Bad Man on the Rise

Too old for punk rock, Hank Williams III changes his given name, transfers his rebelliousness to country music, and reaps the benefits.

Hank Williams III, with the Reverend Horton Heat 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 3, Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats, $15.50, 216-241-5555 and 330-945-9400
Shelton Williams was just another face in another crowd, an anonymous punk with safety pins in his clothes -- and occasionally, his skin -- playing in unknown bands with names like Buzzkill and worse. He was onstage from the time he was 15, yet rarely at the front, usually playing drums, sometimes guitar or bass. Moving from group to group, he drifted from Nashville to Atlanta to Charlotte and back again, never really going anywhere. No one would have noticed him, and even fewer people would have remembered him. And that's pretty much how Shelton Williams thought the story would go, at least until he was too old for punk rock. Then, he figured, he'd move on to something else.

There was only one thing he was really cut out to do -- born to do, you might say. He had fought the idea for years; it was one of the reasons he turned to punk rock in the first place. But with no other choice left -- at least, not one that appealed to him -- Shelton Williams dropped his first name and started over. Of course, with his new name, Hank Williams III, and his new career as a country singer, Williams didn't have to start at the beginning. Picking up where the grandfather he never knew left off would work just fine.

Williams freely admits that, when he started out, his only intention was to milk his spot-on looks and passable voice for all they were worth, letting the gaunt ghost of his grandfather endorse his checks. Sure, he loved old country music, but he would have grown a beard and sung the Monday Night Football theme with all his rowdy friends a dozen times a night if he thought imitating his father would pay more. (Of course, no one could top the late Chris Farley's spoof of Bocephus, so there wouldn't be much point to it.) He was an opportunist, and this was one opportunity he couldn't pass up. Besides, he knew his grandfather about as well as the people who came to see and hear him. You can't dishonor a memory that you don't have. Williams doesn't offer much on the subject of his grandfather, except to say, "If Hank Williams had kept living, I'm afraid that he would have burned so many bridges that he might have been one of the most hated names in country music."

He couldn't dishonor the memory of his father either, because he doesn't have much in that department. He grew up with his mother, Gwen, Hank Jr.'s second wife, and saw his father only sporadically after they divorced, when Hank III was three years old. You can ask him anything you want about his father; just don't expect him to tell you much. There's nothing much to tell.

"I've only seen him a few times a year," Williams says, calling from his trailer on the outskirts of Nashville, where he was born and raised. He's in between legs of a tour supporting his recently released debut for Curb Records, Risin' Outlaw. "That's the way it's always been. He's been busy: new wives and new kids and stuff. But I see him here and there, and everything's cool. I mean, we're at least able to talk. We don't fight or nothing. We just probably feel a little weird around each other." He laughs. "We've never really worked together. I've played with him, when I was 11 or 15 or something like that, onstage, but we haven't done any shows together, and we don't really talk about business. He talks about hunting and stuff. It's hard. It's like he doesn't wanna say nothing, really. So I've just gotta figure it out myself."

Williams had to figure out how to sing country for himself, too, and he didn't have much to go on. And as the flesh-and-bone ghost of his grandfather, he wasn't half bad. His tribute wasn't as crass as it could have been. Still, until not too long ago, he was a novelty act, reaching his lowest point in 1996, when he teamed up with Hanks Jr. and Sr. (as The Three Hanks) for the dreadful Men With Broken Hearts, giving an album's worth of classic songs the Natalie Cole shoulder. Unfortunately, most of the inspiration of the project was wasted on the not-so-clever name of the group. Williams is duly embarrassed by the album, either ignoring it or brushing past it in interviews.

Which is much the same way he treats Risin' Outlaw, an album he says "that I about 50 percent like." But hearing him talk about the disc, 50 percent seems to be a fairly high estimation. He doesn't sound angry about the situation, though, matter-of-factly ticking off a list of complaints that includes just about everything except the artwork.

"It's definitely too slick," he starts. "They kind of killed my nasal sound on that album. And they pieced that album together over two years, man. That's just pathetic to do that. When I go in, whether it's two weeks or two months, it's constant. You know, we're gonna get this thing done, and that's our priority. I don't need to sing 99 vocal tracks and crap like that. They just overdo it and kill it. But, you know, that's cool. I knew that I would have to deal with things like this if I ever got into a commercial label. But I'm still trying to be as independent-minded -- in ways of thinking and recording-wise -- as possible."

A few years ago, Williams might not have said that. He had a rebellious streak, but he couldn't complain about the situation he was in, mostly because he'd put himself in it. He didn't care anyway: He'd rather be playing punk rock in a dingy bar, so if the country songs he was singing weren't absolutely perfect, he didn't mind. After all, it was only a job, "a desperation move to get them off my ass," he says, referring to the one-night-stand gone awry that started his country career. He just wanted to play his songs -- well, his grandfather's songs, more often than not -- and get the hell back on the bus, so he could drink and smoke pot and forget a little bit.

Gradually, he began to appreciate the songs he was singing, playing them because he liked hearing them just as much as the audiences did. As he took his show on the road, he learned that he didn't have to dye his punk-rock roots just because he became a country musician. He added more songs to his repertoire -- adding to a setlist that already included Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash -- and started playing them the way he wanted to.

"Then I started writing songs, and I met guys like Wayne Hancock and Dale Watson," Williams remembers. "Those guys opened me up to a new realm as far as saying, "Man, you can still be punk rock, but you gotta do it with a country attitude. You just gotta swing it and play hillbilly, man.' And meeting those guys really changed my views, 100 percent. I mean, from being "Well, I don't really like country music, but I'm going to get in there and see what I can do.' They turned me on to this old Texas swing and Webb Pierce and all this stuff -- it just opened up a whole new realm."

He also went to extraordinary lengths to put some realism into the songs he was beginning to write. A little more than two years ago, he left the woman he'd been living with for seven years for no good reason, except that he felt he needed the hurt before he could write songs like his grandfather did. Looking back, Williams regrets that the ploy worked out so well, sounding as if he wouldn't mind swapping authenticity for another chance.

"I broke my own heart," he admits. "I lived with a gal for seven years, and I shoved her out of my life just to feel that damn feeling. And son of a bitch, I felt it, I felt it. That's either helped me or hurt me, but it's given me that understanding. That's part of it: You can't be a country singer-songwriter if you've never had an official heartbreak. I had to experience that pain. It was close to two years ago, and I'm still having dreams about her. It's just one of those things."

Yet little of Williams's newfound appreciation of heartbreak can be heard on Risin' Outlaw, at least in his own compositions. There aren't any Hank Williams Sr. songs on the trad-heavy disc (though any album with three Wayne Hancock tracks deserves an asterisk), but there aren't that many Hank Williams III songs either. Of the 50 or so tracks he's written, only four found their way onto the record, and only two of those were solo efforts. That, more than anything else, has him fed up with the way Curb has handled the project. He insists that he isn't ready to leave the label yet, but he just as strongly vows that, if he does stay, the next album will be done his way, no compromises.

"I know exactly what I want to happen, and if they can't make that happen, then we're gonna have a problem," he says. "I'm not gonna budge, man. I mean, I'm not gonna go through it. I got over 50 songs written, and I could barely get two of my own songs on the fucking album?" He laughs. "What's up with that? That's just the way it is for now. I had to get that first step out there, either to get more respect or to lose it, one of the two.

"I don't know," he continues. "I should be on an independent label. I'm just too wild. They tame me. They hold me back. I can't be what I need to be. We'll see, because I've got some pretty wild stuff, like "I'm Here to Put the Dick in Dixie and the Cunt in Country.' I got some stuff like that. I could still sing that in front of 60-year-olds and get them to whoop and holler. I don't think they'd ever touch nothing like that, as much as that song needs to be recorded."

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.