Blood is thicker than water ... unless you are part of the Williams country-music lineage. A celebrated history of inebriated tears in beers and rowdy friends comin' over has instilled a shaky-handed ethic of rebellion in the "Family Tradition." It's one ethic not lost on its latest spawn, Hank Williams III, who, on the phone from Nashville, sounds not too far from the watering hole himself.
"I have fun," the 29-year-old confirms. "I'm definitely not like some of those bands that don't have any fun. You know, I'm just living like I'm 17 everyday."
In fact, Hank's latest record, Lovesick Broke and Driftin', released in January, positively revels in its toxicology, with song titles like "5 Shots of Whiskey," "Trashville," and "Whiskey, Weed & Women" (on which, he croons, "I can't help the way I am"), littering the same midnight alleyway his grandfather who died at 29 once stumbled down.
Most of all, it stands in stark contrast to his previous record, his Curb Records debut, Risin' Outlaw, where Hank was practically airbrushed into an overproduced new-Nashville haze. When Risin' Outlaw was released, Hank reportedly threatened to badmouth it to everybody if Curb released it as it was. They did. So he did.
Hank's relationship with Curb ("I've done everything I can fucking do to get kicked off. Now, they're holding me out of spite.") is seemingly one of mutual hatred, rooted, undoubtedly, in the reluctant reverence to his celebrity genealogy. A mid-'90s introductory release saw him unfairly compiled with dad and grandpa for a shoddy semi-greatest hits, "The Three Hanks" understandably a sore subject for Hank III.
"I didn't want to do it at all," he says. "That was all record company bullshit. I said, 'Oh, okay, so you want to do this now, so it looks like Dad's helping his kid or something, and that's not happening at all. Why don't you let me get my own fucking fans and then maybe do it?'"
And while his latest release is clearly a stronger reflection of Hank's potent "miserablism," even receiving four-and-a-half stars from Rolling Stone, for Hank it remains a record-label compromise.
"It was more in the mellow direction of what I wanted to do," he says. "Now, if you ever see a Hank III album out with a parental advisory on it, then you'll know it's the official way I wanted to do it. `But` it was a lot closer. I didn't have to deal with a producer, I got to write the songs myself, I got to mix it the way I halfway wanted it."
What Hank III wants is to rock. More comfortable with the hybrid twang of contemporaries Southern Culture on the Skids or Reverend Horton Heat, than, say, country music's more pedestrian tendencies embodied by Alan Jackson or Tracy Byrd, Williams is in a difficult limbo with the Nashville establishment.
"I just think morally, they're just fucked. That's the whole problem," he says. "It's more so about values and morals and being Christian and correct, and all that fuckin' shit. They can't understand the real people, and they won't let me be, y'know, fucking be real."
So while the Dixie Chicks no strangers to label hassles themselves sell 700,000 copies of their latest disc during the first week, Hank III struggles for 50,000 through the greater part of a year.
"I just think it's all who you know and how pretty you are," he says. "On the Dixie Chicks, I'm not gonna say I agree with everything they do, but they do have talent, unlike Shania Twain, who had never hardly done a show and she'd already sold two million records."
Resigned, then, to cult status, Williams III trudges on with low-budget side work, essentially bootlegging his live shows and rockier studio affairs into a series titled "This Ain't Country," which, due to contractual limitations, remains "for personal use" only.
"The third album's gonna be more energetic," he says of his next Curb release. "And if I'm sayin', 'So I shot her ass and threw her in the creek,' that's not a problem. That's all I'm trying to have is creative freedom on both ends: on my country side of things, and my heavy metal/hard rock side of things."
But how does this fare for the golden boy of the Williams hit machine? With his grandfather effectively creating the drunk, country persona in the 1950s, and his father winning mass success with his own brand of outlaw country in the 1970s, isn't Hank III ultimately fighting an impossible rebellion, in which crossover success will forever elude him?
"When my dad was growing up, there was no fucking Eazy E's and Eminems, and all this fucking, 'Fuck you, fuck this, and I'm gonna beat you fucking down,' and all this shit," he says. "I'm trying to tell you country motherfuckers, 'Listen, you need to wake the fuck up and stop trying to be so fucking correct!' The real world isn't this clean, everybody's-happy-and-everybody-looks-pretty thing. It's a little bit tough and a little bit, you know, rough."
Expletives and family history aside, Williams III remains a live performer at heart, painstakingly gaining a nationwide cult following by sweating it out in smaller bars across the country. There's no denying that he's the genuine article when you see him on stage, or even when you hear the records he doesn't even seem to like. But what happens when somebody heckles out a request for daddy's "Family Tradition"?
"It depends how drunk some motherfucker is and how bad he wants to hear it," he laughs. "But I usually only do one Hank Williams song or two, and then one of Daddy's. I've been on the road so long now that people are starting to understand that we're not putting on a Hank Williams show or a Hank Jr. show."
Friday, September 27