Dick in Dixie: Hank Williams III
interview by Michael Hendrick
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.
Well, we’re losing all the outlaws
that had to stand their ground
and they’re being replaced by these kids
from a manufactured town
And they don’t have no idea
about sorrow and woe
‘Cause they’re all just too damn busy
kissin’ ass on Music Row.
Published by Hank Williams III, 2005, Bruc Records.
Well, I mean, you know, what I am doing to my voice. No other musician out there is doing what we deliver, as far as three and a half hours a night, four different genres, so it takes a toll on the vocal chords. It’s the never ending battle, fighting for my voice, trying to keep it. That’s the hardest part…the road…but that’s just one of those things.
What are you up to currently? In September, you released four new albums on the same day…you don’t see many artists do that.
We did a West Coast run and we just did an East Coast run. In my career, I have always toured just to tour. This is the first time I am touring around the releasing of the records but…that’s just my work ethic and that’s just what we do. The two year thing is…I wanting to get to a lot of places I never got to play before. Places like Italy, Romania, Spain, Norway, Japan, Australia… I’m wanting to start from scratch and get over there while I can. The last twenty years I’ve really just kept it in the United States and Canada. I’ve been to Japan and Europe just a couple of times but I’ve mostly kept it in the United States.
One thing you notice about a Hank3 show is how devoted the fans are; there is a lot of loyalty show to the artist.
I do talk to a lot of people from China on Facebook…all that shameless self-promotion on MySpace and Facebook…that’s a lot of the groundwork on my end, trying to put the word out over there in a different way. I’ve gotten a lot of work off of it. I meet a lot of creative people, artists giving me stuff or making trades…a lot of guitar techs…you meet a lot of people that if someone else was running it [his Facebook page], you would not have all those great opportunities of getting to connect with folks. You just wouldn’t have the opportunities to connect to all those people who are reaching out to you if you had somebody else scanning all your stuff. So, I’ve always been into trying to be as much ‘hands on’ as possible.
It seems to be working. We have been following you since around 2000, and it seems like more people know your name now than ever.
You got to keep in mind that I have toured this road for twenty years so I would hope that it is getting a little more common out there for at least some people to know who I am. I am sure outlaw country has helped out a good little bit on that since they support me and I would just say all the roadwork, the word of mouth, shaking all those hands, has helped a lot in getting me out there a bit. It has changed a little but there are still a few that don’t have any idea but that’s part of the beauty of it.
Also, I always strive to be grassroots-oriented. I mean that’s the main thing…not to get too big. If I had a number one song tomorrow, I would only be playing a small bar for two days in a row and stuff like that. That’s just a little bit of my mentality on that stuff…
On the subject of country outlaws, Johnny Cash gave you some help on how to write songs?
It was his advice to me…I’m not being selfish to my fans, but…the best song is, like, always just write a song for yourself. You don’t need to be writing a song for no company or sitting down on music row with an office. That’s not real. That’s not heartfelt. That’s fake and I have always lived by that. I do try to write songs and identify with my fans and make them feel connected on songs like “Six Pack of Beer” and “Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard To Do”…with the bad economy and stuff like that.
All in all, I have never tried to make a ‘number one song’ on the radio. I just put out what I do. If you get it, you get it; and if you don’t, you don’t. You definitely see that in my shows. If I wanted to be a rock star, I could just do the country stuff and walk off the stage and have a room full of people…all the girls and sex, drugs, and rock and roll would be available to me…but what do I do? I go the extra mile and I run everybody out the door and I play until the select few are left there standing with us. That has always been my approach, for now, while I got the energy to do that and take it to the next level.
If Lemmy [of Motorhead and Hawkwind] is still kicking ass at his age, the way I look at the future is – as long as I can deliver a good show then I will keep doing what I do but if I’m not able to deliver a good show like I want to, I might have to slow down and not tour as much. All in all, I’ll be touring until I’m fifty. I know that…full throttle until I am fifty. That’s the goal. It’s hard to say, I just don’t know how life is going to treat me…or health…or all that stuff and you just never can tell.
Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] is doing great. Hank Junior’s still out there to do his thing…Lemmy, Slayer…there are a lot of older guys who are still able to bring it to the table but I want to go out with my head up. I have seen some of my heroes, like Johnny Paycheck, on that stage barely being able to breathe with oxygen tanks hooked up to him. I have seen Waylon [Jennings] when he was shaking so bad that he couldn’t even hold a guitar pick. Me and David Allan Coe are standing over on the side of the stage. David is basically in tears because it is so hard to see him in that condition. That’s when I told myself, I want to have my head held high if I ever retire. Who knows what will happen?
A lot of it might go back to…I’m not the greatest businessman and who knows how my health will be or…I don’t see any of that Hank Williams money and none of this Hank Williams estate so, heck, I might have to tour just to have an oxygen mask…who knows, but it will be interesting to see what the future might hold for me besides music.
For all the talk of poor health, the interviewer witnessed Hank plough through a four-hour set and have time to meet fans. It is unique for anybody to put out such a show of sustained energy, both vocally and instrumentally. When the interviewer clapped Hank on the shoulder in departing, it was hard not to notice how muscular and hard Hank’s arm is.
The conversation turned to his songwriting process:
Alright, it is always a little different. First of all, writing is hard for me because of my learning disabilities, my ADHD, my dyslexia…writing has always been a challenge. Even reading has been hard for me. Sometimes I do write on the road, very rarely, but I will try to sit down with a pen and write some lyrics every now and then. Usually the pen gets in the way!
When I’m writing a country song, I usually hit ‘record’ and sing off the top of my head on what I feel and then I go back with a pen and try to make it a little more of a story or make a little more sense out of it. That’s always how I’ve just kind of done it. On some songs like “Crazed Country Rebel,” which was written on the road with Superjoint Ritual, I had a lot of downtime and I was just able to sit there and write the whole song out, then go back and put music to it later. Ninety percent of the time, it’s me singing with my acoustic guitar and kind of channeling or singing off the top of my head. I’m just singing what I feel and it just depends…because of my rhythm…I’ll either do something slow or I’ll do something fast or I’ll do something a little strange. That’s how it happens.
The rock and roll writing process is always the guitarist first, then I do the drums, then the vocals are last – because to me, in rock, you really don’t have to tell as much of a story. In country music the lyrics are a lot more important. People identify a lot more with the roots-oriented music.
It’s always been on me because most of my band is scattered. Not all of it…I have my drummer, Sonic Williams, he lives in Nashville…but most of my guys are out of town and since I play everything and I hear the rhythms and hear what it’s supposed to be, I just do it all myself and then give it to the other guys. It’s been like that because I enjoy playing drums. I enjoy playing guitar. I enjoy recording. It’s fun for me and it’s a thrill to hear the finished product and stuff like that. I never, in the country world or the rock world, have done that well trying to write with someone else…just because I am kind of shy and intimidated. In general, I am just kind of nervous around people so I just feel more at ease when writing by myself.
You get a lot of great guests, though, like Tom Waits on “Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown,” (one of the four released in September 2011 on Hank 3 Records).
I just sent him the songs after they were created. I sent him a few songs to see which one he felt more comfortable with, so he definitely felt more comfortable with “Fadin’ Moon” because of the pushbox accordion. On the song, “Ghost to a Ghost,” he is just singing the last line but I was just going out there a little bit. It is not a country song. It is just a different sounding song but I was just trying to…in “Ghost to a Ghost” [the LP] and “Guttertown,” there are only about five or six country songs, in my opinion. There’s a lot of new stuff that is not really country at all. I am just letting people know I‘m a diverse musician and who knows what else you might be getting in the future…a little bit of everything.
Well, not to my knowledge. I mean, what I always approached was, my grandfather sang about the Light so it seems natural for me to sing about the Dark. That’s my big thing. I’ve had Satanism people try to recruit me and I’ve had all kinds of different people want to recruit me to try and be on their team. I do sing about the devil and stuff like that but I’m just gonna keep doing my thing and I’d rather just be an outsider and a rebel and an independent kind of guy.
So that is really hard to say. My grandfather had the woes – the sinning and the suffering because of some of the topics he might of put out there throughout his music but I’ve definitely taken that to more of an extreme level.
I do have a lot of guilt in me. I do my best to try to even out my karma… That’s why I do my best to try to be good to anybody I meet. I’m always down to earth and nice to them and try to put out the best positive energy that I can but I also know a lot of really dark people who practice that stuff and are really heavy into it but…I just…you know, that’s what they do and to each their own. It’s not my job to judge anybody…it’s whatever anyone feels comfortable with. I do have days where it is a lot harder than other days. So, you know, if I was an atheist, it sure would make things a lot more easier. I’m not necessarily on any team but I do believe in good light and dark energy and I have seen both of them work.
It’s just like the other night, when I played in Flint, MI, and somebody just said, “Well, you finally made it to hell!” So…whatever that means…and I am feeling it in my mind and in my heart. Sometimes I have those overwhelming feelings. Sometimes it goes back to, well, if I’ve made it all the way to hell, maybe I gotta just keep on fighting to get back out of it or who knows, it’s just one of those things you don’t know but I do sing a lot about the darker topics and I have felt a lot more comfortable in that world because it’s just been a natural rebellious thing for me, being raised in the Bible Belt. My mother burned all my music. I was forced to go to church four times a week and that’s back when the Satan Seminars were really big and I’m just always torn on that topic. I just never know where I really stand. I wish I did, so I could be like, “Okay, it’s said and done and this is where I’m at…” but it’s a forever, never ending fight.
“You find out after you die,” is what some say.
I know people who have and some say there is something and some say there is nothing…like my half-sister, Hillary, she basically got killed in a car wreck and got revived and she had a nice experience. Phil Anselmo, from Pantera, he’s been dead and he came back and he is one of those guys out there who says there’s nothing. We all don’t know until our time will come.
The ‘hellbilly’ sound…
Well, to me, I’m not tooting my own horn, but I think I am close to being the pioneer of that sound. I never heard the term until I started bringing it up. I don’t think. To me, hellbilly, back in the day, was playing rock and roll on country instruments. Back when I was doing the full-on hellbilly, roots-wise…the acoustic guitar was running through a distortion pedal, the steel guitar, the fiddle, the upright bass…that was the hillbilly sound. In my songs, I was always talking about…well, I always liked Webb Pierce and I’m working on a farm and I’m singing rock and roll in a country style and this is the hellbilly sound. For me, hellbilly was just like being the independent outlaw. If you look at some of the biker clubs, whether it the Outlaws or the Hells’ Angels, or whatever, it was my way of creating a little bit of an outsider, Reverend Horton Heat on steroids kind of sound. That’s just what it was and it goes back to doing something against the Bible Belt…trying to do something a little different.
You seem to have a love/hate relationship with the Grand Ole Opry.
I have always paid respect there. I never disrespected that stage. I never cussed on that stage. I’ve never smoked in their building or anything like that. They try to embrace certain outlaws and it is what it is. I am one of the last few outlaws doing it and, the Opry means it. If you look back in history, the Grand Ole Opry was always full of kids. It wasn’t full of old people when it was really thriving and I’m just…well, Johnny Cash was doing the same thing back in his day.
Looking back at your earlier appearance at the Opry, you almost seemed ‘clean cut’.
At first, I was doing a little bit of paying respects just to get into the game, just to get a little money to pay for all the back support I owed for my child and then I started standing on my own two feet, knowing my past and fighting for my fans, fighting to be different.
Hank Junior has done the same thing on that stage. Waylon, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, there’s been a few on there that’s done what I’ve done. It’s just that it might not have been televised.
It’s a definite fact that Hank Williams was playing rock and roll before they knew what rock and roll was.
Your example is…[sings]:
“I came in last night, about half past ten,
that baby of mine, wouldn’t let me in,
move it on over…well…
Dada da da, Dada da da, dada da da da da da da,
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight,
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock until broad daylight…”
It’s the same fucking thing!…Bill Haley and the Comets was not the first guy to play rock and roll. Hank Williams was – they just didn’t realize it at the time. Back then, he just wasn’t having an electric guitar in his hand. A couple times he did, but he held that acoustic guitar more and he was timeless and he was crossing over and doing everything, but all in all…that is why there is a picture of Hank Williams in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are the true people that know that he was the founder of rock before rock and roll really happened, in a low key way. If you look at the structure, Hank Williams was playing the structure of rock and roll.
Your grandfather did so much in the 29 years he was alive. You put out a lot of energy, too. Are there any nights when you think, “Oh, this is what he felt like?”
There is a lot of differences between me and him. He did so much in so little time that it is still mind-boggling when you look back at the amount of work that was captured but as life goes on…or say it feels like I might be having a heart attack on stage or feeling like it might be my last day on earth, there are certain feelings because Hank told a couple folks that he kind of knew his end was near. I feel like that sometime. I definitely hope it’s not like that but the spirit of the outlaw energy, I feel it in the rooms a good bit and me and him have a lot of similarities but then, again, there are a lot of differences there. He was always an easygoing, kind of funny guy to be around, where I, on the other hand, am really not that much fun to be around. I’m kind of a downer. It’s just hard for me to laugh. I don’t know why, it’s just always been like that. He was real deep and felt at ease in his storytelling and for me, I don’t know why, but there is just a difference. I am kind of uptight. I have this nervous energy.
Maybe once in a while when I am singing I may feel him a little bit. If I have a real nasally voice, I might feel the spirit of him. There is also definitely a lot of differences. He was a very cocky individual at times, he would fight and get drunk and he would mouth off but, in general, he was good and he knew it. He was really sharp. Me, on the other hand, I have never been like that. I might be sharp but it’s not just arrogance. I’ve been real intent on making sure that people know that the ego is not out of control. I never wanted to be like my father, as far as cussing out the audiences or telling Yankees to go fuck themselves or all that stuff.
I’ve had my country heros and my rock heros dick me off and be assholes to me and I never wanted to be that guy to my fans, or my crew.
You mention Kid Rock and call him a ‘Yank’ and say he’s ‘no son of Hank’ in “Not Everybody Likes Us.” What is up with that?
He stuck his nose in the family business. He came in and tried to tell me how to act to my father. When you are going to do that, what do you expect? I’m gonna definitely put someone like that down…and that is coming from a guy says, “Well, you know I’m the next Elvis!” That’s the first thing he ever told me when I met him. So, I’ve never been like that and a lot of my fans are proud that I am not like that. They know that I put on my pants just like anybody else, work hard for what I do…nothing was ever really handed to me. I had to fight for my way in every little thing. I could have took the easy way out but I always stuck to the hard road and people ‘get’ that.
Since this is our nature issue, let’s touch on that…
I don’t hunt that much and if I do hunt, I’m mainly taking my son out, really. If I do hunt, I go through the whole process and clean it and eat it. I am not out there just to kill. I have never really been like that. I am very into animal rights, especially the shame with all the pit bulls and all the stuff that has been happening against them, especially in the South. It’s really hard to see. If you look back, the pit bull was the “Little Rascal’s” main dog…
How about the dog from the RCA Victor signs?
Yeah, that was “Petey” and there was about four or five different ones and that was the American icon, back in the day. People have made pit bulls worse, not the breed itself. It just goes to show how the corrupt people have damaged the reputation of that breed. I have always worked with no-kill shelters and animals rights activists.
This guy was trying to get back at his girlfriend so he hooked up her horse to the back of his truck and drug it for over four miles and left it at her front door…and he got a citation?! Shit like that…I would think he should have gotten six months in jail.
Animals have been so good to me and I care a lot about them. They have helped me through my hard times. It is my way of giving back. I also do “Homes for the Troops,” for the guys over there in the war who lose their legs, their arms…I do benefit shows for them, where they have to build special houses for them with ramps and stuff like that and raise money, even though the government should be paying that for the rest of their lives.
Those are the two main things I will take time out and try to raise money for.
Aren’t you active in the campaign to get you grandfather reinstated into the Grand Ole Opry?
There is a petition out on www.reinstatehank.com and all people can do is sign it. I just got a call from Nashville today that they ran a big story on it in The Tennessean…so things are starting to happen with it, even if we are just talking about it, but it seems like it is getting close.
I always said that the person who put it into perspective the best is Tom Waits because he called out the big corporate people and the average folks and really got them to see where the loophole is and he’s calling them out on the loophole. The 200th Edition of Mojo Magazine, has a story that he wrote and he really did a lot of homework and got in touch with the right people to call them out and let it be known. That’s what I always tell everyone to read because it calls out the big guys, the corporate people. He [Waits] is saying, “Well, why is he listed on your website as a member but in reality, he is not a member of the Grand Ole Opry?”…and just little things like that but it is a very interesting read. Find it if you can. He edited that whole edition.
But the petition has been around for a few years. Wasn’t somebody already trying?
No, I did a lot for that guy [an unnamed individual] out of respect but then he just started drifting a different way and not getting it and I had to pull the plug and shut it all down. If you not going to work with us and you’re going to think this is about you, well, guess what? It’s not about you, this is about Hank Williams…so we shut that down.
Bob Dylan just did the album, “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.” You were great on the tribute album to your grandfather, “Timeless.” Why weren’t you doing a song on this project?
It doesn’t matter if it’s “Hank Junior’s Big 40th” or all that stuff – they never ask or invite me to do things like that. I don’t know what it is. All I can say is that I guess it is just those corporate people in Nashville that just don’t want much to do with someone like me.
I’m not putting Bob Dylan down, but he owns my grand-dad’s stuff but never once has he reached out or anything. I have known players who play with him and he has had plenty of opportunities to say stuff to me regarding my family history since he is so into it but he never has…There is a whole other aspect to whatever that is. I know it has to do with some lawyers and people like that.
It is what it is. An unfinished Hank Williams song, in my opinion, might be unfinished for a reason. So, who knows?
You have dubbed Nashville as “Trashville.” It seems like you fit in better with the country players from West Texas. Why there?
I basically used to hang out a lot with Wayne [The Train] Hancock. He was one of my best friends out there. He showed me a lot…and Dale Watson, too… So, I have spent a lot of time in Texas. I have never lived there and don’t think I ever will live there. I enjoy living in Tennessee and I am proud to be from Tennessee. Ray Price was good to me and I got to hang out with Ray a little bit. Ray Vincent has been good to me. Junior Brown…I have recorded him at my house before. He came in a couple months ago and we all recorded a song of his and two days later it was on the radio. I am not singing on it. I just pulled the session together and recorded it. I played drums on it; I called up Dave Roe, Johnny Cash’s old bass player and got him involved.
As Junior said, “Man, I really like the vibe of your studio and the way you did it is the way it should be done. You used one microphone to capture all the different sounds and I think that’s what Nashville has stopped a lot. He had a hell of a time and it was our first time actually being able to hang out. I gained a lot of respect from him. As far as outside of Texas, Waylon Jennings had always been good to me before he passed on. David Allan Coe is basically like my father. He is the only man out there who has ever said, “If you need advice, or anything, just call me. If you need anything, you call me.” Not many people, even in my own family have been like that. Kris Kristofferson has also been very embracive to me on my career, also, and for a little while George Jones was good. Little Jimmy Dickens was always respectful to me in all those things.
I have been so busy just having to fight for my own way that I haven’t been able to hang out with those people. I don’t ‘do lunch.’ I don’t make the rounds in Tennessee. I’m worried about getting my crew and band on the road and making it happen again. That is where a lot of my time goes.
All in all, David Allan Coe is the only man who stood with my through the years and he has become a very humble man in his older age. He has done it all – he has had the number one songs and been ripped off for every one of his hit songs, and he is the closest thing to a family member that I have, one of the living outlaw legends.
I’ll never sign another artist to my label because I would never want to do another musician wrong. It is hard enough just keeping up with what I do. I would never want to make a musician feel like he did not get the sound he deserved on a song or the press he deserved or any of that stuff. I’m not that much of a business guy.
You would make a good politician, the way you shake hands and work the crowd. Did we read a quote about you thinking of it?
I think that was a mis-quote. I don’t ever see myself in politics. Look at Ted Nugent. When he is not onstage, he is politically active and I have never been into politics, hardly ever. I take the David Lee Roth stance on it…there are some things in music that just don’t belong. We are here to make people forget about their problems, not make them feel worse. You see enough about politics on every news, radio, internet…it is shoved down your face 24/7 and I take the stance that I don’t really sing about it that much.
The only political thing I’ll say is, “Yeah, it’d be nice to see that war end.” When I see how many kids come and go and how many bodies get destroyed and how many minds are being ruined…I would say it is just about time for them to wrap it up. Or, if you look at the position that Hank Junior took not long ago, if you are a gun activist, or you care about your ammo or your shotgun, you will notice that the Rights to Bear Arms are being taken away more and more.
Kids are dying for our freedom while rights are being taken away more and more everyday over there and that is sad to see…but I stay away from politics because I don’t research it. I don’t follow it. My politics is my music. I play music. I hope my gun is my guitar and I’m out there trying to let people forget about their problems. I just have never been that involved in it, not until I have to and right now I am just touring the road and have never been that into politics.
Hank, er, Pop, made that comment (likening Obama to Hitler)…I say the only musician who should say anything about politics is Jello Biafra because when he’s not playing music, he is actively involved. He is doing the speeches. He is doing the research. He is doing all kinds of stuff to raise awareness on many different levels, whereas most punk rock bands are just saying, “Fuck the government, 1,2,3, fuck the police, blahblahbla”…and they are not really doing their homework. That is my stance on it because I don’t follow it. All I will say is that if people should vote, they should vote for the smaller people…the mayor, the governor…that is where the big change is gonna happen, in the smaller communities. Not the Big Kahuna…
The ‘occupy’ movement seems to have missed that logic.
I don’t even think that is the right one. That doesn’t seem like the right movement or the motivation. The only thing the occupy thing has really shown is how the police can get away with beating old people down. That’s about it. That’s about all that happened. They can shoot you with the rubber bullets, they can pepper-spray an 84-year-old man…do all these things…It is just not the right revolution. It just does not seem like the right one. Whenever the day comes when they try to take guns away from Americans, that will be the new Civil War and that is when the revolution will happen.
The scary thing for me is on the gun level…I hear it from the Vietnam vets. I hear it from the kids that are in the war right now and then someone like my father, so it is happening on all fronts.
He [father, Hank Junior] made massive headlines…he was saying basically that Obama was Hitler. See, that all goes back to the guns. The only reason he is saying that is that the Right to Bear Arms is being taken away… or the ban to ban a single barrel shotgun. As my father would say, one of his most prized possessions is an old single barrel shotgun that his great-grandfather used in World War I and he still has it and Obama wants to put a ban on it? As he would say, FUCK THAT!
That goes back to why the kids are fighting for freedom while the rights are being taken away more and more. Ted Nugent can go there and my dad is very dialed into that but since I live very day to day and by the skin of my teeth, in reality I’m not a very rich man so that probably has a lot to do with it. Most of these people that are really hardcore into politics, a lot of them have a good bit of money. I never have had that which is another reason why I am bliss to that world right now.
It might have been joking because Hank Junior said he was gonna run for governor and then Jello Biafra told me that, “You need to run against your father and I’ll be your political advisor and we’ll have a campaign and do that.” So I might have been joking on that. I would never see myself in that kind of a position.
Originally published in Beatdom #11.