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Hank III to Curb Records: Move it on over

Williams wants out from Hank Sr.'s shadow, record contract

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Hank Williams III has never denied his musical lineage -- there really wouldn't be much point. When he straps on that acoustic guitar, brings his rail-thin frame to the mike and warbles like his famous granddaddy -- well, good luck not conjuring up country music's most memorable and tragic figure.

But Hank III has little interest in musical seances, either. He writes his own material, and most of it's damn good. Over the course of his brief but eventful career, Williams has traveled a two-pronged path, most memorably during his schizophrenic live shows. Part old-school country revival, part hard-core slam-fest, Hank III un-apologetically indulges both of his music loves in his own inimitable style.

Unfortunately, Hank III's vision of Hank III doesn't jibe with his label, Curb Records, run by part-time Republican poo-bah and fundraiser Mike Curb. And the differences go far beyond the traditional creative ones. Mike Curb, an evangelical Christian, is out to save the world, starting with Hank III.

"He wants me to put on the suit and clean-cut my hair and just be the good, righteous kind of Hank Williams," said Hank III, equally miffed and amused by Mike Curb's revisionist thinking. "He sees himself as a guy that's here to protect me from myself, which is totally ridiculous. I never realized how bible-oriented he was."

A divorce would do both good, but it won't be pretty. When he came to Mike Curb (who'd worked with his father, Hank Williams, Jr.), Hank III was just another starving artist in need of a quick cash infusion -- a "sticky situation" involving child support, Williams said. Thus was he lured into the ages-old record-contract shell game, signing a deal that he was later surprised to learn was for 10 records.

So far, after five years with the label, Williams has produced just two commercial releases, neither of which he's particularly fond of. Risin' Outlaw and Lovesick, Broke & Driftin' received strong reviews, but the first record featured songs written by others (Williams disowned it before it was even released) and the latter was put together from start to finish in just two weeks.

Meanwhile, Williams continued to pursue his alter-ego interests, playing bass in Phil Anselmo's heavy Pantera side-project, Superjoint Ritual, and splitting the difference at his own shows with his hard-core band, AssJack. But the label head won't allow Williams to release any hard-core records under the Nashville giant's name (Mike Curb also runs Warner Brothers' Christian music subsidiary, Word Entertainment -- as in, the alleged "word" of god), and Williams took to hawking "Fuck Curb " T-shirts on his web site. Can't you just feel the love?

Williams has also made several limited edition releases available on his web site to tide his fans over, but that's a likely breach of contract that may come back to haunt him. He had also hoped to release two records in the winter of "03: the appropriately named This Ain't Country, and his next honky tonk effort, Thrown Out of the Bar. Both are in limbo while Curb Records and Williams wait to face off in court on Feb. 27.

"We're wanting to do one more record with them and then say, "See you later, we appreciate the business, let's move on, I'm not helping you, you're not helping me,'" Williams said. But, he added, Mike Curb's re-negotiation offer was essentially the same deal for seven more records, "which means 10 to 15 more years of my life that they would be wasting."

Williams isn't sitting on his hands in the interim. In addition to the current two-month Hank III tour that visits Charlotte this week, Williams is headed to Canada with Superjoint Ritual after a brief respite to rest his voice, and will then join the annual Ozzfest tour this summer.

But Williams can only wonder what he might accomplish if he controlled his own destiny. Williams and Mike Curb have even clashed over what constitutes country music in the first place.

Curb's roster is filled with safe, clean-cut acts like flag-waving Big Hat Tim McGraw, LeeAnn Rimes, and those paragons of apple pie virtue, Donny and Marie Osmond. Hank Williams, Jr. (unlikely to earn angel wings any time soon) may be a client, but Mike Curb seems more intent on eliminating outlaw country than preserving it.

Not surprisingly, Hank III finds this insulting. It's a complete misreading of his grandfather's life, for starters -- Williams the senior may have worn a suit, but he bought it in the back of a rented limo at 29, his weary heart giving in to years of hard drinking and morphine addiction. But what really irks Hank III is Mike Curb's attempt to clean up country music's image and fashion it into a bland mirror of his own roster.

Williams isn't exactly advocating pistol-waving anarchy and free crack (free weed is probably another question altogether, considering Williams' prodigious pot habit). What he wants, he said, is to be able to release records in both styles and have the freedom to drop a cuss word now and then (Mike Curb won't allow Parental Advisory stickers on his artists' recordings -- though he apparently sees no problem foisting high-brow T&A fare like Coyote Ugly on the public).

"He doesn't see my vision of there needing to be a younger generation of outlaws that don't take the normal, beaten path, not like the Toby Keiths and that stuff," Hank III said. "Once all the old outlaws die, they'll see what's up a little bit. And that's all we're trying to strive for: country can be cool, too, even to 16 and 20-year-olds."

So while the lawyers sort it all out, Williams just keeps doing his thing on stage. "We're the only band out there that can switch from that kind of country to as hard as we rock," he said of his Jekyll & Hyde show. "We have skinheads and heavy metal guys and grandmothers and cowboys and frat boys all together in the same room, kind of getting along most of the time."

Hank Williams III and AssJack play the Visulite Theatre Tuesday, Feb. 24. Tickets are $15 and the doors open at 8pm; Anti-Seen and Scott Biram open.

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