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BUILT TO LAST

Hick'ry Hawkins stands strong after 16 years of performing

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With his white cowboy hat slung low, Hick'ry Hawkins takes another pinch of Bali Shag tobacco, sets it in a rolling paper and creates a new smoke. He lights it up, takes a drag and continues the story. "It's kinda like Alice Cooper," he says with a hint of Southern twang. "You know his name is Vincent, but are you really going to call him 'Vince'?"

Hawkins is referring to his name. While he doesn't reveal the one he was given at birth, he shares the story of his current monicker. It's one he's used for around 15 years and the one he hopes to make legal -- as soon as he finds time ... and makes the effort to get to the courthouse.

The first name comes from hickory, obviously. A friend suggested it -- Southern, sturdy, the kind of wood that lasts -- to sum up his personality and music. The last name he stole from one of his heroes, Screamin' Jay Hawkins. "I thought I could be one of Screamin' Jay's illegitimate kids," the 39-year-old says with a laugh.

Hawkins -- the Hick'ry one -- grew up in rural towns around the Carolinas. He was always performing as a kid, but had an eight-year detour into the military starting in 1986. He worked in Naval intelligence, but took leave when things looked bleak. "I was getting to the level where stuff really started scaring the hell out of me," he says. "If I stayed, it was going to be one of those things where you wind up staying forever. My captain said, 'Is there anything else you'd like to do with your life? If there is, go do that.'"

Hawkins says that while he sometimes lacks discipline in life, the discipline that carried over from the military is apparent in his music. "One thing I took away from it is to stand up for myself, 'cause when I was younger I never really did that," he says. "I guess it's stand up for yourself, but do it in a cordial manner. Quietly nod your head, even when you're insulting them."

His Southern upbringing is apparent in his music. It's a style that most find difficult to describe. "I just call it American music," Hawkins says of his brand. The hat may make you think country, but it's based in honky tonk, blues, rock, rockabilly and even punk. He simply hopes to take any listener on a roller coaster ride -- "I'll have a song that wants everybody to drink and get laid, but then a slow song that makes you want to cry."

Because of his look, most people assume he plays country music, but as Hawkins is quick to point out, "People are hesitant to listen to me play because they don't like country music, but I hate country music, too!" While he grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, he says listening to Cash all day would make him crazy.

As for the cowboy hat, it's been a part of his wardrobe since his beginnings in a punk band in the 1980s. He says he saw bands like Sisters of Mercy and The Cult using them and thought it would be a good fit. "Playing music in a lot of punk rock clubs, I didn't want to look like all the punk kids," he says. "What's the most fucked up thing I can do in front of all these kids? I can dress like Dwight Yoakam, that'll make all of 'em mad at me." Now, when he goes out without the hat, he says he's rarely recognized.

Like most musicians, he's had a handful of odd jobs over the years to help pay the bills -- banker, retail, painter, even working in a haunted house and joining the carnival at one point. "I thought it would be an adventure," he says of his carny days. "It was, but not the kind of adventure I thought it was gonna be." He spent a short time as the guy guessing your age, weight or month you were born in. He currently works with a union as a stagehand. "I'm always trying to find other ways to make money that I can put back into the music and keep recording," he says.

He wound up in Charlotte two years ago because he figured it was close enough to a lot of other places where you can "get on the road and play and be home within a couple of hours." He also finds time to perform solo when he can.

Hawkins has released three albums so far and hopes to have another one done this year. He says he has a backlog of hundreds of songs, so writing isn't a problem. It just comes down to money. As for the transition from punk to where he is today, he says it just came down to the kinds of songs he was writing.

His music can spark a variety of emotions in an audience. "Hard Liquor, Fried Chicken and You" usually gets a big reaction and has fans bringing him whiskey. And it's not a song he wrote about walking with the devil -- "Hell I Am" -- that has some people getting angry.

Darlin', what kind of panties are you wearing today?

Do you think that I could get a peak, now what do you say?

"Certain people get offended about the Panty Song," he says. "At a club out of 80 to 100 people, two will get offended and leave, but there were about 100 others that stayed and 70 of them were throwing their underwear at me. I'm sorry I offended two people, but I'm not going to change my show because two people walked out."

It's moments like that which make Hawkins play harder. He hopes to convert everyone in a club into fans. "If I'm in a club and there are 100 people, 99 of that crowd love me," he says. "But, if there's some guy or lady standing with their arms crossed and scowling at me, I'll concentrate on singing to that person. I'm gonna convert you or you're gonna leave."

He's not bitter about the time it's taken him to get this far, noting that if he had made it big at 25, he may not still be around. "If I had gotten a record deal and was making money, the first hot chick that offered me cocaine or heroin ... I'd have gotten on it and would probably be dead," he says. "Being older, the songs that I write ... they take on more meaning as you get older. I think I deserve to make a living at it. I'm good enough."

The Honky Tonk Revival featuring Wink Keziah & Delux Motel, Jem Crossland and the Hypertonics, Hick'ry Hawkins and Ken Will Morton & The Wholly Ghosts will be held at the Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 11 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.

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