Being anybody the “third,” except perhaps royalty where you take a name of your own choosing upon ascending the throne, can be quite the burden. Not only do you have to live up the expectations of being your father’s son; you carry the added burden of his father’s achievements around on your shoulders too. I’ve always looked at people saddled with that type of burden with some pity, wondering what kind of lives they can ever carve out for themselves when others have already tried to dictate who and what they will become right from the word go.
Perhaps that sympathy is mitigated by the fact that some who are bequeathed their grandfather’s name also end up having a few million dollars or pounds placed at their disposal in compensation. At the very least it’s sufficient to pay for any therapy the may require. Of course some are given a far less tangible inheritance, though one which is even more daunting to live up to than wealth: a reputation. Even children of famous people who don’t share their parent’s given name often have a hard time living up to expectations created by the accomplishments of the their family’s previous generations.
Some talents are simply akin to lightning strikes, though, and are not genetic traits to be passed along from parent to child. Genius, in whatever form it might take, is not an inherent right. Intelligence may be something families share in the same way similar shaped noses will show up in generation after generation. But the circumstances which create a person’s ability to perceive the world in a singular enough fashion that the impact of their actions endures for eras to come are usually as unique as the individual who lives with them.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Hank Williams changed popular music forever. He was among the first artists to combine all of the various cultural influences in popular music (Anglo/Irish/Scottish-rooted country music; African American blues; French and Spanish Cajun from New Orleans) while in the process paving the way for the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and all of the other early rock and roll stars of the mid-to-late ’50s. Songs like “Move It On Over,” “Hey Hey Good Lookin’,” and “Jambalaya,” to name but a few, not only influenced future generations of musicians, but are still being played and appreciated sixty years after they were written.
Whatever inspired his greatness, however, wasn’t passed along to his son. Hank Williams Jr., who although a capable musician has never shown the same spark of originality nor the willingness to experiment with content and form that marked his father’s work. So when I heard Jr.’s son, Hank Williams III, had in turn become a musician, I really wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until I started to hear rumours of something called “hellbilly,” a combination of punk, country and Cajun with occasional forays into speed metal, of which this third-generation Hank seemed to be a nexus, that my ears perked up.
On the surface it might appear punk and country have little in common. But at their most basic both feature bare-bones music relying on a few chords fuelled by passion and a “do it yourself” approach to production and recording. Any doubts you may have about their compatibility, at least in the hands of Hank 3 (as he now calls himself), will be laid to rest upon listening to Ghost To Ghost and Guttertown, released September 6 on his own Hank3 label. These two albums, packaged together as a double-disc set, comprise just half of the four-disc assault that Williams is launching this week.
Attention Deficit Domination and 3 Bar Ranch Cattle Callin’ are the other two, both of which represent the decidedly harder edge of his repertoire. I have a limited appetite for speed metal, though, so this review will concentrate on the country/punk/hellbilly set.
If you’ve had no experience with this hellbilly music, you may be in for a bit of a surprise. A song called “Cunt of a Bitch” isn’t exactly the kind of country music you’re used to hearing played at the Grand Ole Opry. As far as I’m concerned, however, since that place has done more to to ruin country music than any other so-called institution in America, that’s a good thing. The Opry still refuses to recognize the contributions of Hank 3’s grandfather to country music, which ought to tell you more than enough. Hank 3 has set up a page at his website, Reinstate Hank Williams, where you can sign a petition asking the Opry to reinstate Hank.
Ghost To Ghost definitely won’t be on the Top 10 playlist of Tipper Gore and her cronies who worked so hard to label albums with explicit lyrics lest the innocent children have their ears ravaged. But damn if it ain’t music that will put the fear of God into any God-fearing, hate-mongering asshole. Not only will the lyrics burn the paint off most automobiles, the music is an all out assault on the ears as well. Turmoil, anarchy, the threat of random violence, cursing, substance abuse and everything else people pretend they don’t partake in six days a week while they’re mouthing their prayers in the pew on the seventh is packed into the 10 songs on this disc. So called American values take a well deserved beating as Hank 3 and company rip a hole right into the heart of darkness at the rotting core of a nation caught in downward spiral. If you can’t hear the greed and excesses of the last 50 years being indicted on this disc, you’re not listening. Your ears may bleed and your mind may reel, but you won’t be bored and you won’t ever mistake it for that “New Country” bullshit.
However none of what you hear on Ghost To Ghost will prepare you for what’s in store on Guttertown. For instead of the wild, careening anarchy of the first disc you are immediately plunged into a world filled with the mysteries buried in the depths of fog-shrouded swamps, ghost towns and other places lining the borders of the spirit world. “Chaos Queen” introduces a world of “haunts” and others who occupy the mythology of the South. The sounds of the night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures, mixed with just the right amount of atmospheric music, serves as an overture. Slowly what sounds like a child’s voice becomes audible, offering to guide us only so far to meet with somebody, presumably the Chaos Queen of the title, but no further because the woman is of an uncertain temperament and you never can be sure of how she’ll take to you.
As the child leaves us to our own devices and the night sounds creep back upon us we move into “Chord Of The Organ,” as fine a piece of Cajun country zydeco as you’ll ever hear. While most of us are used to the upbeat and celebratory sound of the genre, Hank 3 and band bring another element into play: the bayous and swamps where the music was first heard and performed. While the cadences and patois are what we’ve grown accustomed to, there’s an underlying element that evokes something far darker and dangerous. As you listen to this song the other “songs” here, you start to feel like you’ve wandered into some backwoods carnival where the games are rigged and for an extra dollar you can go out behind the tent to watch the geeks bite the heads off chickens.
Meanwhile underneath it all comes the sound of a calliope whose motor has seen better days and the music is just slightly off, either too slow or too fast; your not really sure which. Its the kind of place, and music, which reminds you the swamps were once home to more than just zydeco. This is where the gods and goddesses who travelled from Africa with slaves took root and what we call voodoo was practised. As the disc progresses with songs interspersed along with more trips back to “Guttertown” accompanied by our strange voiced guide, we feel like we are being led deeper and deeper into something strange but oddly familiar. The music is brilliantly played by Hank 3 and his band, as they somehow manage to render wonderfully tight zydeco and create the atmosphere conducive to scaring the crap out of you.
I guess it’s sort of obvious that Hank 3 is not going to be showing up on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry anytime in the near future. Nor are you likely to see any of his videos in heavy rotation or hear his music on the radio. While some of his songs on Guttertown might be more accessible than anything on Ghost To Ghost, he’s still not the kind of safe and predictable performer the music industry feels comfortable with. However, if you still believe popular music shouldn’t be either of those things — rather, that it should upset the establishment and reflect the disquiet of the times; and you understand being a rebel doesn’t mean waving the stars and bars or singing songs about beer, boobs and football — then give Hank 3 a listen. He may not sound much like his grandfather, but he definitely inherited his spirit and his willingness to take risks with his music. And while he might carry the weight of a famous name on his shoulders, after listening to these two discs it doesn’t seem like it’s been too much of a burden for him anyway.
Photo Credit: Cindy Knoener