Hasil Adkins has really tried.
But for the man who found youthful epiphany in the twangy AM-radio voices of Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams; who used to bang on old tin cans, grease drums and water buckets, because the music was in him so strong and there were no better instruments at hand; and who has his own sign declaring, “One of the Greatest Shows on Earth, the One Man Band Haze Adkins and His Happy Guitar,” all that effort has not yet yielded fame and glory.
Instead, Adkins spends much of his time holed up in the same trailer he’s lived in for years, way up in the dirt-poor, coal-rich mountains of Boone County, W. Va., not far from the holler where he was born, and where he later attended the five days of schooling that are all he ever got.
Though Adkins (now in his 60s) is a talker, his youthful trials in trying to kick-start a music career aren’t something he’s particularly eager to go into.
“I’ve been on that road all my life, tryin’ to get a break,” he admitted by phone recently, before neatly circumventing the subject. “I’ve walked, starved to death. Man, what a time I had.”
Over the years, Adkins has pitched himself unsuccessfully to countless record labels, from Sun to RCA. “Any company you want to name,” he adds, “I’ve tried ’em all.”
Understand, his music is enough to make any money-minded label rep balk in bewilderment. It’s country — in an electrified, Hank-Williams-meets-Jerry-Lee-Lewis sense, thoroughly wild and woolly. But it’s also gloriously weird: Lewis-esque vocals are punctuated by complete gibberish; time signatures change like perverse clockwork; improvised chords reign; lyrics mention chatty Martians, peanut butter and a self-styled dance called the Hunch.
Imagine, if you will, an Appalachian Captain Beefheart, grown up on a steady diet of backwoods bars and coal dust.
Adkins’ unconventional music is born accordingly: He makes it up as he goes along, right there on the spot. Give him a title, he’ll write you a song.
“I do ’em all that way,” he declares. “I mean, unless it’s somebody else’s song. Sometimes, I get three or four of ’em at one time.”
During the recording of his newest unearthly album, What the Hell Was I Thinking (Fat Possum, 1997), the producers just gave up, leaving the equipment running nonstop — even when Adkins was asleep.
“A lot of times, I’d wake up with a song, and I’d want to do it right then,” he recalls. “They said, ‘We’ll rig it here some way where you can hit this button on the wall … and everything’ll start rollin’.'”
That is, when things hadn’t just fallen apart — guitars, drums, you name it. “They had to go buyin’ bolts and tape, ’cause I’d get happy, and everything’d be flyin’ every which-a’ way,” Adkins explains. “I said, ‘Go get them big clamps you [use on] car mufflers and stuff like that.’ They bought all kind of extra clamps and everything, man.”
But none of it was enough. Adkins doesn’t play instruments, he beats the music out of them with his hands and feet.
“You can’t hardly explain it,” he says. “You get happy, and there goes everything.”
Sometimes, Adkins tosses his guitar high up in the air. And then sometimes, he doesn’t catch it. And where glue hasn’t held, he’s used tape to bind the parts back together.
“If you take the tape off,” he speculates, “it would just fly apart.”
Clearly, Adkins marches (and thumps and plucks and pounds) to the beat of a very different drummer: himself. Like his old sign says, he’s a literal one-man. He plays all instruments — at once.
“You have to be fast to get to it,” he notes, “to do everything to keep from loosen’ the time on your song.”
And in some of the joints he’s played through the years, speed has been a definite asset.
“The fights,” he says wearily. “Man, you feel just like Wyatt Earp, I tell ya. From ’50 up to ’65, I don’t see how I made it — I’ve sat and studied [on it]. The things I’ve seen, the stuff I’ve had to go through. …
“I saw ’em turn the tables upside down, shootin’ at each other, man. It was back in ’72 or ’73, about 25 miles from here. I mean, the place was packed. They had to call every lawman in Boone and Kanawha [counties] to get it stopped. I ain’t never seen such a doin’. It was all fast, you couldn’t do nothin’.
“Shoot,” he adds, “I was just tryin’ to get out of the way of some of the bullets.”
Sometimes, it’s been enough just surviving himself.
“I hadn’t gotten in no trouble till I was 44 years old,” Adkins confesses. “Then I got in a lot, on account of women and foolishness and drinkin’ too much. That vodka’ll put you up, you drink enough of that. I used to drink from four liters to five fifths a day, them ol’ big bottles, you know.”
He says it was to help him sleep. And maybe so: Adkins has a lot on his mind.
For instance, his first adventures with a guitar as a kid.