His new album, Straight To Hell, is the first I've ever heard that straddles the hallowed ground between Bill Monroe and Mötörhead, between "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Ace of Spades." At some point late in your first run through the record, it will hit you that you haven't once heard a distorted guitar. The album is so punk-rock in attitude and execution, the tempos so headlong, that you are sure that at some point somebody plugged a Gibson into a cheap fuzz pedal. But that never actually happened. Instead, Williams' band chases his rough whine of a voice with keening country fiddle, a driving tick-tack beat, plenty of tasty Martin and Telecaster guitars, and a nice helping of steel guitar and Dobro just like all those old country albums I grew up on. The playing is raucous but clean - as fiery and precise as anything I've heard, and they can raise a storm without needing over-driven amplifiers.
Straight To Hell, starts off with about thirty seconds of a scratchy, plaintive country-gospel ballad called "Satan Is Real," which quickly degenerates into basso-profundo laughter (presumably from the dark lord himself) as the band kick into the real album opener, a honky-tonk barnburner called "Straight to Hell." That's not just a name - it really is the theme of the album. Like Hank Williams Sr., Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard before him, Hank III is one of those artists who sing about a life of pills, whiskey and madness but constantly lament that all this fun means they will burn forever in hell. This tension between gleeful dissipation and crushing depression is what gives Straight To Hell its kick. On the title song, Williams tears into lines about "looking for trouble" with the same fury as he sings the chorus, "I'm going straight to hell, ain't nothing slowing me down / I'm going straight to hell, so you just better get me one more round."
Since this is an old-school country record, and since Hank Williams III is maybe a tad too eager to take after his forebears, better than half of the songs on the album hoe this same row. "Pills I Took" is a wide-eyed story of destruction and mayhem, and it's not perfectly clear whether Williams' narrator (Williams?) is more proud or ashamed about the blood on the carpet and the broken mirrors. "Thrown Out of the Bar" gives a shout-out to country maverick David Alan Coe and is the first of about half a dozen songs on the album that take predictable but well deserved swipes at the neutered shiny 'stars' who pass for country music royalty today. But more than that, "Thrown Out of the Bar" is just another of ten or so excellent songs about the joys and perils of excess. Whether the joys or the perils are the point, well, I guess that's your call.