I first heard about this Hank III article from ChurchOfHank.com and ordered 2001: The Best American Magazine Writing book used on Amazon. These are the ASME (American Society of Magazine Writers) awarded articles. Getting an ASME is like a Grammy for magazine writers. The article is long and beefy and fantastic. It’s a snippet of what was happening in Hank III’s life a decade ago. You can find the online GQ article here.
The deathly pallor, the skeletal stance, the twangy voice, the love of good whiskey and bad women—it’s eerie to look at Hank Williams III without seeing this apparition of his legendary grandfather. Elizabeth Gilbert goes on the road with Nashville’s prodigal grandson and witnesses his ascent to stardom and his descent into despair.
Me and the grandson of Hank Williams are sitting in some honky-tonk dive in downtown Nashville, listening to some mediocre band churn through some weepy old set of country-music standards. The grandson of Hank Williams bears the Christian name Shelton Hank Williams, but he is better known around these parts as Hank-3, so that’s why I call him that. Me and everyone else in this bar. Who have all recognized him on sight. Hank-3 is a little hard to miss, mind you. He’s the only six-foot-two-inch, 144-pound, twangy-voiced, heavily tattooed, longhaired skeleton walking around Nashville these days who looks exactly like Hank Williams. And you cannot hide the face of Hank Williams in this town. It would be like if Elvis Presley had a dead-ringer grandson who someday tried to walk around Memphis without getting any attention. Not a chance. Heads would turn, jaws drop.
Tonight the grandson of Hank Williams is perched on barstool, balancing on his bony ass, smoking cigarettes as if there were some kind of contest for it and drinking whiskey just as competitively. And he’s bitching about his recording label, Curb Records. He’s griping about what a hard time he had getting Curb to put even a measly three of his own songs on his debut album (which is a very impressive and totally rocking country production called Risin’ Outlaw—and the three original cuts are the very best part of it, thank you very much). Hank-3 seemes to have never heard that tenet about not telling journalists every single little thing you think, do or want, which is why he’s saying, “These people at Curb are all fucking assholes. The next album I’m doing, it’s all gonna be filled with all my own songs, or fuck them and I’ll see you in court. Because this is fucking bullshit. They tried to make my album commercial and radio-friendly, and that is not what I am all about, man. And now the radio doesn’t even play my shit anyhow. So what was the fucking point?”
I say, “Just speak your mind, Hank-3. Don’t let me stop you.”
Hank-3 is very fidgety with his ponytail tonight. He’s very flinchy, very dodgy. It’s six o’clock in the evening and he just woke up. This is a perfectly typical timetable for his vampiric existence. His stomach kills from the flu, an ailment he gets, according to his calculations, “once every five fucking weeks.” His complexion? Consumptive. His demeanor? Exhausted. And here’s why: Hank-3 has been on the road nonstop for five years now, swilling booze, smoking drugs, reconceiving American country music, sleeping on a bus with five other guys and singing his guts out in low-down bars where redneck spend their evenings kicking each other’s dumb redneck asses. And now he’s dog-tired. Dog-tired and 27 years of age.
The grandson of Hank Williams continues, “I got this new song I just wrote. It’s about how much I hate the modern Nashville establishment. It’s called ‘I Put the Dick in Dixie and the Cunt in Country,’ but my label hates that shit. They’ll never let me record it. So fuck them. Fuck them all. They can all go fucking fuck themselves.”
I say, “Don’t sugarcoat things for my benefit, Hank-3.”
“Yeaaahhhh,” he drawls. “I know I should shut my fucking mouth. My producers hate it when I talk in public like this. They keep trying to get me to shut up. They tried to send me to media school six fucking times.”
“Yeaaahhhh…that’s where all the big Nashville stars go these days, to learn how to turn questions around and act like they love that family-values shit and deflect subjects about drugs and whoring, but I can’t do that. I can’t play those games. I’ll tell you what, man. I am not a motherfucker who does fucking lunch.”
Up onstage the band starts playing a song called “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” This is one of Hank-3’s granddaddy’s sweetest and best tunes, but Hank-3 doesn’t even look up. This is a truly great song in the whole Hank Williams canon. But what we have here tonight, folks, is not perhaps the most inspired rendition of it. The beat is dragging behind the attractive blond singer like a bum leg. Still, she has a poignant enough tremor to her voice to convey the point of the song just fine, and here’s the point of the song: Life is endless pain. The bar gets real quiet. The singer’s eyes are closed. She sways. Her short denim dress and red cowboy boots are very sexy. At last Hank-3 manages a look up at that cute young thing onstage, singing his grandfather’s most mournful dirge.
“OK, OK,” he mutters under his breath. “You look great, honey, and you got a nice voice. Now go home and write your own goddamn songs.”
It cannot honestly be said that Hank-3 looked exactly like his grandfather from birth. But that’s only because newborns are not generally tall, gaunt, pallid individuals with hollowed-out cheekbones and haunted eyes. No, the healthy baby boy who was named Shelton Hank Williams was just a regular-looking infant, chubby and pink. His mama and his daddy loved baby Shelton very much. Baby Shelton’s mama was a pretty lady with green eyes and a face shaped like a valentine. She grew up on a farm in Jane, Missouri, where, every Saturday night of summer, the whole family used to sprawl out on the cool hardwood floor of the living room and listen to the Grand Ole Opry coming in live on the radio all the way from distant Nashville.
Baby Shelton’s daddy was a good-looking young man named Hank Williams Jr., who was trying to make a distinctive name for himself as a country-music star. Although making such distinction was perhaps not the easiest thing in this world to attempt if your name happened to contain the words Hank and Williams.
Because that’s who baby Shelton’s grandfather was—Hank Williams himself.
The Hillbilly Shakespeare. A tall, gaunt, pallid individual with hollowed-out cheekbones and haunted eyes, who wrote close to 150 songs before murdering himself with alcohol, drugs and sorrow at the age of 29. A dirt-poor, ignorant child born in 1923 to a dirt-poor, ignorant, drunk father (who swiftly abandoned him) on a grim chunk of tenant farmland in rural Alabama, Hank Williams was a most unlikely genius. A dreadful failure in school and too sickly for manual labor (Hank suffered lifelong crippling pain from undiagnosed spina bifida), the kid learned how to play guitar because it was the one thing that came easy for him. His teacher was an illiterate black singer named Tee-Tot, who worked the streets of Georgiana, Alabama, and who educated Hank in the mournful sound of deep-ass Delta blues. Hank took this sound and blended it—using the intuition of a natural-born alchemist—with the emotional gospel strains of Baptist hymns and the simple, fiddle-drive dance tunes of the dirt-poor, ignorant white folk he knew all too well, thereby inventing modern American country music. Hank Williams wrote every kind of country song there is, and he did it with grace, a purity and a deceptive simplicity that made his work just plain better than the work of any country artist who has ever followed. He wrote drinking songs, cowboy songs, Jesus songs and Devil songs. He wrote dozens upon dozens of meetin’, cheatin’ and retreatin’ songs. He wrote “Hey, Good Lookin’.” He wrote “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” He wrote “I Saw the Light.” He wrote songs in ten minutes that were immediately chiseled into our collective cultural consciousness and haven’t budged since.
He became the biggest musical star of his day, but he also fucked up every good break he ever got: married a woman who drove him insane. Verbally abused his most steadfast audiences. Drove away his dearest friends. Pissed off every executive who tried to manage his career. Got fired from the Grand Ole Opry for being an alcoholic lowlife, got beat to pieces in stupid fights, got tossed in stupid jails for stupid displays of public drunkenness. He had, as his Nashville publisher, Roy Acuff, put it, “a million-dollar voice and a 10-cent brain.” Hank Williams sped toward death like Jimmy Dean heading for that car wreck, an on New Year’s Eve, 1952, he finally got where he was always destined to go. Died in the back of a Cadillac, on his way to a show, bundled up in blankets like a plague victim. Skinny and wasted (did I mention he was only 29 years old?), his spirit broken by mean women and melancholy, his body destroyed by booze, painkillers and excess, his lonesome heart just quit.
Exact cause of death? Well, you might say: inevitability.
So Hank Williams died, and he left behind him a dazzling musical legacy but also an ambitious young widow and a fatherless toddler son, who name was Hank Williams Jr. And this poor kid got shoved out on the road at the earliest age by his mother, who put him out there onstage to make money for the family, obediently singing his dead father’s songs. Hank Williams Jr. grew up starved for light under the long shadow of his father, a man he has referred to as being “something between God and John Wayne.” He worked the lone road hard, putting on concerts and singing photographs for fans who would say to him, night after night, “You’re pretty good, kid. But you’re not as good as your daddy.” Then, when he was still just a teenager, he met that pretty farm girl with the face shaped like a valentine. He married her, and they had their own boy, Shelton Hank Williams. Things were nice for a while, but then it all went to hell. There was a quick divorce. There there was a terrible accident, when Hank Williams Jr. Fell off a mountaintop and had his face torn off and had to spend three years in and out of the hospital, getting his head completely rebuilt. Then came his own epic period of drinking, drugs, whoring, pissing off the Nashville establishment and fucking up. Out of which came his incredibly lucrative career as Bocephus, a Dixie-fried, hell-raising southern-rock redneck icon. The critics tended to hate him, but he was a big commercial start. And not much of a father to his little boy.
So that bring us right up to Shelton Hank Williams. The most recent Hank. Hank-3. Fatherless child, as per the timeworn Williams family custom.
Shelton grew up in Nashville with the dimmest sense that there was something special about his name. Knew he had a dead, famous grandfather. Saw his daddy on TV all the time, but rarely in person. Shelton himself had been completely cut off from the fortune of both Hank Williamses. The mama with the valentine-shaped face raised her son as best she could, all by herself and on a retail store clerk’s salary. She was a good Christian woman who loved her boy. But here’s what young Shelton loved: music. And he wasn’t into that corny old-timey Nashville shit, either, but the hardest, scariest music he could find. Even when he was 4 years old, he was already whaling on his drums to Kiss albums. When he got older, the music he loved got even harder—Henry Rollins, Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, the Misfits. (“If Marilyn Manson was around when I was a kid,” Hank-3 says, “I would have listened to that and my mom would’ve shit even more bricks.”) He got kicked out of a decent private school because his grades sucked, and once he hit the public-school system, he just quit on the whole education thing and started hanging out with the really bad kids. Grew his hair down to his ass but shaved his head on the sides. Got tattoos he liked to think his mama didn’t know about. Joined up with some local punk bands with names like Bedwetter, Buzkill, Rift. His mama sent him to Christian camps, where they tried to exorcise the Devil from him. They tried to scared him by telling him how listening to this satanic music would doom his soul to burn in hell for eternity. Shelton believed every last word of it, but that only made him more attracted to the angry music because he wanted to be scared.
All the while, though, there was this physical change coming over his whole being. His mama started to notice it when Shelton Hank Williams was about 12 years old. He got real tall on her all of a sudden. Starvation-skinny. And there was something about the big Adam’s apple growing out of his long throat, something about the endless thin line of a mouth, the arresting cheekbones, the tragic and cavernous eyes. He was starting to look just like his grandfather, and—believe you me—this is no kind of look for any little kid to have. Shelton seemed to be morphing back in time, reaching back in some lost genetic history book for his identity. And odd, too, that despite all his fascination for satanic music, he was always nagging his mother to tell him stories about Hank Williams Sr. And his mama tried to oblige, but there was only so much she herself knew. The man was a legend, she told Shelton, and so you’ll always hear legendary stories about his legendary talent, his legendary drinking, his legendary downfall. If you want to truly understand the man though, Shelton’s mama said, make sure you seek out the people who actually knew him personally. Ask them what he was like.
And so, when Shelton hank Williams was 15 years old—an angry, sensitive, scrawny, fatherless boy with a bony body and eardrums numbed by the unremitting screams of thrash punk music—he decided he wanted to meet Minnie Pearl. He’d hear that Minnie Pearl was one of his grandfather’s best friends in the Nashville music scene of the 1950s, and he wanted to know who exactly his grandfather was as a person. So he called up Minnie Pearl, and she said, sure, she’d meet him at her Methodist church in Nashville. His mama drove him over there on the appointed day. Shelton stepped out of the car. He was an absolute calamity of a teenager, dressed in some aggressive heavy-metal concert T-shirt, with long and dirty hair and a dope smoker’s bloodshot eyes. Minnie Pearl walked over to greet him. She was an old, sweet-faced lady, wearing a prim gingham dress and one of her famous Hee Haw hats with the dangling price tag. She took one close look at this kid and went stark pale. And it wasn’t because of the way he was dressed either.
“Lord, honey,” Minnie Pearl said to Shelton Hank Williams. “You’re a ghost.”
The manner by which Hank-3 became a country-music artist is such a perfectly classic country-music story (full of dirtbaggery, poverty, woe, booze, out-of-wedlock births and sheriffs) that it almost feels like a jukebox wrote it. Dig this. Shelton Hank Williams hit his early twenties. And nobody was ever less connected to country music that he was. The guy was playing in punk bands, living with friends, making about $30 a night off his music, doing all kinds of drugs and screwing all kinds of girls. (Well, one kind.)
He’d been in trouble with The Law, but only for “stupid shit” that he doesn’t want to discuss because “they cleared my record, and nobody would ever understand anyhow.” But life was sweet. Playing on the bill with bands like Corrosion of Conformity, Bad Religion and Fugazi while doing drugs and chicks—that was about the breadth of the ambition of the grandson of Hank Williams. (“I never did figure on being a college man,” he makes clear.) So one night he was playing a punk show, and “here come these two pigs, with a bunch of punk kids following behind to see what the fuck is up. The cops ask me if I’m Shelton Williams, and I say, yeah, I’m Shelton Williams. And then they serve me with the fucking papers.”
Seems Shelton had enjoyed a one-night stand with some girl about three years ago, and she’d waited until now to let him know there had been a child born as a result. Cute little boy. Kid was 3 years old now, and the young mother wanted some child support paid. Not just in the future, but back into the past. To the tune of $24,000. Now, where the hell is a punk lowlife like Shelton Hank Williams supposed to come up with $24,000?
Clearly it was time to cash in on the name. There was nothing to it but pure mercenary need at first. He strode into a showbiz manager’s office in Nashville and introduced himself. He basically said, “My name is Hank Williams the third, and I need to raise some money.” He probably didn’t even have to say all that; his arresting physical resemblance to Hank Williams Sr. was his real calling card. No problem. The manager promptly sent Hank-3 off to Branson, Missouri—the kitsch-country capital of the world—and got him an act. Put him in a white hat and a white suit (that nicely covered up the tattoos) as if he were the Ghost of Hank Williams. The act sold out every day, rudimentary as it might have been.
Shelton was barely a guitar player at that time, and he knew virtually nothing about the country genre, so he had to learn the old Hank Williams songs as he went. Any educated Nashville audience would have hurled him off the stage in disgust, but the retirees and Korean War veterans and grandmotherly tourists of Branson (“Hell,” Hank-3 wasn’t some reluctant 8-year-old kid out there on stage. Here instead was a young man with a heartily intact self-identity, who already had formed a sophisticated (although completely “other”) musical aesthetic. Shelton Hank Williams, a genuine student of rock and punk, was clearly a person capable of being moved by music. As such, what else could he do but fall in love with his grandfather’s work? It was inevitable. Because it’s not as if they were making him sing Don Ho tunes up there; these were the songs of Hank Williams, which are (and I can’t imagine anybody in the world contradicting me on this) the best songs ever written. Therefore, what happened to Hank-3 in Branson was not a humiliation; it was an education.
His managers paired him up with a young guy named Jason who played stand-up bass and who, like Shelton, was raised on hard rock like it was mother’s milk. The two of them strapped on their hillbilly spelunking gear and climbed deep, deep down into a full-out study of the dark and rich caves of old-time country music.
“What you have to understand,” Jason says today, “is that, even to punks, Hank Williams Sr. is revered in a manner that is beyond reproach. He’s seen as a broken hero. He was an individualist who fought the commercial Nashville system. He was a genius who transcended genre, on the level of a Miles Davis or a Robert Johnson. We were both so green back then, but doing that show in Branson was how we learned to play country music. Shelton’s tribute to Hank Senior became a real tour de force. It all came so natural to him. He could automatically do what Hank Senior could do. I think maybe it’s because he’s so similarly constructed genetically. He could just sound like him, yodel like him, play guitar like him with such ease. Or maybe he has some of Hank’s soul in him, I don’t know. But he got it down fast.”
Look, it would have been enough just to have been a great impersonator. What a gimmick! There’s a woman wandering the world right now named Jett Williams, who, after years of ugly lawsuits, has finally been able to prove that she is the illegitimate daughter of Hank Williams Sr. These days Jett Williams travels all over the country, singing the songs of the daddy she never met, backed by a band that has featured members of the Drifting Cowboys, Hank’s original band. And it’s a good living, even if its not the most original or dynamic act in the world. (Here’s Hank-3’s critique of Jett Williams, as delivered with his usual gentle decorum: “She’s fucking bullshit. She’s not even a real musician. I’m sorry, but if you’re 50 years old and you can’t sing a fucking note and you got something to say about your life or your family, then go write a fucking book, but get off the fucking stage.”) OK, point taken. But the truth is that Hank-3 could have done this act just as easily, or even more easily, than Jett Williams. If all he was really after was the fast money, then he could have decided to be the Ghost of Hank Williams forever, wearing the white suit and singing the old songs and cashing checks at the First National Bank of Branson until the end of time.
Shelton Hank Williams took on the mantle of country music as if it were the natural inheritance fate had always had in mind for him. He started writing his own country songs. He wrote drinking songs, train songs, jail songs, mama songs, honky-tonk songs, Jesus songs and Devil songs. He wrote meetin’, cheatin’ and retreatin’ songs. It came so easy to him, this songwriting. And what little about it didn’t come easy, he studied with a deliberation and a focus that damn near made a college man out of him after all.
He took one quick look around Nashville and recognized there was nothing being recorded in Music Square these days worth listening to for more than three minutes. What the hell are you supposed to make of modern country music, anyhow, when the biggest star of the day is that abs-of-steel spokesmodel Shania Twain? The whole commercial pop-crossover sanitized machine of Nashville made Hank-3 instinctively barf. So he officially named his grandfather as the center of his musical universe and then set out to explore the grizzled stellar bodies that orbit Hank Williams Sr.: Johnny Cash, Merle haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, George Jones, Wayne Hancock. He immersed himself in all of it. And then this child of punk rock took his studies on the road, perfecting his country style as he embarked on a punishing and apparently everlasting tour schedule, playing every venue there is—small towns, punk clubs, honky-tonk bars, redneck joints, county fairs and even the Grand Ole Opry. He played every weekend and four nights a week for five years, building up his fan base and honing his own musical style.
Furthermore, as part of his training to be a classic country-music star, he started living the classic country-music-star lifestyle, big-time. First thing he did was deliberately step up the drinking. “I never drank at all hardly before I started playing country music,” he explains. “I just smoked a ton of pot and did drugs with my punk friends. But when I started playing country, I just had to become fucking drunk. Just so I could understand the music, you know? Just so I could understand all the other old fucking drunks.”
He also left his girlfriend of seven years, not because he didn’t love her but because he wanted to experience “that kind of pain, so I could have something vto write about.” He was miserable without her, precisely as planned, and got a whole heap of songs out of it. He pushed his body to the edge of collapse with hooch, drugs, insane hours, shit food and every other manner of abuse. It got so bad that when his girlfriend staged an intervention, Hank-3’s father and his father’s good buddy Waylon Jennings (speaking of old fucking drunks) showed up, deeply concerned. And that’s saying something, folks, because Hank Williams Jr. had not exactly been playing the role of doting parents thus far in the kid’s life. Still, even the old man got worried and stuck Hank-3 into rehab in California. Hank-3 enjoyed rehab immensely, in that he met “some really cool motherfuckers in there,” but he got fed up with the program and walked out on day. Walked out and informed the adorably concerned Bocephus and Waylon Jennings that he had no intention of returning to rehab for years yet, if ever.
“You guys just gotta give me time to max out,” he told them. “I’m just doing the same thing you fuckers did.”
Wretched, lonely, broke, drunk, physically depleted—it was all coming together for Hank-3. And then, just to make things even more country-music perfect, he actually had to sell of his pickup truck in order to pay his bills. And then his dog up and died on him one day. Right there in front of his very own eyes. The kindly gods of Nashville were obviously smiling down on him.
Hank Williams III country-music star, had arrived.
And, my God, were people ever ready for him. With the release of that rocking debut album, Hank-3 became a critics’ beloved darling overnight. They loved his authentic hillbilly sensibility and his hard-core, boss lyrics. (I been roughed-up, beat up, I’ve been cut, I got a tattoo at a tender age….) The critics, full of nostalgia for his grandfather (and full of irritation over decades of his father’s lowest-common-denominator are-you-ready-for-some-football musical shenanigans), tripped over their own tongues trying to articulate their praise. They said that Hank-3 had “the songwriting skills and raw appeal of his forebears,” that he was “goose-bumpy good,” that his songs suggested Hank Sr.’s “emotional ache and longing, and they do it over a most refined sense of melody,” that “talent skips a generation.”
It all may sound hyperbolic, but truly, the album swings. And as for the live act? There’s nothing like it. Because Hank-3 has never left his punk roots behind him. Sometimes if the mood is right, he plays on set of his extraordinarily good country music and then he graciously warns all the older folks in the crowd that they might want to get the hell out before it gets too loud and then he kicks into a hard, angry thrash-metal punk set. The line dancing stops abruptly, and the mosh pit forms, and the night turns very surreal indeed. Hank-3 and his band are equally comfortable in both styles of music. And the crazy thing is, they don’t even change their instruments when they change their form. The very same stand-up bass, fiddle, guitar and drum that created a smooth, authentic Texas honky-tonk sound one minute transform into a tightly rendered, pounding buzz saw of screaming rage the next. Hard to even know what to call this transformation. I’ve heard it described as punkabilly, psychobilly, hillbilly, cow punk…. It kind of defies description.
It’s something that only Shelton Hank Williams can do. And it’s kind of unbelievably great.
The way he lives? Oh boy.
Hank-3 uses as his address this ramshackle old house outside Nashville that he shares with a bunch of other people. Hard to tell who really lives in this house and who’s merely dropping by this house for the evening to sell pot or eat pizza or have sex with someone who actually does live in the house. Hank-3 himself is hardly ever home, since he basically lives on his tour bus. But he does have a bedroom here, which looks like the bedroom of a disgruntled teenager—all posters and porn and filthy laundry. He’s “home” right now, for what that’s worth. He’s had three days off from his tour, although he hasn’t enjoyed it much, since he’s been puking in agony from the flu the whole time. Hank-3’s tour bus is parking in the front yard of the house at the moment, resting in the uncut grass amid the crickets and fireflies, waiting for him. The band members are gradually gathering at Hank-3’s house, slowly rejoining after their time off. They’re all showered and rested, for now and for once. The plan is to leave around midnight for the fourteen-house drive to Texas and the next leg of this endless Hank Williams III tour.
As for Hank-3 himself, he’s in his shanky bedroom, hidden behind a closed door, deep in a business meeting with his entertainment lawyer. Hank-3’s entertainment lawyer is an intelligent young woman named Elizabeth Gregory, who might appear to have the toughest client in all of Nashville. (Consider this typically discreet Hank-3 nugget of wisdom: “I have the respect of all the players and old hands, but not the lawyers and businessmen, and that’s fine. I give them the finger, and that’s exactly what they need—more people giving them the finger.”) So, yes, he’s a bit of a pain in the hole, what with his knee-jerk, punk-rock, white-trash distrust of anything corporate and his reactionary refusal to acknowledge that anybody who holds a real job could ever possibly hold a real opinion. And that does tire out Elizabeth Gregory and make her lawyering pretty hard. But she deals with Hank-3 nonetheless, for two reasons. First of all, she adores him. She adores him for the same reason everyone who works with Hank-3 ultimately adores him: because he’s such a funny strange, renegade but oddly tenderhearted character. He’s such a vulnerable doofus, under his fuck-this, fuck-that exterior. Very sweet and polite, in his way—”always jumping up to get the door for you or give you his seat,” says his best friend, Jason. With that physical frailty about him (his body has no more meat on it than a broken umbrella) and with that face (the baby-soft skin looks as if it’s never been shaved, but the eyes are famished), he begs to be cared for.
Hank-3’s grandfather inspired this same kind of affection in people, using that same trick of appealing helplessness hidden under outrageously bad behavior. Everyone who worked with Hank Williams Sr. adored him, too, even when he was in full-out fuckup form. (“I am trying to be your friend ’cause I know you need a friend,” wrote Fred Rose, Hank’s famously steadfast manager, in a heartbreaking 1948 letter to the nose-diving hillbilly genius. “The guys that are drinking with you are not your friends, they just like the whiskey you buy and when you run out of money enough to buy them whiskey they will leave you all by yourself and tell everyone you are a drunk…. Don’t get the idea I’m trying to bawl you out because I’m just trying to see you become what I know you can become.”)
And that brings us to the second reason Hank-3’s entertainment lawyer, the very intelligent Elizabeth Gregory, ultimately sticks around: because she’s just trying to see him become what she knows he can become. Because she happens to believe he’s a genius.
“I think we’re all kind of afraid to say what we think he could become,” Elizabeth tells me later that evening, when Hank-3 has holed up in his room all alone to smoke pot and pack up his clothes for the ride to Texas. “He’s making music here that simply does not sound like anything else anyone has ever done. It’s not only that he plays punk and country separately; he’s starting to combine them more and more into something totally new. That’s what his next album will be all about. Think about it—a hard-rock sound with that twangy country voice of his? It’s incredible. My secret belief is that he’s capable of becoming another American icon, someone whose magnetism is so powerful and whose individual musical style is so immune to the fads of time that he could endure forever. I think he could become a legend.”
Legend, of course, is not a word to be tossed around like some cheap Frisbee. Although it is tempting to imagine legendary status for Hank-3, because he damn sure has the pedigree for it. And then there’s what Merle Kilgore said. Merle Kilgore is a famous songwriter and Nashville legend in his own right. He traveled with Hank Williams Sr. back in the 1950s, and he’s handled the career of Hank Williams Jr. for decades now.
“What do I think of Hank Williams III?” says Merle. “I think he’s very talented, and I think he’ll make it big. If he doesn’t die.”
Yeah, well. He’s got the pedigree for that too.
Living on a tour bus is like living in a submarine. Smells like it, feels like it. A compact, airtight metal confine, rocking gently in the deep currents of travel. Each guy in the band has his own coffin-size berth on the bus with a curtain for privacy and a wee reading light to make it feel all homey. The front of the bus is a common living space, where the guys sit and drink beer and tell stories. The back of the bus is a dark little caboose of a room, and that’s where Shelton Hank Williams lives. He spends his life back there, working on new songs and listening to tapes of past shows to puzzle out improvements. He’s got a good stereo system in this little room, along with guitars and a TV and a VCR and bottles of whiskey and tons of pot. It’s not that I want to harp on the pot, but it is absolutely amazing how much pot this guy smokes. He smokes joints the way chain-smokers smoke cigarettes—one after another after another—and he chain-smokes cigarettes too. I honestly don’t know where he finds all the time for it all.
The bus leaves Nashville for Terrell, Texas, around one o’clock in the morning, which is only the beginning of a new day for Hank-3. Once we’re on the road, I hang out back there in his room with him for a good long while. We drink some whiskey together. And I don’t generally indulge, but we smoke a whole lot of pot together, too. (What the hell, I figure. When in Nashville…) Also, I’m hoping if I get plenty doped up, it’ll help me shake off the chilly edginess I still have around this guy. After two days of being around Hank-3. I’m still unable to get over the feeling that I’m in the room with a phantasm. That hungry face, that skeletal form, that twangy Depression-era country voice with so much drawl in it that it sounds like he’s pulling taffy with every word, that pallor, that weariness, that undertone of melancholy—it’s all so Hank Williams.
It’s a personal curse of Shelton Hank Williams that he tends to freak people out like this. He was booked once to play on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and during the sound check he lit into an old Hank Senior song to warm up. One of the guys from Conan’s road-weary crew just lost his shit when he heard that voice and saw that face. This big, strong man came up to Hank-3’s manager, all shaken and pale, rolling up his sleeves to show off his goose bumps.
“Hey, man,” he said, and he was almost angry about it. “That just ain’t right.”
In the back of his bus, Hank-3 is fidgety as ever. He’s still complaining of stomach cramps, and his sinuses are bothering him from the change in climate, and he keeps trying to arrange his body comfortably around his brittle, yard-long femurs. He puts in a CD of one of his heroes—a mournfully hillbilly freak named Hasil Adkins who plays the rawest, most haunted music I’ve ever heard outside the Mississippi Delta. While Hasil Adkins moans, wrestles with the Devil and howls at Jesus, Hank-3 explains how he loves the guy “for outdrinking, outfucking, outfighting anyone and for being a total white-trash alcoholic motherfucker who dedicates his music to every state prison he’s ever been in.”
Here’s what’s on Hank-3’s mind tonight—music, God, death and his ancestors. Hank-3 tries to explain how much he needs both kinds of music he plays; the punk to exorcise his rage, the country to bring him some kind of sad peace. He tells me about how he doesn’t own anything of his grandfather’s except one necktie, which he made the curators of a museum at the Grand Ole Opry give him after a show: “I was like, ‘Come on! You all got a whole shitload of hank’s stuff here, and the guys is my fucking grandfather, and I got nothing!'” And then, God. Hank-3 definitely has some things to say about God tonight. First of all, about how completely he believes in all of it—in Jesus, in the dark forces of evil, in the reality of possession, in heaven and hell. “I know I’m a sinner,” he says. “Look at me. I drink. I do drugs. I don’t know my own son. I cuss all the fucking time. I live wild and free and reckless, but that’s the price you have to pay for rock. I just hope I’ll live to 60, and then I’ll turn to the Lord and say, ‘I’m ready for you now. I got all the time in the world to start making it up to you now.'”
(For an example of how just such a plan can work successfully and on this exact time frame, see: Johnny cash. For an example of how it can backfire horribly, see: Hank Williams Sr.)
Hank-3 talks about the elderly people who come to his shows sometimes just to touch him or to deliver him messages from his grandfather that they claim have come to them in dreams. A lot of times, he says, they bring warnings from Hank Sr. to take it easy on the drinking and the drugs. But Hank-3 talks about his own drinking and his drug use with a resigned lack of concern. “If you’re on the road, that’s the price you have to pay,” he says. “Just subtract fifteen years from your life and fucking deal with it.” And anyhow, he says, he’s got it under control. He loves his life and doesn’t want to die, and he’s careful not to mix different drugs together, and he’s never missed a show because he was too fucked-up to play. Of course, it hurts him to know that his mom isn’t “too happy right now” with him, what with the substance abuse and all the raw shit he says in public, but that’s the reality of being a rock star’s mom. Certainly, he muses, “Marilyn Manson’s mom must go through the same thing.” I tell Hank-3 this is the first time I have ever considered the concept “Marilyn Manson’s mom,” and he sighs and says, “Yeaaahhhh…well, everybody’s got one.”
But it’s not true that his mom isn’t too happy with him. Gwen Williams is proud of Shelton. Loves him immensely. Still see him as a sweet and fun boy. She’s just worried. She believes “there’s a gift that runs through this family, but abuse is always there, too. It’s almost like a destiny with these men.”
What really makes her angry, though, is the way the world seems to want to push her fragile young son into that devastating lifestyle. There’s such an alluring symmetry to the idea of Hank-3’s being as self-destructive as Hank-1 and Hank-2 that people actually try to encourage it. At every Hank Williams III show, there’s no end of people lining up to buy him shots of whiskey as he performs. They all want to participate in this dynastic downfall. When he slams back the shots, the crowd cheers and Hank-3 always says grimly, “Thank you, everyone. Thank you for applauding my addiction.”
As the bus rolls on, Hank-3 sets to talking about his dad. I mention that Hank Jr. wouldn’t be interviewed for this story, and Hank-3 says, yeah, well, what can you expect? Typical. He admits he got a shitty deal from Hank Jr. as a kid. Yeah, he was the dumped son. Yeah, he barely knows the guy at all. He remembers visiting with his dad once when Bocephus was on tour, back when Shelton wasn’t more than 11 years old. The wildness and thrill and terror of it. All those drugs and women everywhere. Roadies used to give Shelton “finger sips” of their drinks—letting him dip his little fingers in their bourbon and lick it off. They’d leave him in a room with a half-dressed woman and tell her to “let the kid have some fun.” He remembers another time, when arrangements were made for him to meet his father at some airport for a brief once-a-year rendezvous and “I made my mom stop to buy me a cowboy hat so he would be proud of me, and just that one stop made us ten minutes late. So he was already gone by the time I showed up. And then I was left to cry all day about it.” He remembers asking his dad for a new material possession only once—a new drum set. Hank Jr. said, “Geez, son, I don’t know. That sounds pretty expensive.” And this, Shelton says, “from a guy who was making $80,000 a night in concessions alone!”
All of which makes it even stranger that the position Shelton Hank Williams always takes with his father in the end is that of defensive linebacker.
Conceding his own sadness at not having a dad to speak of, he then steps up to defend Hank Jr.’s character. (“Think of how hard it was for him to grow up under that shadow!”) He defends Hank Jr.’s music. (“He can play every instrument on that stage, and he’s a great performer.”) He even defends Hank Jr.’s decision to cut baby Shelton out of his existence. (“How could he know how to treat me? He never had a father. And with me being the kid of the divorce, he’s always bound to have some resentment about me.”)
Such a weird, sympathetic stance. But if you take a closer look at Hank Jr., you’ll see that he is the person here most in need of a sympathetic perspective. Consider the difficulty of his situation. He spends his life struggling to create a self-identity in country music despite having a father whose discography is the very King James Bible of country music. He finally gets out from under his daddy’s firm thumb by becoming his own musician. OK, so he’s no Hillbilly Shakespeare, but he is the crown prince of beer-swilling redneck anthems and he is his own man at last. But no sooner does Hank Jr. get himself all commercially successful and separated from the original icon than this abandoned son of his shows up on the music scene, looking and sounding just like the old man, and creates a phenomenally good debut album. And every serious music critic in the country suddenly starts saying, “Look like talent skips a generation.” What an unexpected blow. What a cruel double-whammy ego slam. You’re pretty good boy. But you’re not as good as your daddy.
Oh, and by the way—you’re not as good as your son, either.
And what a psychic earthquake this must create for Hank-3, too! To be killing off his father even as he resurrects his grandfather? It’s all too much. It’s not wonder the boy drinks.
OK, now I really am stoned.
The little back room of this bus is blue with smoke, and so is my brain. So now I’m finally in a place where I can dare to ask Shelton Hank Williams the awkward but essential question I’ve been mulling over since I first heard him singing dolefully and beautifully.
“Listen,” I say. “Forgive me for asking, an I’m not sure how to bring this up. But are you the ghost of Hank Williams? Do you ever wonder that? Do you ever wonder if you might be…um…him?”
He doesn’t answer at first. The road rolls by below us. Hasil Adkins wrestles with the Devil in the background of our silence.
I say, “Just speak your mind, Hank-3. Don’t let me stop you.” He cranks his skinny neck around and looks up at the ceiling. He says, “I don’t know. I could be. Maybe. I definitely feel him with me sometimes, when I’m writing country songs and everything is going good. I can feel him there, at least.”
“And what does that feel like?”
The grandson of Hank Williams smiles his tired, ancient smile and says…
A flat brown map spot outside Dallas. There’s a bar here called Rustlers, where Hank Williams III is booked to play tonight. It’s one of those huge-ass Texas productions of a bar, with a dance floor as big as any pasture. There’s weather brewing. Tornado clouds. Hank-3’s fiddler says, “I got a bad feeling about this. Texas dance hall? Low-pressure system building? I bet we see at least four brawls tonight.”
By 7 P.M. Shelton Hank Williams has not woken up yet. Fanbelt, the bus driver, says, “He won’t get up until ten minutes before the show. Never does. The boy doesn’t hardly ever see daylight.”
By 8 P.M. there is noise coming from Hank-3’s little room at the back of the bus. Hard, loud punk music is playing. I hear a string of muffled yodels. He’s warming up back there.
At 8:30 the owner of the dance hall walks bowleggedly out across the parking lot to the bus. He knocks on the door and asks if he can meet Hank Williams III in person. Hank-3 emerges from his back room at last, looking like he’s limping out of a hospital after a long stay. The owner of the dance hall welcomes him to Terrell, Texas. Hank-3 graciously thanks him for the welcome. The owner asks if hank-3 wouldn’t mind signing this old record album he’s got of Hank Williams songs, and Hank-3 graciously obliges. And then the owner of the dance hall busts forth a huge grin and pulls out a nice, big bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
“And this here’s a little present for you,” he says. “Hell, you can’t very well sing like your granddaddy without getting all liquored up, now, can you?”
“No, I guess not, says Hank-3, and he graciously thanks the dance-hall owner for the kind and thoughtful gift.
The bar is full of rawboned country people. The men have faces like saddle leather, and the women are wearing their once-a-week makeup. There are a lot of elderly people here tonight. One old man tells me he’s come out on a rare public appearance because “country music is all about a story to tell, about the good and bad of life. The real times. Telling those stories is what made Hank Williams Sr. so good. I hear this boy does the same kind of thing as his granddaddy, and I hope to find it’s true.”
I ask the old guy if he’s heard that Hank-3 also sings hard punk music, and and he shakes his head and says, “Well, shit-damn!”
Hank-3 comes onstage without any showy moves. He’s wearing a cool old cowboy shirt and a beat-to-shit cowboy hat. His boots are held together with duct tape. His hair hangs down his back in a thin braid, like a whip. He just steps into the light and starts singing. The band is tight as a screw, and it doesn’t take but half a song for that old man beside me to realize that what he had hoped to find true is true. Ghost-white Shelton Hank Williams is singing in that voice as sharp and chilling as a train whistle. He sings an interesting mix. He sings more of his granddaddy’s songs tonight than I might have expected—giving us wonderful versions of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Lovesick Blues.” He even throws in one of his dad’s shit-kicking tunes, “Women I’ve Never Had,” to satisfy that kind of fan. He plays a few old Johnny Cash classics, just because they rule. It’s his own songs, though, that really kill tonight. They are so good. So original and familiar at the same time. As the first strains begin, you can see people hesitating on the dance floor. You can almost hear them thinking, What Hank Williams song is that? How is it I’ve never heard that Hank Williams song before? They cock their heads and listen close, and then it dawns on them; They have never heard this Hank Williams song before because it’s new.
I’m gonna do some drinkin’, Hank-3 wails. I’m gonna drink all the whiskey I can find….
The grateful, rawboned country people partner up and spin around and take a break from their two-stepping only to stare at the young man on the small stage. They look up at him frequently, as thought to check their eyesight. As though to reassure themselves that what they see is real. They all seem a little spooked. But if they should step outside or to privately kiss on another, they will see something even more spooky—the pale and boiling storm clouds, which have moved so low to earth tonight you’d swear to God they were trying to touch the very roof of this sprawling Texas dance hall.
Elizabeth Gilbert is a GQ writer-at-large and the author of the celebrated lobster-fishing novel Stern Men (Houghton Mifflin).