Boredom is another reason. Out there on the road you got two days off, and you?re in some town where you don?t know anybody. You got a few things, you might as well take ?em.?

Williams is aware that not all bands need drugs to carry them and keep ennui at bay.

?On the flip side, you got bands like the Melvins who are straight, and look what they?ve done.?

Williams contemplated his own fate. ?I?m supposed to be here to suffer for at least a good 50 years.?

Drinking, smoking and listening to music are not the only means of entertainment for Williams while on the road.

?We play Playstation 2. I am a pretty intense gamer. I won a truck off the Internet once from racing before.?

Williams? favorite game is ?Off Road Fury.? He said that that MX 2002 is ?all right.? Commenting on the game Grand Turismo, Williams complained with the zeal of a serious competitor, ?You spend $50,000 for a car and then you resell it and its value is only 9,000 bucks. It?s crazy,? he said.

Williams understands the dangers of the road but knows that?s where he belongs.

?I have a lot more fun playing at some dirty bar than I do at the Grande Ole Opry. It?s just one of them things. It?s intense. It?s like going to church.?

Williams continues to relentlessly tour the country so he can build a fan base through word of mouth.

?Minneapolis, Minn., is where we get the best audience reaction. Austin, Tex., has always been great to us. Chicago is starting to get known to what we do. Those are the three main ones.?

Surprised club owners have not always been receptive to Williams? punk rock set.

?Luchenbach, Texas, (was the worst gig we?ve ever played.) We were in a country bar and there were 100 kids wanting the rock stuff, so we did the rock stuff. (We start playing) and 25 of the club?s security guards start a fight with us and throw our gear outside.

?The (club) owner was all coked up and drunk. He was shouting, ?What the f- -k did you just pull on me, godd- -m it??

?I (informed) him that the contract asked for an hour and a half of country music and that?s what we gave you. The kids wanted something extra so we gave them that. It was pretty intense. Our bus driver had to come out with a pistol to get these guys to back up.?

Williams sounded sincerely irritated when discussing the mistreatment of his fans.

?In Tulsa, a week ago, some kid was just jumping up and down, and I see some security guards tackle this guy to the floor and stay on him for four minutes. When they pull him up, his pants are down and around his ankles, and they don?t even pull his pants up for him or anything. Seeing that happen just pissed me off. I threw my guitar down and walked off stage after just like four rock songs. I didn?t want to see it happen to 20 other guys that are our true fans.?

Williams occupies a unique position as a performing artist who can pull off a show that includes two such drastically different sets. Forced to choose, Williams confided that he would pick the blood-curdling screams and power chords in favor of pedal-steel and fiddle.

?The kind of country we do is old-school. It?s just like jazz. The kind of metal we play isn?t very accepted. We play it because we love it. I don?t know why, I just love turning it up and freaking out.?

Williams has actually recorded an entire album of rock music.

?I?m doing everything in my power to get it out. Curb Records is f–king us as far as trying to get it released. The only way I?ve been able to get my rock music out there is to make live bootlegs and sell those on (his Web site) . I?m not supposed to, but hell, if they?re gonna keep f–king me, I have no alternative.

?(Curb records) is wasting my career. Here I am, 28, and we should have had at least four or five albums out by now ? two country and two rock.?

Williams? rock bootlegs will be available at the show Friday.

Williams realizes that the old-school twang and punk rock attitude on Risin? Outlaw sound like a direct assault on the slick, over produced, greeting card fare being played on country radio these days.

?I?m definitely not Keith Urban, Bryan Wyatt or Tim McGraw. We?re from the real world of simplicity. We get on stage and play our songs. We don?t shake our a– or any of that s- -t.?

Williams feels that one break-out artist could send country music back in the right direction.

?Nashville ain?t gonna change until some old- sounding kid makes it big and then all (the record companies will follow). Hopefully it?ll change soon. it?s just like glam rock ? it can only last so long,? said Williams.

Williams is not interested in pop country acts such as Shania Twain.

?I don?t have much respect for some lady that has an album out that?s sold 3 million and she?s only done, like, six shows. Marrying (record producer) Mutt Lange, it?s just the game. I?m sure she didn?t marry him for his good looks.?

Later this month Mercury Records is releasing a Hank Williams Sr. tribute album. Williams III has contributed one of his grandfather?s more obscure gems, ?Long Gone Daddy.?

Other artists paying their respects to Williams Sr. include Beck, Sheryl Crow, Keb Mo and Bob Dylan.

?I?m real proud of what Mercury did on that project,? said Williams, ?They did a real, real good job.?

Williams is not sure how he would react if the ghost of Hank Williams appeared before him.

?I?d probably just ask him if he wanted to have a drink, sit down and bulls–t about songwriting and s–t. I?d probably be just like any other fan, a little starstruck,? said Williams.

Reflecting on his father, Williams commented, ?It?d be nice to get some advice from him. But I guess I?m such a black sheep of the family they don?t even go there. They know how politically incorrect I am, and there?s all kinds of weird, little things going on.?

There was definitely a melancholy in young Williams? voice as he placed the blame on himself for the strained relationship he shares with his celebrated dad.

Regardless of the immense shadow cast by the family name, Williams? goals are as ambitious as any other Hank?s have been.

?I want to be an artist that?s got the Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. To carve my own niche. No other Hank Williams got out there and screamed his brains out and played heavy metal.?

Hank Williams III will be performing Friday at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg. For tickets call (727) 895-3045.

Contact Wade Tatangelo at oracleofflimits@yahoo.com