Hank Williams III
When: Nov. 29, 8 p.m.
Where: First Ave. Mainroom, 701 First Ave. N.
Cost: $20, 18+
If Hank Williams is the grandfather of country music, Hank Williams III is its mutinous grandson. While he churns out some of the truest to the bone honky tonk in the land of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, Williams — known to his fans simply as Hank Three — also diverges into doom metal and punk rock.
For Williams, making music — be it outlaw country or death metal — is a working man’s trade. Almost a year since dropping from what he saw to be a tyrannical bind with Curb Records, the crazed country rebel has been putting his nose to the musical grindstone — writing and recording three albums at once (dropped in Sept.), loading his own gear and selling his own merch.
Tonight, he’ll be kicking up Minneapolis dust in a visit to First Ave, which he said is one of his favorite venues. A&E caught up with the strumming Dixie to discuss semantics, the devil and why in Sam Hill his grandfather isn’t in the Grand Ole Opry.
Do you enjoy playing Minneapolis?
Man, y’all have been great to us for fifteen years plus, man. The energy in that room and just around there has always been amazing. Y’all have made us feel important back from the beginning.
Do you sense a different reaction to your music up North as opposed to down South?
Well it just depends. It depends on if you’re playing on a Monday night or a Friday night or how much people are drinking. The energy levels. Like First Ave., the crowd there — it’s always been a bunch of moshpit, a bunch of good energy, everybody’s getting along. Everybody’s kinda open-minded. Opposed to somewhere like L.A. — everybody’s a little more tame and used to every band out there. They’re kinda spoiled if that makes any sense. There’s so much coming through. The crowds just aren’t into it as much. Minneapolis has always been right up there with the top with some of the most energetic crowds I’ve played to. And that’s back before my music was really … you know, people really knew my songs.
Do you prefer them to be drinking?
Well … I mean that’s a hard call. Why do a lot of bar owners want me back over the years? Because I sell ‘em 10 to 15 thousand dollars worth of alcohol a night. Do I want a kid to ruin his life over alcohol? Absolutely not. Yes I sing a lot of partying songs and I try to get everybody in a good mood as far as the hell-raising, good-timing feel I try to put out there but on the flip side of that I hope people recognize the work ethic and it’s not all just getting wasted. There’s a whole other side to it also. Once in a while we get to play all ages shows and there’s kids that don’t drink and all kinds of things. But that’s a tough one because I’ve always had a really lively crowd. All the Williamses have had a really drinking-oriented kind of audience. Like the depression: Everything was gone except music and alcohol. People don’t wanna give up their good times to forget all their problems. So that’s one way of looking at it.
A lot of your songs are about getting tossed out of bars, getting drunk, but you say you don’t want to influence anyone to ruin their life through drinking. How much of the semantics of your songs are to be taken seriously and/or literally? For example your use of the word “faggot.” What does that word mean to you?
Well that one … back when that came out there was a few one-hit wonders on Music Row and one of those guys got busted in a park doing his thing with someone else. And that someone else was another man. And that’s basically what I was saying. To me I don’t need that one-hit wonder looking over at me to make me feel like I got a good band.
You’re referring to “Dick in Dixie.”
Yes. There’s people in my family that are like that. I don’t judge. I mean that’s about the only time you’ll hear me say that. I don’t judge, I mean, if someone’s happy, whatever makes them happy — that’s their thing. So that’s the closest you’ll ever hear from me on a negative term on using that word. So I’ll never be telling someone who they can love and who they can’t. That’s just not my thing.
How about Satan? Is this a stylistic device or something you actually believe?
Well there’s always good and bad, there’s light and dark. And it’s always a theme. My granddad always had a struggle with it. I have an ongoing struggle with it. I don’t really consider myself a member of this team or that team. I have to do my best to get by and do what I do. And it’s just kinda an ongoing thing: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the devil kinda mentality out there. For me, I sing about him and I sing about “Lord take my pain.” It’s not as equal on the playing field because my granddad sang about the light, and I thought it was my job to sing about the dark. And as time has gone on I’m just trying to hang in there as long as I can for the show and for the fans and whatever it takes to get by I’m doing the best I can, really. I do see good powers and I see dark powers out there moving around and happening. But I don’t really consider myself a member of this team or that team. It’s kinda a neutral switchin’ thing. If you look in my house it’s nothing but rock ‘n’ roll propaganda everywhere, that’s just what I’ve been comfortable around to a point.
Speaking of booze and demons and your grandpa, why isn’t Hank Williams in the Grand Ole Opry?
I would say that’s a respect topic. I guess he must have made someone very upset back in the day. Did he [expletive up in the day? Yes. Did they give him a chance to clean up his act? Well he passed away before that happened. Then they slowly just started using his name, using his image, we’re getting away with it for a long time.
The best person who wrote the best piece about that was “Mojo Magazine” July edition of 2010. In that one Tom Waits says it best. He calls out the really big players. He puts it into perspective, on all the loopholes in their excuses on why they’re saying he’s not a member. All we’re asking for is a ceremony for one evening to say, “Yes we recognize Hank Williams as a member of the Grand Ole Opry and we would love to welcome him to the circle of the mother church of country music.” That’s all we’re asking for
Do you see that happening?
Who knows? You never can tell. There’s always hope; I mean look at the West Memphis Three. They were [imprisoned for] 20 years, man. You never can tell. There’s always hope. A little hope can go a long way and as long as we’re talking about it, maybe one day they’ll want to preserve history and better their way with his name.
While you mentioned Tom Waits, he showed up in “Faded Moon.” What does he mean to you as an artist and as an American figure in general?
As a musician, his caliber is way beyond. I never would have thought 10 years ago that I’d be able to work with him on a music level. I think over time he’s respected what I’ve done and we got to talk on the phone for a while and then we got to meet in person and that made us feel comfortable to work together. The one song he really shined on has the push-box accordion and he felt really at home with that kind of sound and it worked out great. I was working on my records and he was working on his new records and it worked out really well.
What’s been the best part about being your own boss?
I mean that started in basically January 2nd so it’s all kinda new. Nothing’s really changed much. I don’t have management. I don’t have a bunch of secretaries and stuff like that. So it’s always a bit busy. Me and my mom run the merch and do the best we can trying to keep up with the numbers. I’ve always been a workaholic and kinda hands-on. That’s always been my problem with management, because I’ve known what I’ve wanted and I’ve kinda defeated fame. I’ve kept myself in the bars, underground, not playing to really big crowds for lots of money. I’ve shot down fame in many ways to keep it grass-roots oriented. And lots of managers don’t understand that. Their job is to exploit you, make you huge, sell you out. It took me awhile to realize you just need to have good distribution and that’s it.
And that’s kind of at the spirit of country music history — with what Waylon and Willie did in Austin.
Absolutely. They had to leave and go to Texas back in the day because there was a lot more people willing to record their music there and they didn’t have the technology as much to do it themselves. I mean making a record back then was a huge ordeal. Nowadays we have the technology to D.I.Y. as much as you can. That in itself has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. So that’s putting the ball back into the musicians hand.
You dabble in many genres. Does that country spirit of Haggard, Jones, your father, Waylon, Willie — does it have to exist in country music? Where do you see it the strongest right now?
I mean the outlaw theme or the outlaw sound in general it goes way deep. I think people connect with it because it’s telling stories that the working man and woman can relate to. Everybody basically goes through love and heartbreak and it’s something real that I think people can identify with. I think that has a lot of inspiration over the years as to why that kind of music has stood out more than others have.
Right. And where do you find it in 2011. Obviously some of those guys are still alive. Are they the only ones hanging onto it?
I’m really disconnected. I don’t really watch the music channels or listen to the radio that much. I couldn’t really tell you who’s current and who’s not. But nowadays, to me, a rebel or an outlaw is somebody to marches to their own beat, goes against the grain and are doing it their own way as much as they can. It just depends on what you’re going after. Some people are going after a million songs and a number one hit. Other people like the Melvins or the Reverend Horton Heat are after longevity and playing their live show and doing what they do. Longevity has been more of a key to me than the overnight success. I’ve always written songs for myself. I mean I try to connect with my fans, but I’ve never once sat down in an office on Music Row to write a song for a radio station. It’s just not me.
Right. And you say you don’t pay attention to what’s going on, yet you released the song “Dick in Dixe” which seems to be a direct attack on, should we say, [expletive] country.
Well that was awhile back. Keep in mind. I mean that’s pushing back quite a bit. That’s back when it first came out. When everything was switching over from acoustic instruments to … it was all about having a good dance move and sounding like an electronic machine up there basically. Even if you tried to ignore it you couldn’t, living in this town. And that was a breaking point with me. Just because I was around it, born and raised here. And when you’re the underdog you gotta call out stuff like that. That’s the biggest hit I never had, and a lot of people grasp onto and hold onto those kinda roots.
Has the shit been a personal one or have you just grown okay with what’s happening in Nashville?
I’ve always just kinda done my own thing. There’s two streets in this town that kind of could give it a bad name to some people. And I’ve always worked outside those two streets. I love Tennessee, as far as its cheap rent. There’s a lot of places to get my gear worked on. There’s good people to make my guitars. All your main companies are here for microphones or basses, cases, bus companies. I mean there’s a lot of great things for a musician in this town. But there’s that business part of it and the Bible belt that can rub some people wrong. For me, being an outsider and going against the grain, they don’t really like how I was approaching it, especially back then. Nowadays, some of the old timers … like at the beginning of the summer, they watched me play a private party. I set up my own stage, unloaded my own gear, test it, do the whole nine yards, play a three-and-a-half hour show, break it all down and load it in the van and come home. There were some 85-year-old men that came up to me and said, “Son, you’re doing what you’re doing and you’ve changed my mind about you.” I think it goes back to that work ethic. They see how I didn’t take that easy way out. They’re seeing that I don’t see a dollar of that Hank Williams estate and I’ve fought for all my stuff to stand on my own two feet. You got go the extra mile to get there if you’re Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Dweezil Zappa or anybody that’s got a famous father. Ya know, you gotta carve your own way.
Let’s go back a couple months: why three albums at once?
It goes back to doing something different, really. I wanted to approach something different in the music business. I got the rest of my life to only put out one record at a time. For me, it was a) doing something different, b) I’ve never been able to sell my own CD at my own show over 17 or 18 years because I refused to sell Curb’s product. So to sell my own CD is huge for me. And right now I got the energy to do the country, to do the doomrock and the “3 Bar Ranch” and I might not always have that energy to bring it on a live show. And the last reason is a lot of writers have talked about my diversity but never been able to grasp hold of it or hear it until now. So those are a few reasons why I wanted to do it all at once.
What do you feel is the common denominator on these three albums?
All in all it’s different. Ya know, “3 Bar Ranch” is definitely not a record that most people are gonna like. The doom metal record is only for the select few out there. The country record is maybe more what the Hank 3 fans are used to. But the common denominator is do-it-yourself and showing the work ethic, man. I recorded it, wrote it, mixed it, mastered it. And we’re going out there and just doing what we do. Country, I’m definitely telling a little bit more of a story. The doomrock is full of doom and conspiracy and stuff. And then “3 Bar Ranch” is more of the anxiety, frantic, freakout stuff. For me, working with all those auctioneers, coming up with the music is similar to other bands, but just the concept is a little newer and different.
You mention “3 Bar Ranch” will hit a smaller audience. Do you make it for that audience or do you kind of revel in maybe alienating some people or pissing some people off.
Well … No. Not really. Because those are my heroes. You know: Immortal, Strapping Young Lad, Pantera, Slayer, Mike Patton, Fan, Mr. Bungle — those are all heroes of mine. So when I’m making that music it’s not to piss anybody off. It’s just not for everyone to get. I mean only a select few are gonna understand that and that’s the beauty of it. It’s not for the masses. It’s for the outsiders. A lot of punk rock kids may say, “Everybody’s coming to see his country part of the show but I’m here to see “3 Bar Ranch.” That’s the Jekyll and Hyde part of the show. All in all I try to make sure all my fans are taking care of and getting their money’s worth. That’s why I always play the country first and then give them an option to leave as the night goes on if it’s music they might not agree with.
So you’ll be like, “I’m about to play ‘3 Bar Ranch.’ Everybody who came here to hear country go take a cig break?”
Well its an hour and a half of country and then hillbilly. And then there’s a five-minute break. And then people will be able to see that the show is changing. It’s not acoustic-oriented anymore. It’s getting darker in here; it’s getting louder in here. And people know. Most people’s attention spans are five minutes nowadays and I’m pumping out a three-hour-and-twenty-minute show — we wear ‘em out, man. I’m watching the crow go from being a full on moshpit during the country set, being a little strange and weirded out from the doom and then bringing the pit back in play at the very end with “3 Bar Ranch.” So it’s a lot of different moods and vibrations coming out of the sound system, man.
One of my favorite songs on the albums is “Camouflage.” It’s comforting if not sweet lyrics atop mad, metal rhythms. It sounds a bit sardonic and, to me, influenced by the grunge era. I was wondering, since you dedicated “ADD” to Layne Staley, what effect that movement had on you.
When I was growing up and trying to get my voice and doing vocal lessons, whatever — [Staley] was one of my heroes. Because singing that high was natural for him. It was just like talking. Ya know, that singing style is definitely me being inspired by him. Ya know, Sleep, Melvins, all the old ‘70s stoner rock, Pentagram. All those old bands have been hugely important to me and it’s the only time I’ve been able to slow things down and push a little more air out of the speakers. So, Layne — it was just a really big shame. We lost him so young. A lot of people tried to step up to the plate for him and try to save him and get him to pull through, but he just missed, really. A lot of people dedicate records to their mom or their brother. To me, since he was such a musical impact to my life as a singer. That’s my way of paying respects.
Since it’s so crazy out there and you’re an artist who lives in America, I wanted to know your take on the state of the country, Occupy Wall Street, etc.
Well, I mean there’s a lot of kids out there dying for our freedom, fighting this war. The main thing I would say is while these kids are fighting that war for our freedom, hopefully still we can exercise our rights as Americans. And I’ve never been that politically involved because I do everything just to do my music. I leave the politics to people that eat it, live it breathe it like — I always say — like a Jello Biafra for instance. Ya know because when he’s not playing music he’s politically out there doing things. And I’m not like that. I’m not as well connected, so for me to really give a political answer like that is kinda tough for me. But that’s the best I can say: while we’re still a war, kids are fighting for our freedom and hopefully Americans are able to exercise their rights as Americans. And our freedoms are still gonna be kept over here while we got it.
And how do you feel about your father’s comments on President Obama that led to his being kicked off Monday Night Football?
Well that’s … If you’re a gun activist or you’re a gun lover, it doesn’t matter if it’s Hank Jr., the Vietnam Vet or the kid that’s fighting in the war right now, you’re gonna notice that your rights are being taken aware and your ammunition and guns. It’s getting harder and harder to own a weapon. I would say that has a lot of motivation on what’s happened to him. Because he really cares a lot for his right to bear arms.