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CD Review: Hank III – Straight to Hell

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Fashion, my young’uns, is a strange and fickle thing. Why, not too long ago in these parts, a hip young fella sayin’ he liked country music would’ve gotten himself laughed at – or worse, ostracized. Now I hear tell that you can walk into a De-troit indie club and find them scenesters wearin’ cowboy hats. Can you imagine that? ‘Course it’s all because of recent pop culture phenomena; bands like Blanche and the Johnny Cash revival which began with 1994’s American Recordings, peaked with his death in 2003, and most recently spawned last year’s excellent biopic Walk the Line. Young folks in the suburbs are beginning to realize that all the hard livin’, rebellion, and outlaw lifestyle they used to look for in gangsta rap can be found just as easily in hardcore country, with the added benefit that the only race they’re stereotypin’ and exploitin’ is their own. And frankly, more power to ‘em – after all, any trend which keeps kids from thinking they’re “street” must be a step forward, right?

But of course, it isn’t as simple as all that. In fact, the way you feel about the revival (some might say commodification) of country music described above might just determine your opinion of Straight to Hell, the long-delayed third album by Hank Williams (yes, that Hank Williams) III. Williams, a.k.a. Hank III, is the ultimate incarnation of country as trend: co-opting as many elements from punk rock as from honky tonk, and foresaking such unfashionable hallmarks as pious Christianity and patriotism, he descends upon the susceptible public like a living, breathing cartoon; a spitting, snorting, hell-raising hillbilly sonofabitch who doesn’t give a good goddamn what you think. Only, by virtue of his demi-godly lineage, we pretty much have to care about him.

And it’s a good thing for him, because without his famous last name, there’d be a lot about Hank III that would make him only too easy to write off. His obsession with hard living is both all-consuming and monotonous, infecting in some way just about every one of Straight to Hell‘s fourteen tracks. There are the explicit homages to drinking and drugging, their subject matter made so obvious it’s telegraphed in the titles themselves: “Smoke & Wine,” “Pills I Took,” “My Drinkin’ Problem,” “Thrown Out of the Bar.” Then there are the songs which revel only marginally less in self-destruction and debauchery; like “Country Heroes,” yet another queasy-making instance of the Williams “Family Tradition” of turning Hank Sr.’s substance-driven early demise into exploitative mythmaking. Now don’t get me wrong: it’s undeniable that drinking songs are a hallmark of country music history, not least in the original Hank Williams’ songbook. But the original article was capable of delivering a simple come-on like “Hey Good Lookin’,” or a gospel tune like “I Saw the Light,” in virtually the same breath as his more torrid honky tonk tales, and that’s a range his grandson just doesn’t share. Instead we have Straight to Hell‘s title track, which opens the record with a staid, tongue-in-cheek cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan is Real,” erupts into “Iron Man”-lite Satanic laughter and then plummets straight into bluegrass self-parody.

Damn shame, too, because there is talent to be found amidst all the crude grandstanding. Williams and band tear through the material with expert abandon, picking and demonically grinning in about as rollicking a fashion as country can get. He’s a real master of atmosphere, too, when he isn’t letting his cheap digital effects get the best of him: “D. Ray White,” one of the few slower-paced songs on the album, paints a vivid picture with music and words alike long before it gallops into the horizon over a measured frenzy of banjo and fiddle. But for every such moment of subtlety – or even guilty-pleasure excess, like “Crazed Country Rebel” – there’s an exercise in self-indulgence like the repellant “Dick in Dixie,” which opens with a homophobic reference to “some faggot lookin’ over at me” and wastes the rest of its two and a half minutes on foul-mouthed, redundant broadsides against Nashville pop/country.

Then there’s Straight to Hell‘s semi-bonus second disc, which would be bizarre even if its parent album weren’t so eccentric in its own right. Hank III opens proceedings well enough with “Louisiana Stripes,” a raw, straightforward crime-and-punishment tune which manages to encapsulate all of disc one’s outlaw posturing with considerably more success. But as the song comes to a close, we find ourselves descending into something else entirely: alternately a digital-age, 40-minute version of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9″ sound collage and a scattershot collection of covers by everyone from Wayne “The Train” Hancock to Hank I himself. Frankly, it’s worth a look: his voice tinny and distant, as if creeping out of a wireless radio or a crackly old 45, Williams has never sounded more like his grandpa than he does on “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You.” It’s a tantalizing suggestion of the greatness Mr. III would be capable of if he’d just give up on the tired old cowpunk outlaw act. But the fact that he chooses to close the disc with a twangified cover of Cheech & Chong’s “Up in Smoke,” complete with bong-hit sound effects, speaks volumes about this particular Hank’s depth.

Of course, the worst thing of all is that judged entirely on its own merits, Straight to Hell would be a perfectly fine record. Hank is in good voice throughout, his musicianship is impeccable, and even when his subject matter is unimaginative, it’s still well-executed (see disc one closer “Angel of Sin,” a debauched weeper heavy with what seems like genuine pathos). Hell, even taking into consideration Williams’ legacy, the damn thing still at least sounds good. But as a symptom of today’s infatuation with the gritty, seamy side of country, to the exclusion of everything else, it almost seems like a joke.

The fact is, long after hipsters stop wearing Western garb to the Magic Stick, long after Johnny Cash and Joaquin Phoenix are no longer synonymous in the minds of the general public, country music will keep going. Fashionable or not. And when that time comes, you have to ask yourself: will anyone give a shit about Hank Williams III? I can’t really make that decision, of course; it isn’t up to me. But I’ll admit, part of me wishes that the answer was “no.”

Reviewed by Zach Hoskins

This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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  • zingzing

    i think he sees his schtick as his art. he’s taking his grandpa’s life and his father’s bullshit and getting angry about it. he’s biting the hand that feeds him in quite a few ways. he does have a few things to be angry about i suppose. but… it is a schtick.

    i saw him a couple of years ago, and he was already playing a lot of these songs. it was a good show… the bass player had a mohawk and looked like keith richards (at least in the skin…), hank was obviously snorting lines back stage between songs, and the whole things was a very energetic country show. then, hank attached a drive pedal to his acoustic and started to get things really going. i was actually pretty impressed. then… he went backstage, took a line, greased up his hair, and came out with a metal group. a mosh pit developed. i was drunk. i got beaten up by a girl! lovely!

    that said, i don’t really have any desire to listen to him on disc.

  • http://none kws

    Sorry you were beaten up by a female III fan. They can get quite rowdy at times (many of the Austin Rollergirls are die hard III fans :).

    III’s music is for people that love real country, punk, metal, or some combination. If country is the new fad for the hipsters, I hope the fad passes soon. There’s nothing worse than going to the Continental Club in Houston only to have a bunch of people there who are only there because it’s the “in” place to be and don’t give a rat’s behind about the music. Fans of the music will “give a shit” about Hank Williams III just like they do for the generations of country musicians who came before him and the guys like Wayne Hancock, Dale Watson, or Chuck Mead.

  • zingzing

    the beating was enjoyable. she pushed me back and then kicked me JUST above my sensitive areas. i laughed in her face and told her to “fuck off.” it hurt a lot more than i let on.

    i love country and punk and (to a lesser degree) metal, and i like genre-fucking, but i do have to say that hank III is experienced best live. i don’t really know that his recorded output (up til this point at least) will go down as grade-a country music… and i’d have to say that there are artists out there who combine punk and country aesthetics better (mekons, avett brothers). still, he’s fun.

  • drew

    who ever wrote that review is an idiot. Hank III is the hardest working mother F**Ker out there. he is as real as they come. i saw him play in chicago last august for 3 hours then jump off stage and sign autographs and take pics. there were 3000 people in that club that night and he partyed with them all. lets see tim magraw or toby keith do that. they wouldnt there not country by any means just collecting a pay check. f**k you and them and anyone who cant at least respect the work of Shelton Hank Williams III. the man is a legend in the making. 40 years from now people will look at him like his grand dad and johnny cash.peace- and keep the hellbilly train rollin– thanks – drew

  • luchalibre

    Hank III is best experienced live in my opinion. But I sure as hell like him on CD as well because it offers up more musicianship at times than the live act when someone doesnt show up, etc. This is good country music, some of the best I’ve ever heard. Some people may not give a shit about Hank in twenty years, but alot of us will. What Im sure about is that no one will give a shit about the author of this review or any of his other reviews. Peace.

  • DocShock

    So you probably listen to Kid Rock huh? Jeez dude, you should just stick to listening to Toby Keith and Keith Urban and leave real country to the people who like it. Hank III is a true artist who writes his own songs, something Nashville artists aren’t to familiar with. Go grab your Kenny Chesney album and cry because Hank is for folks who appreciate REAL country music.

  • bugsmeany

    Lame review, says more about the reviewers attitude about the ‘scene’ than it does about the music. There is no connection between this album and any middle-class scenesters playing dress-up. The music rules!

  • http://www.coquet-shack.com John

    Best go back and listen to the album, then re write the review.
    The Pills I took – is it about drugging? Think not. My Drinkin’ Problem. About drinking problems? I think not.

    Problem is, peoplke hear what they want to, not what’s there. Rock on tommy!

  • zingzing

    you know why he can go three hours and then “party with 3000 fans?”

    COCAINE. believe it.

  • bcooper

    this album is what old hillbilly country is all about, hank has incorporated his music punk and hardcore with his grandfathers and fathers music. i think it is genious. Hank sr. was the original punk rocker before punk was even thought of. i dont know how you can say his lyrics are obscene, or foul mouthed, because johnny cash sang a song called cocaine blues, in sunday mornin comin down johnny cash says lord i wish i was stoned, common drug references and drinking and sinning are all part of “good ” country music. trust me if cash, haggard , jones, williams sr. and all the other greats could have gotten away with what hankIII gets away with they would have done it too

  • http://www.myspace.com/misfitsdanny Danny

    I could write a very long rant really ripping into the reviewer and making him look stupid but I’m stoned and listening to Hank 3 so I’ll just say: GO FUCK YOU.

    ;)

    It’s a legacy asshole!

  • Mr. Alley Cat

    Just stumbled across this moronic review, four years after the fact. [edited] It managed to redefine the concept of “clueless.” What trend is he talking about? Yuppies don’t listen to Hank III. I’ve been to a dozen shows over the last ten years, all over the country. With the exception of L.A., I have never seen any “hipsters” at a Hank III show.

    I think what this reviewer [edited] doesn’t get is that country music needs a shot of adrenaline, a major shot. Pop country has all but tarnished its very soul. Nashville and the disgusting executives who populate the industry need someone to shout down the syrup produced by the likes of Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney and all the other clones who look and sound like them. Most importantly, as the reviewer himself pointed out, Hank III makes country music acceptable again to people who are not part of the “mainstream.” How many years did I have to hear artsy douchebags say “I like all music, except for country”? They don’t say shit like that any more. Hank III played a major role in that. If he stopped making music today, his legacy would be set.

  • Rooster P. Nhut

    first off, hank doesnt not do cocaine, hasnt in years, and that might just be a rumor. because the first time i saw a hank III show was in 2004. got to meet him and hang with him on the tour bus. yes, he was drink whiskey. but i offered him some toot and he was the only one who did. and a couple years ago his driver for his tour bus fell asleep at the wheel because he was a meth head. hank lucky to be alive, fired that driver on the spot. he has a following both underground to main stream. also he has several other bands that are side projects. not saying he treats the as side projects. he is always recording and playing music. check out the other bands hes in. ARSON ANTHEM, ASSJACK, just to name a few. fuck, i heard one of his songs on true blood the other night. the boy has talent. he may party hard but hes smart about it. and if you wanna check out another great country artist, writer, proformer check out WILLIE HEATH NEAL. Rx

  • Rooster P. Nhut

    oh, about the cocaine thing.. hes writen at least two anti-coke songs. the song COCAINE is actually an anti coke song. listen to the fucking lyrics. oh , and the song was inspired when his best friend od on coke. and stop watching fucking tv. it makes you stupid.

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