Interview: Cowpunk Outlaw Hank Williams III is Damn Right Rebel Proud
Hank III in Devore, California for Side X Side Action Magazine's Battle of the Builders 2008, where he test drove the Kawasaki Teryx. Photo by Aimee Candelaria. Click image for entire slideshow.
When audiences first met Hank Williams III in 1999 he was a Risin' Outlaw. Then he was Lovesick, Broke & Driftin'. And before we knew it, he'd gone Straight to Hell. He was equal parts lover and fighter, hell-bent on keeping country music true to its rebellious spirit. True to form, when the uncensored version of Straight to Hell came out in 2006, it earned the honor of being the first major-label country album slapped with a parental advisory sticker.
In person however, off stage and unhooked from that fierce performer's adrenaline, Hank III is much more soft-spoken than I'd imagined. I mean, when this guy performs there can be so much hell-raising that bars literally sell out of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I met with Hank III in Los Angeles on October 21, the day of his fourth studio album release, Damn Right Rebel Proud, to chat outlaws, GG Allin, fleeting expletives, and why he still plays for tips.
L.A. Weekly: You recently test drove some new Kawasaki Teryxs here in California for Side X Side Action Magazine's Battle of the Builders. How was it?
Hank Williams III: It was fine. Nobody wrecked, nobody got hurt and the builders were super cool. A lot of awesome custom rides. It definitely was windy but that didn't hold nobody back.
Damn Right Rebel Proud starts out with a song chiding the Grand Ole Opry. In the past you've had things to say about Opry's choice in music and them ignoring the revolution, as you might call it.
Yeah, it's just payin' respects where respects are due. If you're going to have a Hank Williams impersonator, if you're going to have a Hank Williams play, if you're going to have Hank Williams records and pictures all over your place, and he is the first man inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he's inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame... but the little secret society in Nashville is a little too good to pat Hank Williams on the back nowadays. That's just not right. It's as simple as that. Before he died they talked to him about, “Well if you get your act together here in a couple months we'll possibly reinstate you and get you back out there doing some shows.” Sure enough, he passed away and they just kind of let that disappear.
It's frustrating because the core of country music has always been about a certain rebel attitude and now it seems more pop.
Here's somethin' for ya, the last tip on them. There was a rock show at the Ryman -- the original Grand Ole Opry -- four weeks ago and The Dancing Outlaw Jesco White was supposed to open up for this rock band and he said “bitch” three times because he's a comedian...
But you can say that on TV or the radio, it's not even considered a fleeting expletive.
Yeah. They walked out on stage and made him quit his performance and escorted him out of the building. That's just completely ridiculous and shows how closed-minded those people are and how they're not stepping up to reality, you know. It's a rock show. They're definitely losing more respect than they know.
How would you define an outlaw within a contemporary context?
I've always said an outlaw or a rebel is someone that marches to their own beat. They do things for themselves. They're not trying to write songs for the radio or make everybody happy. They just play their music, say what they say, do what they do, and they believe in themselves. That's what I've always classified that as. Wayne "The Train" Hancock, he's a purist in country music but he's an outlaw, just the way he acts and what he does. Dale Watson, he's the Merle Haggard of today for the younger kids. He's an outlaw, he's shot at the police and all kinds of stuff. But he still doesn't get the respect he deserves because he did it his own way.
It just seems odd that the rebels and outlaws who built the genre of country music aren't being embraced by it.
Well, most of the people who built it were musicians and the lawyers outsmarted the musicians and took it over. A perfect example of how bad its getting -- I'm not knocking Hootie and the Blowfish -- but he made a record, turned it in, they said, “It's too country but if you do this and this, we'll guarantee you a number one hit song and you'll have this amount of records sold.” He did that and did this and sure enough, he has a number one song. Never been a country artist until now and he'll probably be at the new CMA awards. So it just goes to show you it's a machine, you've got to play along to get ahead and if you don't play along, you're an outcast.
Another song on the record is dedicated to GG Allin. Is he one of your top outlaws?
Yeah, my thing with GG is, after I'm on the road for two and a half weeks singing and screaming I start getting' that gravel voice. GG always respected country even though he was into the hardcore extremes. In his live performances he always did Hank Jr. songs, David Allan Coe, Merle Haggard, and even recorded a whole country record himself. People don't understand really how much of a musician GG really was. He could write a whole record in 20 minutes and was into a whole lot of different styles. It's definitely a destructive thing to look up to, but no one will ever do what he did. He was definitely one of the true scumfuck outlaws out there [laughs].
You said before that you won't turn your back on Nashville because you want to still be able to make music there. How does that factor into what you're doing now?
I'm keeping it real and Nashville, as far as goin' down there, on Wednesday nights I'm playing for tips. People that are on major labels don't do that. I'm doing it at the bar we've always done it at and that's my way of keeping my feet to the street, so to say. As far as music row goes and the songwriter circles, I doubt I'll ever be part of that. It's almost like Jimmy Martin, he was a bluegrasser, born in Tennessee, lived his whole life in Tennessee but he was always outcasted from the Opry and a lot of other places because he spoke his mind. Like I said, I doubt I'll ever be in with music row but I can still go down on Broadway and keep it real.
Well, I think your fans appreciate it.
We sold the bar out of PBR last week so that's not supposed to happen down there...
When will you be back in L.A. playing shows?
Hopefully in January. We've done good here in L.A. We've sold out the Roxy probably the last 10 years. We get a good diversity. All kinds -- the grandmas, the grandads, the cowboys, the punk rockers, some borderline gang kids -- there's a few different folks that's showing up for a country show. We're proud of the folks that's comin' out.
Damn Right Rebel Proud is available in stores now, out on Sidewalk Records.