Honky-tonk’s exiled prince

There’s a joke among music critics that Hank Williams Sr. almost single-handedly popularized country music worldwide after his death — and that Hank Jr. nearly killed it, long before his own. Now, there’s a new Williams face, an eerily familiar one, coming soon to a stage near you.

Hank Williams III is the grandson of the late, great and highly legendary Hank Williams Sr., and the son of the notorious Hank Williams Jr. The 26-year-old is currently on the road supporting his Curb Records disc Risin’ Outlaw, released late last year. Consequently, the Williams story is now reaching Shakespearean proportions — with tales of hard living that would make both forbears proud. And Hank III’s publicists waste no time in deepening the intrigue. The first line of the young performer’s press kit reads: “There is something to be said of bloodlines, something powerfully suggestive about heritage.”

First, of course, there was Hank Sr., who struggled through heartbreak and hard drinking to write and perform some of the saddest and most brilliant songs ever recorded — before dying from drink, at age 29, in the back seat of his Cadillac on New Year’s Day, 1953. Then came Hank Jr. — better known as “Bocephus” — that drunken idol of redneck youth who recorded several gold records before beginning to show up for arena dates so incapacitated he could barely moon the crowd.

Enter Hank III. Casual observation predicts that Nashville’s latest upstart is destined to become the town’s next bad-boy darling. As his publicists love to point out, it is uncanny how much he favors his granddaddy — with his famously lanky form and thin, angular face. One listen to Risin’ Outlaw proves he also possesses the ass-kicking, record-selling potential of Hank Jr.

Now plug in the nostalgia quotient. The youngest Williams’ debut CD was titled Men With Broken Hearts, and thanks to the magic of advanced digital production, this effort joined the vocals of Hank III and Hank Jr. with those of their esteemed patriarch.

In terms of Music City marketability, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

But wait: There may be a twist in this plot. The younger Williams grew up estranged from both his parents (who are divorced) — and is now experiencing a sticky relationship with his record label. It seems that this could be a soiled prince (and one not interested in redemption).

Throughout his teens and early 20s, the boy rebelled against his musical heritage and the Nashville establishment by playing in a series of punk bands. He told Rolling Stone last year that Risin’ Outlaw “sucks,” and that his band’s real sound fell victim to the Nashville machine. In the very face of success, he’s openly at war with Curb Records — the hand that could feed him as well as it does country-pop superstars like Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes. But at what price?

Williams’ style is way more No Depression-style alt-country (laced with grittily dark classic country) than the slick contemporary stuff. And favorable reviews of his four-piece hillbilly band, live, have appeared in the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune — not too shabby, considering Chicago is one of the warmer hotbeds of the alt-country scene.

Williams told the New York Post that his act is just too country for Nashville: “What you hear on the album and what we do live are different,” he says. “We have respect on the street, but not in the business. … I think it’s because we go against the grain, like writing songs about the realities of Nashville,” he says. “Live, we’re real, more hillbilly. We try to get the old style, try to do it some justice.”

Watered down or no, what can be found on Risin’ Outlaw isn’t entirely predictable (or merely an attempt to revisit the fame of his grandfather). Williams III lists as influences not only Hank Sr., but also such alt-country musicians as Wayne “The Train” Hancock.

Some have defined alt-country as essentially anything too “old” sounding, too loud or too weird to be played on contemporary country radio. Weirdness notwithstanding, these alternatives to Nashville’s formulaic sound are sneaking onto those airwaves. And even young Hank may find himself there one day, like it or not.

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