Interview: Pickin' and Talkin' With Hank Williams III

The dichotomy of Hank Williams III can't be denied. He is both living legacy and self-made musician, an ambitious talent who refuses to be penned in by the conventions of any single genre or idiom. Hank 3 is a man who takes joy in his music, and more than anything else, enjoys sharing it with both his friends and his fans. I had the distinct privilege of getting some time to talk to Hank about music, recording and a host of other subjects.
M. Drew: I wanted to start with a few questions that I’ve always wanted to ask you because I have a feeling that because of your name people feel they can assume a lot of things they know about you. I wanted to ask you, was there ever a time in your life where you thought about a career that wasn’t music related?
Hank Williams III: I mean, not really. I’ve put in garage doors, I’ve cut grass, I’ve worked in a record store, been a gofer in studios. I’ve done a lot of ground work. Making it a little more official and being able to pay rent and stuff like that was a little harder. But that’s just growin’ up. I always though at first that I’d be doin’ a lot of drum work, I never did think I would be singin’ as much as I did. I always thought I’d be more of a musician – which I still am – playin’ on all my records. It was always my choice to play music. My mom never did push me or anything, they let me be who I wanted to. It was never like [it was for Hank Williams Jr] “Hey Hank Junior, get out there and sound like your dad”. I really had a choice.
MD: I know that you started with this really powerful interest in punk, and you started out drumming in a lot of punk quartets and things like that. Because I know that that’s so far from your family’s legacy, who influenced you to make that kind of music?
H3: Well it’s really hard to say my first vinyl records as a child, I was like 5 or 6 years old, I had a KISS and a Walt Disney record. I would always get excited when I heard Elvis or ZZ top or Ted Nugent. My aunt played a lot of Heart and stuff like that. I always felt pretty connected to that style of music, and it was easy for me to sit down on the drums and play along to that kind of music. I couldn’t sit down and play the jazz or anything like that. So that kind of music taught me how to play guitar, how to play drums, and have fun with it.
MD: Do you feel more at home with like the rock and the punk than you do with country?
H3: Not really, I mean I don’t feel at home with any of the music because if you put me against someone like Frank Zappa, or… I don’t understand music theory, I don’t know how it works. I just know how to do what I do and make songs, and record records, and mix records. But I don’t understand how an E minor on the seventh chord, then we’re going to do a diamond and turn it around three times… I feel a little uncomfortable around any musician, even if it’s just a picker party, if it’s just a Bluegrass acoustic “bring your guitar” thing. I’ve never felt that comfortable around others. But I always feel comfortable when I’m doing it myself, and you know playin’ to my own kind of beat.
MD: To that end, you’ve experimented and made a lot of different kinds of music in your career, I mean do you have a philosophy of music? Or do you just experiment with whatever you feel comfortable?
H3: I mean, I do a lot of experimenting, and I know my fans always feel a lot more connected to what I do acoustically and country-wise. It’s in my blood, and it’s more of a natural gift. And, for me, I just couldn’t be just a country artist. I had to do something different. If I was just a country artist, it wouldn’t be as unique. If I was just a heavy metal guy, it wouldn’t be this unique. And I had to kinda, take a different approach for me to make a mark, really. And to show people…whenever my time has come and I’m dead and gone, people will look back in history and see all the different things that I did. And, I think it sets myself apart just a little bit from Hank Sr. and Hank Jr.
MD: And is that a goal of yours? Do you want to ultimately be known as somebody who’s not just a legacy musician?
H3: Well, my goal is for people to know that I stood on my own two feet. I did what I had to do, I mean, I never seen any royalty or estate money, you know? Or any of that stuff. Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra, the Melvins, Jimmy Martin, all of these different bands gave me my work ethic to get out there and do what I do. At the end of the day, some people get it and some people don’t. But that’s why I just keep on truckin’.
MD: Speaking of standing on your own two feet, you’ve now got your own record label and you released, you know, three of your own albums at one time. How do you even have the energy to support three albums at once?
H3: It’s trying something different and making a mark. I might not have the energy and time, but right now, it was exciting to me and I wanted to do something very different in the music business that I don’t think’s been really done before. And you know, I’m finally able to sell a CD at my show. When people come to see it, they can see the country, the hellbilly, the “Attention Deficit Domination” and “Three Bar Ranch [Cattle Calling]”. And now they have an option to, you know, get it at the merch table if they want. A lot of writers talk about my diversity, but never really got to get a grasp on it. On how wide of a musician I can be. All around the spectrum.
MD: Do you have, of those three albums, one that is your favorite?
H3: I mean, not really. They’re all special to me. They were all done at one time. And they were all challenging. To take on that much material, and keep the focus for that long. So, you know, sometimes I’m proud of layin’ down the drum track or sometimes I feel a lot of energy layin’ the vocals down. It was a lot of fun doing the Cajun stuff. It was an honor to play drums along with Les Claypool and then, of course, singin’ with Tom Waits is a huge thing for me. Oh, and playin’ with one of my old time friends and heroes, Alan King from Hellstomper. Just all kinds of different cool things on this record. And it’s not just a straight up country record, I’ll be the first one to say it. There’s only five country songs on that, if even five. It’s a record that’s outside of the box. Breakin’ in my fans, lettin’ ‘em know that I’m just doing what I do. Here soon I’ll pump out a little more of a pure southern country record. It wasn’t the time on this one.
MD: Speaking of taking on that much new material at once, did you, were all three of those albums written new? Or was some of that material stuff that you had been hanging onto for a while that Curb Records wouldn’t let you go ahead with?
H3: Naw, it was all new. I got off of Curb January 1, 2011, and instead of goin’ out on the town, and throwin’ a big party or all that stuff, I started making music. Sitting down, recording, writing it, playin’ it, singin’ it, and startin’ to piece together everything.
MD: How liberating is it to be running your own label and making music when you want to? And what you want to?
H3: The main thing is…all the opportunities now I get to do. My job as a musician [is] to play with other guys and make music, and that’s what I do. A lot of things got ignored or turned down ‘cause Curb just didn’t like the idea and they just held me back. So it’s great to just… if someone wants to work with me, all they gotta do is pick up the phone and it’s as simple as that. I mean, I used to hafta have five lawyers involved and all that stuff. Even if it was a great business opportunity. I can’t tell you how many times people have said “they don’t do good business.” I can’t believe it! It doesn’t make any sense. But, I guess that’s why they have a problem, no matter if it’s…. I didn’t make them that much money, you know, someone like Tim McGraw who’s made them millions and millions of dollars is in the same situation I was in. So, you know, it’s not just me. But it’s great to be able to do what I do, and that’s make music with friends of mine. And be proud to help people forget about their problems, or put out some music that’s kinda like therapy to them.
MD: “Attention Deficit Domination,” I don’t think that people would have expected kind of a Doom Metal album from you – is that something you wanted to do for a long time?
H3: I’ve always been into the slower sounds and I’ve been a fan of Sleep and The Melvins even the old, slow KISS songs, and ah, Black Sabbath. I mean, I’ve been into that sound. I’m a gear head, I collect vintage gear, and use vintage gear on the road. And that kind of goes hand in hand with all of it. So, it was very exciting for me to do that sound. Just another notch on the gun just as far as we’re doin’ it. We’re playin’ it, singin’ it, pushin’ more air. For over more than 20 years, I’ve played as fast as I could. I just gotta slow it down and groove it a little bit.

MD: So, your live performances are famously divided into three sections, so how do you, or how will you incorporate all of that new material into those sections?
H3: Well all in all it’s always just a country...It starts off as just the country part of the show. The first hour, hour and a half, is payin’ my respects to my fans who pay their hard earned money to come out to see the country part of the show. And doing it like that, I think everybody doesn’t feel they’re getting ripped off. I’m giving everybody a chance to see what they want to see, and if you don’t want to see the heavy stuff, well then after an hour or so you can, you know, you can move on. But it’s a long show, while I’ve got the energy, I’ll be taking it to the next level, I’m doing it as much as I can. But I do a lot of my standard songs, and then we do a little off of “Ghost to Ghost” and “Guttertown” and we work it all in. And this will be the third big tour we’ve done where I’m trying to bring every level.
MD: You’re hitting the road soon, aren’t you? Where’s that tour going to take you?
H3: We start in Carolina and work our way down to Florida and then up to West Virginia and Philadelphia, stayin’ more ‘round near the east coast. We’ll be doing the Midwest on the next run.
MD: Speaking of “Ghost to Ghost,” I wanted to ask you, is the title of that album, does that have anything to do with your associations with Minnie Pearl, and the conversations you had with her about your grandfather?
H3: I think it’s more just the look and the sound, you know. I mean, so many people compare me to him, that’s where the “ghost to ghost” thing kinda came into play. It wasn’t necessarily her, if it was anything; it was from fans more than anybody [and] I’m not just sayin’ that.
MD: In your career you’ve collaborated with hundreds of different musicians, is there anybody you haven’t had a chance to work with yet that you’d really like to?
H3: Well, when I was over in Europe, you know, I’ve always been amazed at [Dave] Lombardo’s drum style, and we got to play one of the metal festivals over there. And, you know, everyone was kinda waiting to see what’s going to happen, “they’re doing country stuff at a metal festival.” It was kind of like a breath of fresh air to a lot of the guys. And I was sittin’ on the bus and someone said, “hey Dave Lombardo’s outside” and I’m like “yeah right, that’s real funny…you’re dumb.” All in all, Dave Lombardo’s interested in maybe playin’ some country drums.
MD: That would be something
H3: Or some swing kind of stuff. You know, we talked about it. I’ve gotten to talk to Dale Crover before, and to be able to say that I got to play with Dale and Dave, for being a fan of drums so much myself would be really special. We wanted to on this record, but just weren’t able to make it happen.
MD: Out of everybody you’ve worked with over the years, do you have favorites? Were there people that you started to collaborate with and you blew yourself away with the results?
H3: Man, it’s always a special time with any of it. Whether it’s David Allan Coe or when I was at Dimebag’s house, or we were working with Black Flag, all kinds. It’s always exciting to me every time. There’s so many, it’s not just one. It’s every…it doesn’t matter if it’s someone on a bigger level or more independent, smaller underground level. It’s all a thrill and an honor every time it comes around. There’s been a lot of special moments, that’s for sure. If it was playing drums with Lynyrd Skynyrd, or just on and on, man. There’s all kinds of really cool things.
MD: Speaking of Black Flag and Henry Rollins. I remember you did work on the benefit album for the West Memphis Three that Henry Rollins was putting together. Did you follow the rest of that trial at all? I mean they’ve been released recently, do you have any thoughts on that?
H3: I mean… I was always supporting it, I never did go as far as getting in touch with Damien [Echols], or any of them kids because they been through so much and already have a lot of folks there giving them hope. I was always spreading the word, and giving ‘em hope in a different kind of way. And, um, Henry, Eddie Vedder, and Natalie were really doing some more hands on stuff with them. It just goes to show you hope can do a lot, at the end of the day.
MD: Speaking of another project that I know you’re working on, is there any progress on the ‘Reinstate Hank’ front?
H3: Well all you can do is talk about it. The sad thing is that they did not do a quality exhibit on the Williams family that was on display at the country music hall of fame. So, that exhibit was open for over two years, people all over the world comin’ to see that, and it just goes to show, just another reason, how they could’ve done it with some class. Yet again, they chose not to. And it’s not like we’re asking for a 70,000 dollar statue or anything, we’re asking just for a little bit of time and one ceremony. To sing and talk about Hank Williams and to say “yes we’re proud to have him be part of our musical history that we respect”.
MD: What does his legacy mean to you personally?
H3: Well I only know him as a fan, like everybody else. I mean, I never met the man, I know him through his music. So all I know he’s very special and lined up at a very perfect time in his life. I felt very tuned in, very connected to him and…I’m glad a lot of it was archived. It’s just kind of timeless.
MD: Are you a fan of horror movies at all? And if so, which ones are your favorite?
H3: It’s a little bit all over the place. I like a lot of the older stuff, I’m really fascinated with what they were doing in the 40’s and 50’s, black and white, if it’s “Nosferatu,” the original “White Zombie,” “Dracula.” I do like the Japanese stuff like “Ichi the Killer,” all that out there, really intense horror stuff. So it kind of depends on the mood that I’m in, but I’m definitely a fan of it. Kinda goes hand in hand with the rock music and the Misfits and all these things. I don’t know, I’ve always been just drawn to the older stuff.

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