“Lord, honey, you’re a ghost,” Minnie Pearl said when she first met Hank Williams III. I have the same reaction; he looks so much like his grandfather that it is unnerving. Tall and lanky, with sunken cheeks and keenly intelligent eyes, he is Hank Sr.’s twin.
But when we settle down into his basement lair, I know that I have not been magically transported back into the early ’50s, when Hank Williams Sr. roamed the earth. Hank III is his own man, and he intends to be seen that way.
With that in mind, let’s forget that he’s a part of country music royalty, that he’s the one who will carry the weight of the Williams name into the 21st century. For the time being, at least. We can get to all of that later.
As our interview begins, Hank III is getting quietly stoned. He takes short, polite hits on his pipe, holds in the smoke as long as possible, then lets it roll off his tongue as he speaks. We are in the basement of the modest little brick he inhabits in East Nashville. Upstairs, the house is neat and orderly; the kitchen smells of rich coffee and there is a collection of mismatched chairs in the living room. It could be anyone’s house, with squeaky clean floors and well-placed lamps that throw dim light into the corners. Not exactly what I had pictured for someone who bills himself as “the honky-tonk hellbilly.”
Once down the carpeted stairs, however, we have entered Hank III’s domain. Club placards (mostly for his own shows) cover the walls. There is a collection of skulls, a space heater that cracks and pops in the corner, an old record player. CDs are strewn across the floor, mix tapes fill boxes stacked against the wall. Also on the floor are several downloaded pictures of a naked girl. A coffin leans against the wall. It may or may not be a guitar case — it’s hard to tell.
As Hank III begins to talk, he is a constant fidget of nerves, first folding his legs under himself, then putting them out straight so that his body is a long, narrow L. Occasionally he tosses his long hair over his right shoulder. He wears wire rim glasses that seem out of place with the tattoos covering his arms, and socks that are full of comfortable holes. His jeans have been razored at the knee. Naturally, he is wearing a black t-shirt with a skull as its motif. He is polite and well-spoken, mannerly enough to offer me a cigarette and the only chair in sight. He opts to sit on the floor, ignoring the leather bean bag covered by papers and empty Marlboro packs.
He does some small talk as he empties the pipe, cleans out the bowl, and fills it again. Then he is ready to discuss his new album, Lovesick, Broke & Driftin’, which was released in January. While he made it common knowledge that he hated his debut album, Risin’ Outlaw, he’s much more satisfied with the new release.
“It’s an organic album, a lot happier, and a lot more real,” he says. “I produced it myself. Used my own songs. And we recorded and mixed it in two weeks. It took Curb two years to put the first one out. We saved them about $100,000, too.”
It’s easy to see why Hank III is happier with Lovesick, Broke & Driftin’. It is a much more complete and focused album than his first effort. It is filled with fun party songs that Hank III has become well-known for on the live circuit, but also mellow, personal songs that he feels a strong attachment to. The album is wide-ranging, surprisingly autobiographical and reflective.
“It’s definitely more mellow. Most people at live shows want us amped up, and I like putting some feeling into a song every once in a while. Most of these songs were written when I was feeling the blues.”
Many of the songs are filled with real emotion, something Hank III believes his last album lacked. “Cecil Brown” is a melancholy ode to small-town life in which the title character gets into trouble and is never forgiven by his townspeople. “That’s about someone on Mom’s side of the family. You know, it’s a little town, he gets into trouble and everybody knows it,” he says. “I can totally relate to it myself.”
Hank III says he was “torn down in the studio” when he went to record “5 Shots Of Whiskey”, which he wrote while living in a trailer in Lebanon, Tennessee, just after the breakup of a seven-year relationship. “I just stayed out there for a couple months feeling pretty miserable. So it brought back some sad memories to record it. Hell, it still does.”
There’s even what Hank III calls a “Jesus song” on this album. “Callin’ Your Name” is about repentance, about reaching out to the Lord. “I believe in good and evil, and that we’re accountable for both,” he says, taking a hit from the pipe. “I write a lot of devil songs, but I write a lot of Jesus ones, too.”
Should anyone think he’s going soft, they should just give a listen to “Mississippi Mud”, which includes the lyrics “I know how to have a damn good time/And I take my shots straight out of the jug/And I like to get pure drunk in the Mississippi mud.” Or “Nighttime Ramblin’ Man”, in which he sings, “I’m going to do some drinking/I’m going to drink all that whiskey that I can…/I’m going to do some smoking/I’m going to smoke all that good stuff that I can/I’m going to do some toking…/I’m a drinking, toking, nighttime rambling man.”