Hank Williams died in the back of a white Caddy driving to a New Year’s Day gig, January 1953. He was officially found to be dead in Oak Hill, West Virginia. I stayed at a motel in Oak Hill in the summer of ’03 when I was judging a fiddle contest called “Cliff Top,” which featured nearly a hundred practitioners of the “old time” style of playing. Last night, in February, ’04, I went to see “III.” That would be Hank Williams III. I got there quite early. Said the show started at eight. The opener came on about half past nine I guess. Before the opener the club, the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, NC, played CDs thru the system. They were pretty loud, and included one of Johnny Cash’s recent releases, a mixture of things he’d done through the years. The last cut on the CD (I know it was the last ‘cause it came around at least twice) was a Hank Williams song. It struck me that there’s really hardly anyone else but III who could be in this odd position of having a legend, Johnny Cash, “opening” for him and singing—covering—a song of his granddaddy’s.
III must be hit in the face by these oddities frequently. If he plays clubs on Monday nights in the fall he’s gotta hear his daddy hollerin’, for the umteenth time, “Are you ready for some football?” The live opener at this show was a kid in the road crew. The official opener had had to run back to Texas to appear in court. “Scott got run over by an eighteen wheeler last year, broke near ever bone in his body, and he hadda go back to talk to his lawyers. I’m gonna sing you some songs I wrote, here goes nothin’.” The kid, Drew I think his name was, was good, but very nervous. After a while his guitar got way out of tune, but he was too nervous to stop and fix it. Several times he’d just stop his songs in the middle with, “well, that’s enough of that.” The crowd gave him a lot of support anyway.
III came out tired but in good form. “This is the 38th gig we’ve done in about 40 days,” he said. “I know it’s Sunday night, so let’s wake it up here.” He roared into a couple of very fast honkytonk kinda numbers, about drinking, driving fast, smoking dope, raisin’ hell. “I been thrown outta every bar in this damn town.” He had a guy with a mohawk on stand up bass, a drummer with a paired down rockabilly kit, an electric fiddler and a steel player. All young guys, late 20s, early 30s. “I’m gonna send the next one out to Mike McCanless, who fiddled with us on the road for a number of years. He’s gone now. That’s how it goes.” At one point III did a David Allen Coe song with part of the chorus going “… and if you don’t like Hank Williams, then you can just kiss our ass…” Coe is famous for writing songs that stress the fact that he’s been in prison, and that he’s by gawd an “outlaw,” just like Waylon, Willie, Merle… Hank. Another part of this song had the line, sure enough: “I’ve been in prison, and I’ve never lost a fight.”
III is pissed off at his former record label, Curb. He is selling self-burned, autographed CDs at the show. “III gets every penny of the money,” Drew said. III is pissed off at Nashville. “If Toby Keith is an outlaw,” he said, “well then fuck country.” He closed his country part of the show with “Let’s Put the Dick Back in Dixie (and the Cock Back in Country).” It’s a funny, angry, fuck-you song that won’t get much air as long as Michael Powell is guarding the airways, but the crowd loved it. The crowd was probably about 28 years old, with lots of piercings, tattoos, and leather, four guys to the girl. The songs didn’t mention any women, and neither did III. He wore a vest with a marijuana leaf on one pocket and a skull on the other. The vest was kind of olive drab, sort of like a Boy Scout uniform color, and Drew actually had a Boy Scout baseball cap on his head. III said the old generation of outlaws was dying off, but there was a new one coming up. The women were hanging around the edge of the stage, and looked good. A couple of guys wearing parkas with the hoods up went into the bus before the gig, and Hank complained about how someone had “dosed” him on stage without his knowledge the week before. “I couldn’t sleep for two fuckin’ days. I took about ten Xanax and finally I said the hell with it and just stayed up. Ya’ll don’t dose me without my knowledge now. But I’ll take a shot of whiskey if anybody’s got one.” There was one woman, who looked real real tired, selling CDs and key rings and teeshirts. I got a III key ring.
After the country set III segwayed into what he called his “hellbilly” phase. This was very loud, thrashing music with some bit of country underneath, still the same instruments but “with the distortion turned up some.” After the break they were going to come back as a metal band, “Abstract,” that III plays bass with. I was tired and coming down with a cold I think, and my ears were ringing (still are today), so I decided to buy the key ring and head on home.
III looks just like his granddaddy. At one point he did “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” “My granddaddy, Hiram Hank, did this one in ’49,” he said. For the moment he seems very strong, healthy, and with an open personality and a sense of humor. He took requests from the audience, and tried one song he hadn’t done in so long that he forgot it. That didn’t bother him at all. The quality he exuded most of all was honesty and just the joy of being on the road, trucking, having fun. There’s no softness in his songs—at least not the ones he performed last night—just petal to the metal, beer can on the forehead. One song was called “Seven Months and 39 Days,” a jail song. Another was “That’s why the rich folks call me white trash.” I felt like he was showing us a future full of hope and joy, kicking the soft smothering blanket the Republicans are draping over everything right across the room and into a ball in the corner. And I hoped he wouldn’t hit some wall head on with too much speed before he gets enough altitude to see out there, over the horizon, to where there are some birds, some waterfalls, the sparkle on a wave curling in to the shore.
–Bill Hicks 2/23/04, Silk Hope