Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Shelton Hank Williams III, the grandson and son of country legends Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr., about how he celebrated being free of major label contracts, protecting his fanbase and living up, or not, to the family name.
CP: I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but even though it took you a while to get into playing music professionally, did you always feel like music was something you were going to make a career out of?
HW3: No, I mean I always thought I'd just be a drummer in a band. That was really what I was doing locally, doing the tri-state area thing. I was a bass player in a band and a front man of a band. Life unfortunately got a little more serious.
I wanted to rock out first as much as I could and grow old with my country fans. Most rock careers are about five years, and that's it, except for a few who are able to go the long haul with it. I had everything reversed on me, and I had to get a little more serious and not be a deadbeat dad. I had a one-night stand who waited three years to serve me papers on stage when I was setting up my gear.
I had a judge tell me, "Playing music ain't a real job, boy." I went out there and showed him that, "Yeah, playing music is a real job." I had to get into country to be able to get back into rock'n'roll, basically. All my independent heroes had that work ethic.
CP: It seems like, despite being thrown into it against your will, you've found a way to make the music your own. Has that been easier since you left Curb Records last year? Do you feel like you're now doing what you always wanted to?
HW3: I've always been doing what I wanted to do, as far as the live shows. Working on a major label, I always knew my sound and my songs. I write my songs and play my songs, and I didn't need a producer to tell me what sounds good and what sounds bad and all that. That was my biggest problem with Curb. They didn't understand me as an artist.
I was always playing music as far back as I could remember in a lot of different bands touring in vans and doing a lot of different things. Now, I'm able to have creative freedom. If I want to go record a record with Wayne "The Train" Hancock, we can go do it, and I don't have to go through five or six lawyers.
I don't have to have all these great opportunities shut down. I had so much great work taken away from me by being with Curb. They were holding me back, creatively. My job is to be a musician and jam with people and do what I do. They weren't letting me do that. That was a pretty big let down, to be held back that long.
CP: Did you just leave over creative differences, or did you have to wait out the end of your contract?
HW3: They held me as long as they could hold me. It doesn't matter if it's me or someone who's actually making them a lot of money. Tim McGraw is having the same problems I was having.
I finally, on Jan. 1 2011, was officially free of them. On Jan. 2, I started sitting down and writing music and creating all these songs. From January to June, I wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered all four of those records.
I'm finally able to sell my own CD at my own show. For 18 or 19 years, I refused to sell their product. There's a lot of reasons why I put out so much at one time. It's a new beginning, basically.
CP: How do you celebrate the end of 20 years of chafing under a major label's thumb? What was the first thing you did?
HW3: Writing music. I didn't go out and throw a party or anything. I literally started getting everything together. I sat down, picked up my acoustic guitar and hit the record button. Whatever was coming off the top of my head, I'd put it down and record it, and then I'd go back with my pen and try and create the story to it. I started piecing together all these records. That was my way of celebrating - just creativeness.
CP: Those albums are all so different. It sounds like there were four different people inside you waiting to come out. Did all those approaches come out simultaneously or did you work through each album progressively before shifting gears for the next one?
HW3: All my career has basically been a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing with the different styles of music. The daytime was when I was more serious. I'd worry about pitch and tune and being in tune with some of the other players I had on it.
At nighttime, I would be more free and open and jamming to jam and not being so uptight about it. That's when I did the Cajun stuff and the ADD ["Attention Deficit Domination"] and the "Three-Bar Ranch" tracks.
From 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., I'd be serious and from 6 until I couldn't work no more, I'd let it be a little more fun.
CP: Was that hard, to switch off like that? Did you enjoy it?
HW3: When you're working with yourself, it's not that hard because you have all the options. You think, "What kind of mood am I in? Am I ready to play drums or guitar or am I in a singing mood?" When you have to work with other people, recording and all that stuff, you might be feeling good, but by the time they're set up and ready after being late getting there, that energy is gone. It depends on how I would feel at the end of the day.
I know a lot of the singing and the drum tracks were done more at night because I'd worry about getting the rhythm solid during the daytime. Since I'm there by myself, I don't have to worry about being on someone else's time or a "time is money" kind of thing. I'm free to be experimental and try different things, and show all the kids a good work ethic on the $200 machine these records were made on. I try to put that out there for all the do-it-yourself bands.
CP: Did you intentionally take a lo-fi approach to this album as a way of thumbing your nose at the studio production when you were with Curb Records?
HW3: I don't have that many albums. If you look back, "Straight to Hell" was recorded on the same machine. "Damn Right - Rebel Proud" was done at my house with ProTools. "Rebel Within" was done on ProTools.
What I like about the Core D1600 is that it's just a different machine. Ninety percent of records are made on ProTools, so if I make something that's not on ProTools, it's going to sound different. For a guy who doesn't know anything about sound - never went to school for it - and have had 20 years of damage to my ears, I don't understand music theory, but I know how to write songs and make records and mix records to put my stuff out there.
That's my way of looking at it. It might not sound the best, but it will sound different. That's what I hope sticks out.
CP: That ties well into a quote from your bio that "Everything's so clean and pretty and perfect [in country music], and you need a couple of people in there that aren't perfect and don't sound the best." That's an interesting philosophy. What's most important to you when you're recording or performing?
HW3: When I'm on stage, the most important thing is having a good singing voice and delivering the show people paid to see to make sure they're having a good time. That's what I'm there to do. When I'm recording, it's about being in time and having a good riff that sticks out or, if I'm making a country song, telling a story that people can relate to or can help them.
Music is kind of therapy in a way. Half my songs are therapeutic and the other half are a little destructive talking about drinking and drugging and having fun and partying. The reason I sing about a lot of those things is to help people forget about all their problems. When they come to see me, they're coming to have a good time. I'm not trying to say, "Do this. Do that." I'm not trying to preach for anybody or any of that stuff. Basically, I want folks to have a good time or have the music as therapy, one of the two, and hopefully get a spark out of what we do live.
CP: How do you make sure that happens? What do you look for in the crowd to make sure your music is resonating?
HW3: I always do what I do, in general. I've already played a million boot-scoot bars where they've kicked us out or thrown beer bottles at us. I've been in every situation you can imagine. At the end of the day, I'm going to do what I do. Either you get it or you don't. I'm putting out four sounds, and if none of them are your cup of tea, I'm sorry you feel that way, but I'm not forcing you to stand here.
The country crowd can be very limited, very hard on you. That's why I've finally got some more darker bars that let me do what I do. I can't play in too pretty of an environment or they're beating down my fans too much. I have to play in a bar to protect my fans because all the Williams have had a rowdy crowd. If I go and play a real nice venue that has sit-down tables and all this stuff, I have to watch a bunch of people getting thrown out and manhandled and beat down. I don't sit well with that.
It's great when you work with a security crew that knows how to work a rock show, but it's the worst thing in the world when you're working with a security crew that thinks they're the big cop of the night and everything's going to be their way or no way. That's a really fine line to try and balance out there, but we do our best to protect our fans as much as we can.
CP: It does seem like you would attract country fans based simply on their familiarity with the family name. How much do you attempt to make sure your music sets you apart from your dad and your grandfather?
HW3: All in all, 98 percent of the show is all my songs. Every once and a while, I'll do one to pay respect. People, most of the time, know they're coming to see me, not to see them. I do my best to show my respect in the country show for the first hour and a half of the show. I'm proud to have a fan base that's 18 to 80 years old.
Back when I was first starting out doing the Jekyll and Hyde stuff, yeah, it was really tough on a lot of people, but nowadays, as much as I've done it working with people like Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys and Henry Rollins, the foundation has been laid out that, "He's standing on his own two feet and doing his own thing. If you're going to see him, you need to expect to see Hank3. He's not doing an impersonation of his grandfather and he's definitely not doing a Hank Jr. show."
That's what has set it apart. If I was just a country singer, it would be nowhere near as special. If I was just a heavy metal guy, it wouldn't be near as cool. Bringing the worlds together is what has made me stand out.
CP: You turn 40 this year. Is that a big deal to you?
HW3: Not really, no. To me, it all goes back to crossroads. That's the hardest part in life, when you hit those. I've already been through a couple of those. The biggest deal for me is, "How long will I be able to put on a three and a half hour show and do what I do?" My body and my energy hanging in there and doing the undoable is the hardest thing for me.
Age is something I'm not that concerned about. I always told myself I would quit the road when I was 50 because I wanted to go out with my head held up a little higher because I've been around some of my heroes who can't hold a guitar pick and are breathing oxygen on stage and stuff like that.
But then again, I look at Willie [Nelson] and Adam Ant and Iggy Pop, and who knows? Who knows where I'll be by then? If I'm 40 or 60, I have to live a little bit like I'm 17 every day. That's part of being in my world. Being forever young with music is one of my approaches to it.
CP: Who were the musical outlaws you most looked up to growing up?
HW3: I always had Elvis Presley, KISS albums, Ted Nugent, ZZ Top, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels - all these different bands laying around the house. They were definitely influences.
As I got older, I was starting to play Queen more on the drums and then The Sex Pistols and then The Dead Kennedys and then The Misfits and then Slayer came out and SOD. It just got heavier and heavier and heavier for me.
There were all kinds of inspirations out there. I didn't really understand how deep it was to write a song or stuff like that until I was in my early 20s. I didn't understand how big a mark that Hank Williams left until I was 18 to 23. That's when it really set in how much he did in so little time and how the music is kind of timeless.
CP: That sounds like a really high bar to have to measure up to, especially if you want to do your own thing.
HW3: I don't compare myself because if I was constantly comparing myself, I'd be let down. When I write a song, I don't write a song to make $1 million. I write a song for myself. If you do it for yourself and for others like your fans, you're not setting yourself up to be let down to bad.
I'm just a bar band, another guy doing what he does. If I die tomorrow, I'd feel like I made a niche in music and got to play with some of my heroes and do some really awesome stuff in the music world. I'd feel satisfied, if anything, with what happened. I wouldn't feel cheated or anything like that.
CP: "Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown," "Cattle Callin" and "Attention Deficit Domination" all released on Sept. 6. Why not stagger their releases?
HW3: 'Cause that's what everybody else does. Name me one person who has ever released four records across four different genres.
CP: I can't, obviously.
HW3: There you go. That's my mark in musical history. Another reason why is that I haven't been able to sell my own CD at my own show in 18-19 years. I'm playing the longest I've ever played in my life and giving people a chance to see Hank3 through "Three-Bar Ranch" and "Attention Deficit Domination" and giving them a chance to go up to the merch booth and buy a CD of mine.
There are a lot of different reasons why - it's a new beginning and I started the record label - but mainly, it's being different. If you look at how many records Hank Jr. has out - like 110 albums - and how long I've been in the game and have only eight or nine to show. Yeah, I've been held back tremendously. It goes back to doing it different.
CP: So how do you follow up recording and simultaneously releasing four albums?
HW3: Who knows? Right now, I'm following it with touring the road for the next two years. When I'm done with that, I'll come back, who knows if I will just be me with my acoustic guitar or a "Three Bar Ranch" or wahtever. It probably won't be all at once; it'll probably be more separate because I probably won't have that much focus again.
Who knows? Right now, I can only worry about the road and making my distribution company happy who's working with me. Hopefully, I'll break even, be satisfied and then do it all over again.
CP: Tell me about this tour you're about to kick off with your show in Chattanooga. What are your expectations?
HW3: Who knows? If it's a Friday night or a Monday night, the energy is always different. I'm always bringing a little bit of everything to the table. Be on time because there's no opening band. I'm opening up for myself. That's the main thing people need to be aware. If they show up late, they might miss the country part, and if you're coming to see the country part, you'll be bummed out.
CP: Will this be your first tour of 2012?
HW3: This will be starting it back up. I always let everyone regroup in the colder months, and then we start kicking it up, usually around March. We'll be doing another Midwest tour after this, and then we're doing Europe. We'll come back and do the West Coast and hit Canada, and if we're lucky, we'll hit Australia and Japan. It should be really busy, but we've been doing this a long time, man. It's just another year for us out there.
CP: Do you get a lot of energy from the road? Do you feel invigorated being out there?
HW3: It's a lot of really highs and really lows. You have to be half an athlete doing it night after night. Since we're playing as long as we do, it's kind of overkill. There's a lot of great times and lot of bad times, man, but we keep on fighting through it and try to bring it as much as we can. That's why my voice will only last two and a half to four weeks. That's why I only tour a month at a time. I have to come home and put everything back together.