Sometime about six years ago, Hank Williams III first felt a strain in his throat. Then in his early 30s, his attempts at belting out a twangy ballad about loneliness mustered only a raspy, huffing sound — not the yodeling crack his audiences had grown accustomed to.
"It was the shittiest feeling in the world," he says. "My country voice disappearing."
But as the son of Hank Jr. and grandson of icon Hank Williams, a "country voice" isn't just his way to make a living; it's a precious link to American music history.
With his long, stringy hair pulled back, Hank III — born Shelton Hank Williams — bears a striking resemblance to his granddad. He's got the same lanky appendages, the same gaunt cheeks and hollow eyes, and the same side-mouth smirk. But when he first hit the Nashville scene nearly 15 years ago, it was his heartbreaking moans and unmistakable nasal twang that had people thinking they had seen a ghost from country music's rebellious past.
Before he died at age 29, Hank Williams Sr. — born Hiram King Williams — all but invented honky-tonk. In the six years before his death, the self-taught guitarist amassed 29 Top Ten singles and 11 number ones. Today, tunes like "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Hey Good Lookin' " still accompany TV commercials selling soda, fried chicken, and children's toys. As a pill-popping boozehound who frequently missed performances, he also wrote the manual on country hell-raising.
Hank Jr. — born Randall Hank Williams — was 3 years old when his father died. After begrudgingly covering his daddy's songs in Nashville dives, he rebelled against the country music establishment in the '70s and '80s with "Family Tradition" and "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" (later adapted for Monday Night Football), which aligned him closer to Lynyrd Skynyrd than to the clean-shaven stars preceding him. With a propensity for drinking, drugs, and self-destructive behavior in his blood, Hank Jr. was badly injured in a nearly 500-foot fall off a Montana mountainside in 1975. He required total facial reconstructive surgery — the scars from which inspired his famous beard.
Though Hank III doesn't discuss his father and they reportedly haven't spoken in years, the musical legacy is heavy on his narrow shoulders. His songs also capture heartbreak, the working man's desolation, and the thrill of forgetting everything with a good party. And he's his own kind of crude rebel, repeatedly thumbing his nose at the Nashville establishment, singing songs like "Dick in Dixie" with the lyrics: "I'm here to put the dick in Dixie and the cunt back in country/'Cause the kind of country I hear nowadays is a bunch of fuckin' shit to me/They say that I'm ill-mannered, that I'm gonna self-destruct/But if you know what I'm thinkin', you'll know that pop country really sucks."
Add the same affinity for indulgence that killed his grandfather at 29 and nearly killed his father at 26. Before he turned 30, Hank III had already received a handful of interventions and done a series of short rehab stints. But nothing slowed him down.
"I've been real lucky and never had a bad coke habit," he jokes, sitting in the house he rents in Nashville. "If I woulda got hooked on cocaine, boy, I'da been really fucked."
For most of his career, Hank III has been a torn man. The Nashville executives fawning over him did nothing to quell his disgust for the corporate music industry's manufactured plasticity. His father and grandfather were country legends, but he grew up listening to punk and stoner metal. A self-described "long-haired, tattooed slacker," he played drums in a few alternative rock bands in the early '90s until a judge declared he "get a real job" to pay off his mounting child-support debts. In 1996, he signed with Curb Records and released Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts featuring his and his father's voices added to his grandfather's recordings, but he disavowed it as an easy cash grab before the record even hit stores.
Four more studio releases followed, including Rebel Within in May. But his relationship with Curb, and specifically label founder Mike Curb, has been tumultuous. There were a few drawn-out court cases and, at one point, a judge's order to stop selling hand-pressed CDs from his punk band Assjack. Hank III started selling "Fuck Curb" T-shirts and still refuses to sell Curb's CDs at his shows.
For him, Curb Records — a giant of Music Row — typifies all that is wrong with the modern country-music industry and its well-coifed pop stars with glowing white teeth. "The lawyers outsmarted the musicians and took over the business," he says. "Just being a musician, so many people didn't realize you have to have a business degree to get by until it was too late."
When Hank III started touring with his own band in the late '90s, he wanted a way to please fans of raw, unpolished country, but he also wanted to play the fast, heavy, angry music of his youth. So he did. The first half of his three-hour double set features a mix of originals, covers of Hank and Hank Jr., and new versions of old standards, and then he swaps his acoustic guitar for an electric one for 90 minutes of suburban thrash. (After a string of angry encounters involving fists, saliva, and a lot of foul language, he started warning the audiences.)
His country songs, with names like "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs" and " 'Neath a Cold Grey Tomb of Stone," are eerily evocative of his grandfather's sound and style. There's the same tinny, haunting echo in his voice as he sings about whiskey or weed or hitchhiking to get away from a lying woman. But when he plays the hellbilly and death-metal sets, his voice is deep and gruff.
After eight or nine years on the road, the grind was taking a physical toll. Each morning (or early afternoon), his ears rang with the echo from the amplifier, and worst of all, switching from singing to screaming every night was making him lose his voice — that sweet vocal link to the iconic granddaddy he never met.
He says it was the biggest "crossroads" of his life and the first time he seriously reconsidered the hard-partying lifestyle. "I always thought I knew my path in life, but that jolted me pretty good," he says. "I had to reevaluate some things. I've just had to slow it down a little bit."
Now 37, Hank III says he made a conscious effort to "try to stick around for the long fight and not fade out too early." He started doing vocal exercises, stretches, often for up to four hours before a show. He tries to get out in the heat as often as he can, and he doesn't talk much during the day.
The result: He has his own voice now. "I don't have that crack or that yodel moan that I used to have, but some of that is just age." He's nearly a decade older now than his grandfather was when he died. "I've got my own raspy kinda thing, but I'll always try to keep the twang there for as long as possible."
Now, he tries saving his partying for the stage. But he knows that lasting as long as Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash requires sobering up — something he dreads.
"Touring the road completely sober will be the hardest thing I'll ever have to do," he says. "I've preached about partying — that's part of the Hank Williams thing. And I'll never turn my back on it. I'll always be keepin' the rebel image alive. As I'm getting older, for me to be on that stage, I just may have to change my way of living a little bit."
If his battle with the highs and lows of life is ongoing, his war with corporate music labels is almost over. As of December 31, 2010, Hank III's relationship with Curb Records will be over. "After 14 years, I'm finally getting ready to have my breath of fresh air," he says. He's starting his own label, where nobody will tell him what's marketable and what radio stations want to hear. Nobody will sue him to stop him from selling his own records. "If I can keep the taxman happy and halfway keep the business under control and not let it affect the music too much, it's gonna be an interesting new beginning."