You can maybe forgive Shelton Hank Williams III if he's not quite sure just who he wants to be when he grows up. The boy's only 27, skinny enough to stand sideways, stick out his tongue and pass for a zipper, and the family tree leans heavily on him. He's the son of Randall Hank Williams, better known as Hank "Bocephus" Williams Jr., iconic country rocker, Monday Night Football shill and famous mountain faller-offer, himself the son of Hiram Hank Williams, better known as plain old Hank Williams, or Hank Sr., the man found dead in the backseat of a Cadillac at age 29 whose cult is to country music what Elvis Presley's is to rock and roll.
Hank III is also the hell-raising son of a single mother, Hank Jr.'s second wife, a boy who hit adolescence in the 1980s idolizing Black Flag and punk rawk of the loud, fast and loud variety. Meanwhile, Shelton's 1999 debut, Risin' Outlaw, billed under the name Hank III, is 13 tracks of old-school country in the Hank Sr. vein, whose identifying feature -- aside from several fine covers of tunes written by Hank Sr. revivalist Wayne "The Train" Hancock -- is the awkward sonic battle of wills between Shelton's rawboned instincts, some slick-as-owlshit session players and a producer's attempt -- and failure -- to make some kind of radio-appropriate sense of it all.
"All that was," says Shelton, calling from a pay phone outside of Minneapolis's First Avenue club, where he was about to open another show for the Reverend Horton Heat, "was the producer didn't believe in me, and he was a pop producer. When they try to take control of every damn thing, it's just bullshit."
His next album, to be released on an independent label in about four months, Shelton says, is titled This Ain't Country, "and the band'll probably be called Ass Jack instead of the [currently touring] Damn Band. You'll be able to tell the difference." Another country album, he says, should follow that one in another four months' time. Neither has been recorded yet -- and with a schedule that has racked up 225 road dates the past year, it's fair to wonder where Shelton will find the time -- but if he sounds scattered, he sounds just as confident.
And happy. This tour with the Reverend Heat is just his kind of gig.
"Two-four [country] dance clubs just really turn my stomach, and these kinda [rock] clubs are more open-minded and more just down-to-earth." And working a 45-minute opening slot with a rock-oriented audience lets Shelton work out on more of the "full-on energy balls-out fighting kind of pit music" that's clearly closest to his heart of hearts. At the moment, anyhow. With a headlining show, he might fracture his performance into an old-school country set and a hard-core punk set. Other gigs might be straight twang to a largely elderly audience counting on Hank III to keep his granddaddy's flame burning, a circumstance that can easily devolve into shtick.
"Aww, sometimes, yeah, casinos and shit like that, it's really hard to get into," he says. "But that's fine. I can make old people happy if I got a good voice. But if I don't have a good voice that night, well, it looks like I'm pretty fucking pissed off."
If it sounds like a schizophrenic existence, it is. "Aww yeah, totally. I mean, one night opening for Nashville Pussy, the next night'll be Ray Price. It's pretty intense. It's total Jekyll and Hyde, man."
If Jekyll and Hyde share a common denominator -- and they always do -- it's Williams's allegiance to the rowdy aesthetic. He has made no bones in the press about slagging his label, Curb Records, for overproducing and underpromoting his debut. He's not shy about his booze-guzzling and dope-smoking proclivities. He freely admits that he embarked on his country career -- after years of no-name banging around in punk bands such as Buzzkill -- as a direct result of a $24,000 child support judgment, handed down seven years ago, that forced him to rethink his $50-per-gig earning power. The debt's still not paid off, he says, and when he's not on the road, he still lives in a run-down crash pad in East Nashville.
When Shelton finally did get turned on to country music, oddly enough, it wasn't through his granddaddy's famous yodels or his daddy's redneck rock. It was through neotraditionalists like wanna-be truck-drivin' man Dale Watson and especially Hancock, whose nasally high lonesome warble is a dead ringer for Hank Sr.'s and Shelton's.
"I kept listening to all these songs that were being pitched," Shelton says. "And they all sucked. And then here's a kid [Hancock] that kinda sounds like Hank Williams, who can write and sing his own songs, and been on the road for a long time, and no one in Nashville's good enough to sing his shit. There's only about five guys that do the nasal sound that we got, you know. I'm not as pure as Wayne Hancock, or Dale, but they give me the inspiration to make me want to do that kind of country, to keep it alive."
The other, and opposite, pole of Williams's inspiration is former Black Flag front man and current steroid-throated band leader Henry Rollins.
"Aww yeah, he was the last guy I fought my way up to the front row for. I get compared to Rollins quite a bit. Just screaming, man."
Not everyone who sees Shelton's two musical faces appreciates the split, but it's the country-oriented audiences, he says, that seem to have the hardest time swallowing his dual personality.
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"If I could have a good long rock career, that would be great, only because I've never had a rude rock audience," he says. "I've had a thousand rude redneck, belligerent people, including fucking redneck bar owners, you know, that book us and then want to try to start a fight with us and all this shit. And I've never had that problem in rock and roll. I've even played country gigs when some redneck guy'll come up to me and [say], 'Can't you play something that rocks?' Well, I sure could, buddy, but I ain't gonna do it right now, 'cause we're being old-school."
Hank III's upcoming Houston performance, headlining the Firehouse Saloon, promises to be country-oriented, primarily material from Risin' Outlaw, with a few Hank Sr. tunes thrown in to satisfy the ancestral diehards. Yet from the sound of Shelton, it may be the last chance to see the country Hank III for a while.
"I've been doing straight country for six years, and now it's time for me just to get back to my roots," he says. "I'm still doing country, and I love it, too. But it's nice, kids coming up to me saying, 'Man, you fucking rock,' instead of, 'Oh, you look like your granddaddy, you sound like your granddaddy.' "
Shelton Hank Williams III performs Saturday, May 13, at the Firehouse Saloon, 5930 Southwest Freeway. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Call (713)977-1962 for more information.