Almost ten years ago, Shelton Hank Williams made a deal with the devil. Even though the grandson of country-music legend Hank Williams and son of Hank Williams Jr. owed $24,000 in delinquent child-support payments, the self-described long-haired, tattooed slacker with a taste for weed and whiskey was barely eking out a living in backwater dives across the South, playing drums with alternative hard-rock bands. That is, until a judge demanded the young man make some changes.
To hear Shelton -- who goes by the stage name Hank III -- tell it, he looked the black-robed devil in the eye and came to terms. His own terms.
"The judge told me to get a real job," he explains just before taking the stage last month in Boulder, Colorado. "He said making 25 to 50 bucks a night playing drums in a band was not a job. So I said, "All right, motherfucker, I'll show you what I can do.'"
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Shelton looked up some of his famous father's music-industry friends and told them he was ready to cash in on the promise of his pedigree. Once he tied back his stringy hair in a footlong braid and showed off a remarkable likeness to his grandfather, Hank III was on his way to milking country music for all it was worth. Without apology, the artist formerly known as Shelton embraced the country-music legend that always hung over his head like the echo of Grandpa's yodel.
For the young metalhead, it was a walk on the dark side -- a venture into the commercial country-music industry that he abhors and had always rebelled against. It was a step into an industry dominated by pretty-boy patriots and twangy pop divas with names like Garth and Shania and Tim and Faith.
He signed on the dotted line and found a manager who hooked him up with country label Curb Records. Soon, the skinny slacker freak was paying his dues (and child support) beneath a cowboy hat and clean country suit in Branson, Missouri, a two-lane strip of "thee-ay-ters" where country music has-beens play to packed houses of retired folk.
"I went to Branson because I knew I could pretty much take anybody in the audience there," he says. "It's nothing but a senior citizens' retirement place, man. It's where all the old country people that can't do it on the road go."
With a "full on" tribute to his granddaddy, Shelton sparked a career where others end. He morphed into his new persona, Hank III: an eerie apparition whose melancholy yodels and honky-tonk twang sound hauntingly similar to Hank Sr. Add to that the whiskey grin and redneck swagger that take over when Hank III covers his tattoos and dons a cowboy hat and the old-timers in Branson were seeing ghosts.
"It was weird, man, going from kids being all energetic in bars to people that are just kinda smiling at you or falling asleep in front of you," Hank III laughs. "It's just like being with your grandma -- it don't take much to thrill "em."
Musically, Hank III was learning to strum and sing ever so sweetly, techniques he'd rejected as a hard-ass rock 'n' roller. After more than a month of back-to-back shows in Branson, Hank III was ready for the road. He toured with Beck and the Reverend Horton Heat. He started to make a name for himself in the country-music industry he had resisted for so long. Early this year, he began touring as a headliner in support of his second Curb release, Lovesick, Broke & Driftin'.
Hank III may have tricked the devil but not without a constant struggle for his soul. Despite some critical nods and decent sales of his first release, Hank III publicly disavows Risin' Outlaw, blaming Curb for what in his opinion is a canned, Top 10 radio sound. "The first CD was all politics," he vents. "It was done their way, using their writers and all that crap. They are used to dealing with puppets, and I'm not one of those people."
Instead, Hank III sees himself as a country outlaw with an underground following. Despite predictions on Music Row that Hank III may one day make it big, he laughs at the prospect of ever being a country-music star and singing fluffy duets with Faith Hill or LeAnn Rimes.
But then, he is not the only one banking on his name. Since Hank III stepped onto the country scene, his label has made much of his legendary bloodline. Also home to superstar Hank Jr., Curb releases discs from father and son at the same time, even though Junior and Hank III have never been close and their music is even more estranged. Curb frowns on the album's worth of rock 'n' roll material Hank III says he already has in the can but refuses to release him from his contract so he can record the stuff.
Still, Hank III has not lost every battle. He produced Lovesick, Broke & Driftin' with longtime friend Joe Funderburk and brought in his own musicians for the studio sessions. He wrote 12 of the Lovesick songs and opted to round out the album with a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" rather than rehash a country great. But if Hank III rejects commercial country, his mood has not fallen far from Granddad's melancholy, substance-fed tree. With a delivery alternately wry and brooding, he sings of booze, marijuana, rehab, losers, and faithless women.
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"I'd rather sing about something dark instead of something bright," he muses. "If it's drugs, if it's drinking, if it's partying, or even if it's four-wheeling -- I've always been attracted to the dark side. I don't know why, but it reflects in both my metal and my country music."
The darkness keeps Hank III interested in honky-tonk swing; he just hopes someday he'll have the opportunity to release rock as well. "Then people will see how versatile I am and how much stuff I write and try to create," he says. In the meantime, Hank III performs his unreleased Black Flag- and Melvins-inspired thrash between country sets at his live dates. The result, he reports, is an eclectic mix of fans from cowboys and hard-rocking grandmas to bikers and stoned-out kids. "The show is total Jekyll and Hyde," Hank III grins. "We're one of the few bands that go from honky-tonk to almost the verge of death metal."
That doesn't mean Shelton hasn't earned the scorn of some country and hard-rock fans. But Hank III stands his ground. "If people are getting pissed off at me for sounding like Hank Williams," he rails, "if that's the worst compliment they can give us, then fine. I'd much rather sound like Hank Williams than Brad Paisley or Chad Brock or some shit like that. If people say I'm selling off that sound, well, sorry, dude, I got the look and the sound for some reason."
And just because that look and sound sell doesn't mean Hank III has to be grateful. It's just that for the moment, he can't live with Nashville -- and he can't live without it. As he moans on the Lovesick track "Trashville": "Now I would pack up and I'd leave this dirty town/But they done taken me for so much, that I can't get out now/Maybe one day but not right now."