Runnin’ with the devil

Hank Williams III comes to First Ave.


photo courtesy Tara Israel

Hank III will moan the blues, country, metal and who knows what else tonight at First Ave.

by Mark Brenden

Hank Williams III

When: Nov. 29, 8 p.m.

Where: First Ave. Mainroom, 701 First Ave. N.

Cost: $20, 18+

If Hank Williams is the grandfather of country music, Hank Williams III is its mutinous grandson. While he churns out some of the truest to the bone honky tonk in the land of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, Williams âÄî known to his fans simply as Hank Three âÄî also diverges into doom metal and punk rock.

For Williams, making music âÄî be it outlaw country or death metal âÄî is a working manâÄôs trade. Almost a year since dropping from what he saw to be a tyrannical bind with Curb Records, the crazed country rebel has been putting his nose to the musical grindstone âÄî writing and recording three albums at once (dropped in Sept.), loading his own gear and selling his own merch.

Tonight, heâÄôll be kicking up Minneapolis dust in a visit to First Ave, which he said is one of his favorite venues. A&E caught up with the strumming Dixie to discuss semantics, the devil and why in Sam Hill his grandfather isnâÄôt in the Grand Ole Opry.

Do you enjoy playing Minneapolis?

Man, yâÄôall have been great to us for fifteen years plus, man. The energy in that room and just around there has always been amazing. YâÄôall have made us feel important back from the beginning.

Do you sense a different reaction to your music up North as opposed to down South?

Well it just depends. It depends on if youâÄôre playing on a Monday night or a Friday night or how much people are drinking. The energy levels. Like First Ave., the crowd there âÄî itâÄôs always been a bunch of moshpit, a bunch of good energy, everybodyâÄôs getting along. EverybodyâÄôs kinda open-minded. Opposed to somewhere like L.A. âÄî everybodyâÄôs a little more tame and used to every band out there. TheyâÄôre kinda spoiled if that makes any sense. ThereâÄôs so much coming through. The crowds just arenâÄôt into it as much. Minneapolis has always been right up there with the top with some of the most energetic crowds IâÄôve played to. And thatâÄôs back before my music was really âĦ you know, people really knew my songs.

Do you prefer them to be drinking?

Well âĦ I mean thatâÄôs a hard call. Why do a lot of bar owners want me back over the years? Because I sell âÄòem 10 to 15 thousand dollars worth of alcohol a night. Do I want a kid to ruin his life over alcohol? Absolutely not. Yes I sing a lot of partying songs and I try to get everybody in a good mood as far as the hell-raising, good-timing feel I try to put out there but on the flip side of that I hope people recognize the work ethic and itâÄôs not all just getting wasted. ThereâÄôs a whole other side to it also. Once in a while we get to play all ages shows and thereâÄôs kids that donâÄôt drink and all kinds of things. But thatâÄôs a tough one because IâÄôve always had a really lively crowd. All the Williamses have had a really drinking-oriented kind of audience. Like the depression: Everything was gone except music and alcohol. People donâÄôt wanna give up their good times to forget all their problems. So thatâÄôs one way of looking at it.

A lot of your songs are about getting tossed out of bars, getting drunk, but you say you donâÄôt want to influence anyone to ruin their life through drinking. How much of the semantics of your songs are to be taken seriously and/or literally? For example your use of the word âÄúfaggot.âÄù What does that word mean to you?

Well that one âĦ back when that came out there was a few one-hit wonders on Music Row and one of those guys got busted in a park doing his thing with someone else. And that someone else was another man. And thatâÄôs basically what I was saying. To me I donâÄôt need that one-hit wonder looking over at me to make me feel like I got a good band.

YouâÄôre referring to âÄúDick in Dixie.âÄù

Yes. ThereâÄôs people in my family that are like that. I donâÄôt judge. I mean thatâÄôs about the only time youâÄôll hear me say that. I donâÄôt judge, I mean, if someoneâÄôs happy, whatever makes them happy âÄî thatâÄôs their thing. So thatâÄôs the closest youâÄôll ever hear from me on a negative term on using that word. So IâÄôll never be telling someone who they can love and who they canâÄôt. ThatâÄôs just not my thing.

How about Satan? Is this a stylistic device or something you actually believe?

Well thereâÄôs always good and bad, thereâÄôs light and dark. And itâÄôs always a theme. My granddad always had a struggle with it. I have an ongoing struggle with it. I donâÄôt really consider myself a member of this team or that team.  I have to do my best to get by and do what I do. And itâÄôs just kinda an ongoing thing: sex, drugs, rock âÄònâÄô roll and the devil kinda mentality out there. For me, I sing about him and I sing about âÄúLord take my pain.âÄù ItâÄôs not as equal on the playing field because my granddad sang about the light, and I thought it was my job to sing about the dark. And as time has gone on IâÄôm just trying to hang in there as long as I can for the show and for the fans and whatever it takes to get by IâÄôm doing the best I can, really. I do see good powers and I see dark powers out there moving around and happening. But I donâÄôt really consider myself a member of this team or that team. ItâÄôs kinda a neutral switchinâÄô thing. If you look in my house itâÄôs nothing but rock âÄònâÄô roll propaganda everywhere, thatâÄôs just what IâÄôve been comfortable around to a point.

Speaking of booze and demons and your grandpa, why isnâÄôt Hank Williams in the Grand Ole Opry?

I would say thatâÄôs a respect topic. I guess he must have made someone very upset back in the day. Did he [expletive up in the day? Yes. Did they give him a chance to clean up his act? Well he passed away before that happened. Then they slowly just started using his name, using his image, weâÄôre getting away with it for a long time.

The best person who wrote the best piece about that was âÄúMojo MagazineâÄù July edition of 2010. In that one Tom Waits says it best. He calls out the really big players. He puts it into perspective, on all the loopholes in their excuses on why theyâÄôre saying heâÄôs not a member. All weâÄôre asking for is a ceremony for one evening to say, âÄúYes we recognize Hank Williams as a member of the Grand Ole Opry and we would love to welcome him to the circle of the mother church of country music.âÄù ThatâÄôs all weâÄôre asking for

Do you see that happening?

Who knows? You never can tell. ThereâÄôs always hope; I mean look at the West Memphis Three. They were [imprisoned for] 20 years, man. You never can tell. ThereâÄôs always hope. A little hope can go a long way and as long as weâÄôre talking about it, maybe one day theyâÄôll want to preserve history and better their way with his name.

While you mentioned Tom Waits, he showed up in âÄúFaded Moon.âÄù What does he mean to you as an artist and as an American figure in general?

As a musician, his caliber is way beyond. I never would have thought 10 years ago that IâÄôd be able to work with him on a music level. I think over time heâÄôs respected what IâÄôve done and we got to talk on the phone for a while and then we got to meet in person and that made us feel comfortable to work together. The one song he really shined on has the push-box accordion and he felt really at home with that kind of sound and it worked out great. I was working on my records and he was working on his new records and it worked out really well.

WhatâÄôs been the best part about being your own boss?

I mean that started in basically January 2nd so itâÄôs all kinda new. NothingâÄôs really changed much. I donâÄôt have management. I donâÄôt have a bunch of secretaries and stuff like that. So itâÄôs always a bit busy. Me and my mom run the merch and do the best we can trying to keep up with the numbers. IâÄôve always been a workaholic and kinda hands-on. ThatâÄôs always been my problem with management, because IâÄôve known what IâÄôve wanted and IâÄôve kinda defeated fame. IâÄôve kept myself in the bars, underground, not playing to really big crowds for lots of money. IâÄôve shot down fame in many ways to keep it grass-roots oriented. And lots of managers donâÄôt understand that. Their job is to exploit you, make you huge, sell you out. It took me awhile to realize you just need to have good distribution and thatâÄôs it.

And thatâÄôs kind of at the spirit of country music history âÄî with what Waylon and Willie did in Austin.

Absolutely. They had to leave and go to Texas back in the day because there was a lot more people willing to record their music there and they didnâÄôt have the technology as much to do it themselves. I mean making a record back then was a huge ordeal. Nowadays we have the technology to D.I.Y. as much as you can. That in itself has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. So thatâÄôs putting the ball back into the musicians hand.

You dabble in many genres. Does that country spirit of Haggard, Jones, your father, Waylon, Willie âÄî does it have to exist in country music? Where do you see it the strongest right now?

I mean the outlaw theme or the outlaw sound in general it goes way deep. I think people connect with it because itâÄôs telling stories that the working man and woman can relate to. Everybody basically goes through love and heartbreak and itâÄôs something real that I think people can identify with. I think that has a lot of inspiration over the years as to why that kind of music has stood out more than others have.

Right. And where do you find it in 2011. Obviously some of those guys are still alive. Are they the only ones hanging onto it?

IâÄôm really disconnected. I donâÄôt really watch the music channels or listen to the radio that much. I couldnâÄôt really tell you whoâÄôs current and whoâÄôs not. But nowadays, to me, a rebel or an outlaw is somebody to marches to their own beat, goes against the grain and are doing it their own way as much as they can. It just depends on what youâÄôre going after. Some people are going after a million songs and a number one hit. Other people like the Melvins or the Reverend Horton Heat are after longevity and playing their live show and doing what they do. Longevity has been more of a key to me than the overnight success. IâÄôve always written songs for myself. I mean I try to connect with my fans, but IâÄôve never once sat down in an office on Music Row to write a song for a radio station. ItâÄôs just not me.

Right. And you say you donâÄôt pay attention to whatâÄôs going on, yet you released the song âÄúDick in DixeâÄù which seems to be a direct attack on, should we say, [expletive] country.

Well that was awhile back. Keep in mind. I mean thatâÄôs pushing back quite a bit. ThatâÄôs back when it first came out. When everything was switching over from acoustic instruments to âĦ it was all about having a good dance move and sounding like an electronic machine up there basically. Even if you tried to ignore it you couldnâÄôt, living in this town. And that was a breaking point with me. Just because I was around it, born and raised here. And when youâÄôre the underdog you gotta call out stuff like that. ThatâÄôs the biggest hit I never had, and a lot of people grasp onto and hold onto those kinda roots.

Has the shit been a personal one or have you just grown okay with whatâÄôs happening in Nashville?

IâÄôve always just kinda done my own thing. ThereâÄôs two streets in this town that kind of could give it a bad name to some people. And IâÄôve always worked outside those two streets. I love Tennessee, as far as its cheap rent. ThereâÄôs a lot of places to get my gear worked on. ThereâÄôs good people to make my guitars. All your main companies are here for microphones or basses, cases, bus companies. I mean thereâÄôs a lot of great things for a musician in this town. But thereâÄôs that business part of it and the Bible belt that can rub some people wrong. For me, being an outsider and going against the grain, they donâÄôt really like how I was approaching it, especially back then. Nowadays, some of the old timers âĦ like at the beginning of the summer, they watched me play a private party. I set up my own stage, unloaded my own gear, test it, do the whole nine yards, play a three-and-a-half hour show, break it all down and load it in the van and come home. There were some 85-year-old men that came up to me and said, âÄúSon, youâÄôre doing what youâÄôre doing and youâÄôve changed my mind about you.âÄù I think it goes back to that work ethic. They see how I didnâÄôt take that easy way out. TheyâÄôre seeing that I donâÄôt see a dollar of that Hank Williams estate and IâÄôve fought for all my stuff to stand on my own two feet. You got go the extra mile to get there if youâÄôre Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Dweezil Zappa or anybody thatâÄôs got a famous father. Ya know, you gotta carve your own way.

LetâÄôs go back a couple months: why three albums at once?

It goes back to doing something different, really. I wanted to approach something different in the music business. I got the rest of my life to only put out one record at a time. For me, it was a) doing something different, b) IâÄôve never been able to sell my own CD at my own show over 17 or 18 years because I refused to sell CurbâÄôs product. So to sell my own CD is huge for me. And right now I got the energy to do the country, to do the doomrock and the âÄú3 Bar RanchâÄù and I might not always have that energy to bring it on a live show. And the last reason is a lot of writers have talked about my diversity but never been able to grasp hold of it or hear it until now. So those are a few reasons why I wanted to do it all at once.

What do you feel is the common denominator on these three albums?

All in all itâÄôs different. Ya know, âÄú3 Bar RanchâÄù is definitely not a record that most people are gonna like. The doom metal record is only for the select few out there. The country record is maybe more what the Hank 3 fans are used to. But the common denominator is do-it-yourself and showing the work ethic, man. I recorded it, wrote it, mixed it, mastered it. And weâÄôre going out there and just doing what we do. Country, IâÄôm definitely telling a little bit more of a story. The doomrock is full of doom and conspiracy and stuff. And then âÄú3 Bar RanchâÄù is more of the anxiety, frantic, freakout stuff. For me, working with all those auctioneers, coming up with the music is similar to other bands, but just the concept is a little newer and different.

You mention âÄú3 Bar RanchâÄù will hit a smaller audience. Do you make it for that audience or do you kind of revel in maybe alienating some people or pissing some people off.

Well âĦ No. Not really. Because those are my heroes. You know: Immortal, Strapping Young Lad, Pantera, Slayer, Mike Patton, Fan, Mr. Bungle âÄî those are all heroes of mine. So when IâÄôm making that music itâÄôs not to piss anybody off. ItâÄôs just not for everyone to get. I mean only a select few are gonna understand that and thatâÄôs the beauty of it. ItâÄôs not for the masses. ItâÄôs for the outsiders. A lot of punk rock kids may say, âÄúEverybodyâÄôs coming to see his country part of the show but IâÄôm here to see âÄú3 Bar Ranch.âÄù ThatâÄôs the Jekyll and Hyde part of the show. All in all I try to make sure all my fans are taking care of and getting their moneyâÄôs worth. ThatâÄôs why I always play the country first and then give them an option to leave as the night goes on if itâÄôs music they might not agree with.

So youâÄôll be like, âÄúIâÄôm about to play âÄò3 Bar Ranch.âÄô Everybody who came here to hear country go take a cig break?âÄù

Well its an hour and a half of country and then hillbilly. And then thereâÄôs a five-minute break. And then people will be able to see that the show is changing. ItâÄôs not acoustic-oriented anymore. ItâÄôs getting darker in here; itâÄôs getting louder in here. And people know. Most peopleâÄôs attention spans are five minutes nowadays and IâÄôm pumping out a three-hour-and-twenty-minute show âÄî we wear âÄòem out, man. IâÄôm watching the crow go from being a full on moshpit during the country set, being a little strange and weirded out from the doom and then bringing the pit back in play at the very end with âÄú3 Bar Ranch.âÄù So itâÄôs a lot of different moods and vibrations coming out of the sound system, man.

One of my favorite songs on the albums is âÄúCamouflage.âÄù ItâÄôs comforting if not sweet lyrics atop mad, metal rhythms. It sounds a bit sardonic and, to me, influenced by the grunge era. I was wondering, since you dedicated âÄúADDâÄù to Layne Staley, what effect that movement had on you.

When I was growing up and trying to get my voice and doing vocal lessons, whatever âÄî [Staley] was one of my heroes. Because singing that high was natural for him. It was just like talking. Ya know, that singing style is definitely me being inspired by him. Ya know, Sleep, Melvins, all the old âÄò70s stoner rock, Pentagram. All those old bands have been hugely important to me and itâÄôs the only time IâÄôve been able to slow things down and push a little more air out of the speakers. So, Layne âÄî it was just a really big shame. We lost him so young. A lot of people tried to step up to the plate for him and try to save him and get him to pull through, but he just missed, really. A lot of people dedicate records to their mom or their brother. To me, since he was such a musical impact to my life as a singer. ThatâÄôs my way of paying respects.

Since itâÄôs so crazy out there and youâÄôre an artist who lives in America, I wanted to know your take on the state of the country, Occupy Wall Street, etc.

Well, I mean thereâÄôs a lot of kids out there dying for our freedom, fighting this war. The main thing I would say is while these kids are fighting that war for our freedom, hopefully still we can exercise our rights as Americans. And IâÄôve never been that politically involved because I do everything just to do my music. I leave the politics to people that eat it, live it breathe it like âÄî I always say âÄî like a Jello Biafra for instance. Ya know because when heâÄôs not playing music heâÄôs politically out there doing things. And IâÄôm not like that. IâÄôm not as well connected, so for me to really give a political answer like that is kinda tough for me. But thatâÄôs the best I can say: while weâÄôre still a war, kids are fighting for our freedom and hopefully Americans are able to exercise their rights as Americans. And our freedoms are still gonna be kept over here while we got it.

And how do you feel about your fatherâÄôs comments on President Obama that led to his being kicked off Monday Night Football?

Well thatâÄôs âĦ If youâÄôre a gun activist or youâÄôre a gun lover, it doesnâÄôt matter if itâÄôs Hank Jr., the Vietnam Vet or the kid thatâÄôs fighting in the war right now, youâÄôre gonna notice that your rights are being taken aware and your ammunition and guns. ItâÄôs getting harder and harder to own a weapon. I would say that has a lot of motivation on whatâÄôs happened to him. Because he really cares a lot for his right to bear arms.