He may be Hank Williams III, but even in the iconoclastic world of music, he's pretty much one of a kind.
"Nobody does it like we do," the spirited 32-year-old says. "Playing for two and a half hours and giving them three programs -- country, Hellbilly and metal. They might do one or the other, mix 'em a little, but nobody does it like us and leaves it on the stage like we do every night."
Certainly, his father and grandfather were also rebels and outlaws, so in that sense, he's following what his daddy called the family tradition. But Hank III's life and character seem to have been shaped more by his struggling to overcome obstacles created by authority and orthodoxy than striking out against them. Not that he's the type to turn his back on a fight, but Hank III's got the good sense to know when to cut bait.
This is why we're able to talk about the new Hank III album, Straight To Hell. If he'd had his druthers, Hell's where young Hank would like to have told Curb Records to go. But the company that brought us the Judds and LeAnn Rimes has Hank by the nuts. For three years, he's been struggling with the suits at Curb. They wanted Hank to be a neo-traditional hat act willing to trade on his astonishing physical and vocal similarity to grandaddy Hank Williams, Sr. That's simply not who Hank III is.
"The real people who play music in the end do it for the sake of doing it," Hank III says from his Nashville home. "That's our thing. I could've been the nice, clean Wrangler-wearing guy trying to be George Strait or whatever, but that's not me."
Hank's voice is as dry and cracked as white bread that's been left out overnight, and he relates that he has a 102-degree temperature. ("Your body can only take so much," he tells me, and it's understood, from past conversations, that he means both touring and partying.) He takes a break midway through our conversation to speak to the doctor that's come to see him.
Hank recognizes the thorny state of his career comes from a single bad decision he made years ago. "I had a very expensive one-night stand," he quips, speaking of his illegitimate son. "I had a judge tell me that playing music was not a real job and I needed to go out there and find a decent American good-paying job.
"To me, that was, 'Fuck you. I'll show you music is a real job.' I went out there and came back with the $45,000 of back pay they said I owed on top of the $375 a month. And when you're 20 years old, that's a lot of money."
To get the money, Williams made a deal with the devil -- uh, Curb -- that included lending his voice to Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts, which united three generations of Hank Williams through the marvel of modern technology. Williams would come to rue the deal.
A go-his-own-way personality, Williams resented the way Curb handled his first solo album. The company rejected many of his songs and allowed the talented singer and songwriter little creative input into his own musical career. The two sides continued to bristle, with Curb not only rejecting Hank III's third album, but not even allowing him to self-release it.
Them was fightin' words!
The next year, in 2003, Hank declared bankruptcy to get out of the contract. Prohibited from recording lest Curb sue, he hit the road for the next two years and played with his band as well as with Phillip (Pantera) Anselmo's Superjoint Ritual. Hank III and Curb finally came to an agreement earlier this year that allows the release of his long-awaited third album, Straight to Hell.
"I signed a new contract and I have two more years with Curb," he says. "I decided it'd be better to work for them for two years than fight them the next five. And I think I've gotten their respect. So, hopefully, the album comes out in October."
He says hopefully, because the release date already has been moved back a month, and there are now troubles with Wal-Mart, which has rejected the clean version of the album.
"They sell South Park DVDs that deal with racism, homosexuality, drugs, the war in Iraq -- and they can't release my little hillbilly album?" he asks. "It's not my problem. I got it through Curb. Now it's their problem."
As a result of the agreement, he won't be able to put out any albums by his band Assjack for the next couple years. That isn't what he wanted. His original conception was to come to country later. ("You can grow old with your country fans, but rock's a young man's game," he says.) For the balance of his teens, he was a drummer or bassist in a series of hardcore, metal and punk bands. His heroes were acts like the Melvins, Black Flag, Pantera and Mike Patton.
"I initially liked metal because it was the furthest fucking thing from country," he says. "I was molested when I was eight and it was downhill from there. Something like that happens to you when you're young and, yeah, you've got a lot of anger. A lot of frustration and rebellion. Punk rock and metal were my psychiatrists when I grew up, and that's how I dealt."
Most people don't realize that, even though he's the grandson of country royalty and son of a Southern rock icon, Hank III didn't grow up rich. His dad had money, but Hank Jr. divorced Hank III's mom when he was young. He describes his early visits to his dad's place as "like going to Disneyland." But far from giving him pie-in-the-sky dreams, those visits made him realize how hard other people work.
"I could've taken the easy way, but I chose not to," he says. "The way I talk and the way I do my thing is not the easiest way to get by. But I believe there needs to be a whole new generation of outlaws. . . You see, we've been underdogs since the beginning. We're used to it and we don't mind. In fact, we prefer it that way."
Hank Williams III plays Tremont Music Hall in Charlotte on Tuesday, Sept. 6, with ANTiSEEN.