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
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