He’s a sociopathic, gun-totin’, ex-con redneck (charges include three counts of murder one, 19 paternity suits and random grave-robbing offenses) who’s purported to be a 400-year-old vampire. He’s a former carnival geek whose midway specialties were biting the heads off “certain barnyard fowls” and lifting 50-pound weights with his tongue. He boasts many grand titles, not the least of which are “Chart-Toppin’ King of Country & Western Troubadours Ordained” and, most importantly (to him), “God’s Gift to the Womens.” Oh, and one more thing: Unknown Hinson has previously gone on record as swearing that Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles downright stole most of their hits from him. “Them boys owe me hundreds!” Unknown told a startled judge, when he himself was charged with copyright infringement.
Unknown Hinson — the alter ego of accomplished Charlotte studio musician and music teacher Danny Baker (reportedly a mild-mannered fellow) — takes the dark side of a certain kind of Southern masculinity, twists it even further through hell, and serves it up as burning satire. He belts out songs like “You Ain’t Callin’ the Law (on Me)”: “I’ve had enough of your flappin’ jaws/Now get into that kitchen and fry me some hog/And open me a can of beer/Put the TV remote right here/And wear somethin’ sexy if you’re gonna talk/Put down the phone/You ain’t callin’ the law on me.” That’s when he isn’t busy firing a highly authentic-looking cap pistol and harassing audience members, particularly attractive women (“You a real fine womens, darlin’. What the hell you doin’ with that ugly man?”). It’s a scary hillbilly freakshow that Unknown unleashes — leaving audiences unsure whether to run, get angry or laugh uproariously. (The latter reaction is the overwhelming winner.)
In a recent telephone interview, Unknown refused to let Baker speak, noting (after the inevitable, “You got a real sexy phone voice, baby. You married? … You cheat on your boyfriend?”), “I don’t speak for him, honey, and he don’t speak for me. No offense, but there ain’t no way.” But Baker has spoken with journalists in the past, and what he’s revealed puts a whole new spin on his “uber-sideburned, rhinestone-suited, snaggle-toothed doppelganger.
“Unknown sort of materialized from years of playing house gigs, honky-tonks and a lot of dives in the Southeast,” he told No Depression reporter Scott Aiges. “I’ve entertained thousands of Unknown Hinsons, so it sort of rubbed off.” He told Charlotte free-lance writer Jonathan Rich, “Unknown is just a mirror of society’s darker side in the Deep South. … You may have stood next to an Unknown Hinson at a convenience store yesterday.”
In an interview with The Charlotte Observer’s Tim Funk, Baker called Unknown “a horror show … an ugly painting … a warning.” (Speaking of warnings, Baker has authorized Charlotte battered-women’s clinics to use tapes of his popular public-access television show as a way of illustrating the ridiculousness of the kind of ignorant, misogynist man he portrays).
But it’s not Baker we’re profiling here. Unknown stands center stage, and he is hot to set the record straight on several counts. First of all, about the charge that he’s a vampire, he blames that ugly rumor on today’s youth. “When they say I’m a vampire and mess like that, that’s lies,” he rants. “Hell, I ain’t never sucked nobody — I swear. That’s younguns’ mess. They say, ‘Oh he dress in black, he got black hair, he looks like a vampire.’ It’s all lies. It’s what they call discrimination.”
As for the murder, larceny, grave-robbing and miscellaneous other criminal charges — those are just plain bogus, too, according to Unknown (on the topic of the 19 paternity suits, however, he remains strangely mum). It all boils down to jealousy, he reckons.
“Them charges — the murder, grave-robbin’, vampirism — it’s all lies,” he screeches. “Every damn one of ’em’s a lie: I was framed. When I worked in the carnival, you know, I at first bit the heads off chickens. Then I had wrote several dozen chart-toppin’ hits, and I started singin’ my songs and playin’ guitar on the midway, and the crowds loved me. And they went home and told others. And pretty soon the fairgrounds was packed every night. And some mans out there sees what I was doin’, them so-called music pioneers — I ain’t gonna mention no names. Let’s just say they was cowboy-hat-wearin’ pretty boys. They stole my ideas and set me up for a fall. That’s what I mean by I was framed, and I spent 30 years in the joint for it.”
But prison wasn’t all bad, according to Unknown. “Bein’ in the joint can be what they call a positive experience, dependin’ on how you look at it,” he reasons. “You can look at it two ways — see the bad in it or the good. For me, it was kindly like goin’ to school. I did learn skills in there. I learned how to make license plates and speed-limit signs, too. And I learned how to make real inexpensive handguns.
“But prison did set me way back, and I’m havin’ to reclaim my title as the chart-toppin’ king,” he continues. “I think it’s goin’ good, though.”
Goin’ good it is. He has two popular CDs on the market, and his public-access The Unknown Hinson Show (a freaky combination of beyond-politically-incorrect sketches and concert footage) has won Creative Loafing’s “Best of” poll for Best Public-Access Television Show four years running. He himself has been voted Best Local Television Personality by the readers of that same publication numerous times, as well. (He’s happy with the accolades, except for “all the damn hippies that works for the press.”)
But forget TV shows. After all, Unknown Hinson is, first and foremost, a musician — and a damn brilliant one, at that. If you think Unknown’s purely a novelty act, you’ve never heard him wail on electric guitar. Most of his songs fall into the category of straight-up, down-and-dirty honky-tonk (memorable titles include “I’m Not Afraid of Your Husband,” “Baby Let’s Play Rough” and “Love On Command” — which contains the twisted chorus, “I want your love/every bit of your love/on command/It’s communism, baby, if you disobey.” But he’s also fond of launching into beyond-belief, Stevie Ray Vaughn-like bluesy-rock guitar pyrotechnics, and often ends his shows with a raunchy, over-the-top version of “Wild Thing.” (And speaking of raunchy, we’ll only hint at the portion of Unknown’s stage show where he brings out a near-life-sized, look-alike dummy with a penchant for bemoaning the delicate problems encountered during sexual arousal “when you’re made of wood.”)
Unknown explains that women often approach him after shows and “wanta pull on my sideburns. They don’t think they real, but they is real. To pull facial hair off your face? It hurts a little, if you know what I mean.” He’s convinced those same women, in their heart of hearts, would really like to propose marriage. “You can see it in they eyes,” he says, “but they don’t ask, because they’d be embarrassed. They know they ain’t no way to tame the Unknown.”
He swears his original tunes are based completely on real-life situations. Take “Man to Man (You’re Still a Woman to Me),” for example. “They’s a true story in there,” Unknown explains. “If you don’t think that mess goes on, read your paper. I try to do things first. I’m the first country & western troubadour that has ever addressed sex-change operations.”
Unknown also notes that his record company has successfully stifled only a few of his more colorful tunes. “They’s one I done called ‘Unlock That Bathroom Door’,” he relates. “The words go, ‘Unlock that bathroom door/you’re in there I know/unlock that bathroom door/I’ve got to go.’ Then it gets a little more specific about why the man wants in there. They wouldn’t let me release that one.”
Finally, it’s important to note that even the hell-raisin’, cold-hearted Unknown has a softer side. “They’s a blessin’ in all my songs,” he concludes, with rare poignancy.