By Sarah L. Myers
New York, NY, USA
Shelton Hank Williams has spent his life defying expectations. This month he releases four albums, all on his own label and all with a creative focus he was denied in the corporate Nashville music scene. Confined to Curb Records for five releases, Hank 3 fought against the system for years. He was too punk for country purists and too country for the devout punk crowd. As the grandson of Hank Williams and the son of Hank Williams, Jr., Shelton IS country, and songs like “Dick in Dixie”, “Straight to Hell” and “Pills I Took” make him a legend in his own right.
Hank III (credit: Cindy Knoener)
September brings “Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown”, a double country LP featuring Tom Waits, songwriter Eddie Pleasant, and Shelton’s coon dog, Trooper. “Dyin Day” and “Outlaw Convention” are bound for classic status, and Waits’ voice on “Fadin’ Moon” rests against a beautiful Cajun melody. “Attention Deficit Domination” shows his other side - the stoner rock/doom metal side his Assjack and Superjoint Ritual fans will recognize. More Obituary than Slayer, ADD slows it down a bit, but is brutal just the same. “Cattle Callin’” seems to mesh the two, encompassing Hank 3 in one record. It features legendary auctioneers Mitch Jordan and Tim Dowler, whose vocals layer with Shelton’s in an extreme metal/country hybrid.
We’ve known Shelton for years, but had never gotten around to an official interview. Here’s our exclusive, just in time for Thirsty’s five-year anniversary!
THIRSTY: You’ve wanted to release your own music for a long time. When did your own label finally happen and how does it feel to be in charge of your own music?
Hank 3: As of January 2nd, I was off Curb (Records) and done, and January 3rd, I started writing songs. It was a big burst of energy and it was…just couldn’t wait to get all these different sounds out there and all that stuff, you know. It was a lot of inspiration to not be sat-on for so long, and I just wanted to do something different with putting out four different records covering three different genres. That’s kind of new territory. I think the only other person that came close to that was Frank Zappa, and he didn’t even get to do that because his label held him back.
THIRSTY: I just can’t believe you’ve done all of this material since January!
Hank 3: Yeah it was…I mean, January all the way to June everyday from 8 o’clock until I couldn’t go no further. It was dedicated. It was a hell of a process doing all the mixing and recording and that whole deal.
THIRSTY: I know you usually work on everything at the same time, as well. Is that the same process you used with this?
Hank 3: Yeah, some days in the daytime was country, and when I couldn’t do that no more, then I would go over to the stoner rock side of things and speed metal side of things. That’s the good thing about recording myself, I don’t have to wait for anybody else to show up. When I feel the energy on doing something, I can just go with it. So that’s definitely…when you feel the energy, you gotta go.
THIRSTY: Tell me about the experimentation on the records. There are so many different sounds you’re using, from cattle callers to changing your own voice around. I love that your dog, Trooper, is featured on the record, too.
Cattle Callin' (2011)
Hank 3: There’s just a lot of different, I guess, just inspiration on that. The country sound has a little more of a theme to it. The stoner rock stuff has that old Black Sabbath effect on it. The cattle calling song, the “Cattle Callin’” record, has that more intense high-end kind of manic thing to it, that’s a lot more crazier. It’s just a lot of different mood sets, that’s the main thing, trying to paint a lot of different pictures with sound and stuff like that. So it was essentially, you know, the country record isn’t really a country record. There’s a few songs on there that’s standard. You know, “Outlaw Convention”, “Guttertown”, “Day By Day”, those are kind of your standard country stuff, but the rest of the record is a lot more outside of the box. The Cajun stuff might be more hardcore country than the other stuff.
THIRSTY: And I’ve heard that Cajun influence in your stuff before, but I’ve never heard it be such a focus of so many songs on the same record.
Hank 3: It’s always been the deep connection with Hank Williams, and with my dad being born in Louisiana, and myself being in bands in New Orleans, and all that. It’s a deep connection for me, I’ve always felt real comfortable with that kind of music also. When I’m in a bad spot, it kind of takes it to the next level. That was a lot of fun, fun for me, doing that.
THIRSTY: “Guttertown” almost plays like a concept record. In a way, it almost tells a long story.
Hank 3: It does paint a lot of different moods, a lot of different sounds. The “Guttertown” theme comes up quite a bit. The theme of the swamp, the theme of the train and kind of being pirates of the road…those kind of things are definite, ongoing topics I talk about a lot. So a lot of that kind of goes back to a lot of the drifter kids that follow us from town-to-town. They arrive on the trains, living on the road, just drifting around, so I’m speaking a lot to those people, also, when I’m writing some of these songs.
THIRSTY: You worked exclusively at the Haunted Ranch for all of the new material. How did that influence your writing and the sound of the record?
Hank 3: Well, I mean, when I’m working at my own pace, I’m able to freely focus. If you’re working with someone else in the studio, there’s gonna be a little part of your guard that’s going to be up and you’re not officially going to be yourself. I think that’s how most people are, you know. On certain vocal tracks, when I’m doing weird noises or on the “Cattle Callin’” stuff or experimenting, I’m able to go to that next level of being open and being free and trying different things, so I think that’s one of the plusses about recording yourself and things like that. I know personally for me, I wouldn’t be able to be as open if I was working with someone else on some of my ideas on these records.
Ghost To a Ghost/Gutter Town (2011)
THIRSTY: The hardcore country fans expect a certain sound from you and can be very snobby, but the punk rock kids and metal kids can be very snobby, too. So it’s nice that you have this outlet where you can do whatever you want.
Hank 3: I’m doing my job. I’m supposed to create music and put it out there and record with other people. That’s my job. And for years, I wasn’t able to do my job. Curb was killing my creativity. They were killing my writing process, my playing process, and holding me back. Last night, Junior Brown came by the house and we recorded. Junior Brown and I called up the legendary bass player Dave Roe, who played for Johnny Cash for many years, then I was playing drums for Junior Brown. Recorded a song, mixed it, and it’ll probably be on Sirius Radio in the next two or three days. Being able to do little things like that is just awesome.
THIRSTY: Speaking about working with different people, Tom Waits is featured on the new record. How did the collaboration with him come about?
Hank 3: Well, me and Tom…I specifically heard his voice on one of my songs, and it just felt like I wanted to have his voice on there, and I reached out to him and asked him if he’d be interested, and he said yes…that sounds cool. As time went on, I finally got to meet him, I got to go to his place and we got to be around each other a little bit and feel comfortable. I think he felt a lot more comfortable after he got to meet me and that was huge. When he did that MOJO piece, and just being around him and being around his wife and everything, was a big deal. I think that helped get him on the record and it, you know, it just felt very comfortable to him. Super easy to work with, just as far as business goes. They were so amazingly friendly, it’s just super cool. Most people aren’t like that. To have as much fame as he has and be as unique as he is, it was very special, you know. And he felt very comfortable on the “Fadin’ Moon” track, more so than he gave me some on the “Ghost To a Ghost” record, but I think he really enjoys the “Fadin’ Moon” song a lot more.
THIRSTY: I watched some video of a recent Nashville show and the new songs translate so well live.
Hank 3: We’re still working on it. There’s certain aspects of it that need to be better, you know. The band is still trying to get there. It’s not quite there, and hopefully it will be, you know. But I’m trying to get the accordion into play a little bit live and things like that. Trying to do more of some of the tribal elements into it again. It’s getting close, but we still have a lot of work to do to make it right.
THIRSTY: Was that Nashville show the first one you did with the new material?
Hank III (credit: Donnie Knutson)
Hank 3: We did a bunch of shows, actually. I mean I’ve been playing locally for the last month and a half, averaging two shows a week. Some of them free, some of them not. So yeah, that mentality of just going ahead and just doing what we do, giving the bootlegger’s a chance to film it and get it out there and stuff like that. The hard part is just trying to get all…not killing my drummer for the first half of the show too bad, you know. I mean it’s a hellacious workload for him. But it’s coming along.
THIRSTY: I loved “Troopers Hollar” live in Nashville. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record, but I didn’t think live it would take that almost metal turn with your drums. You have like stadium drums on that track! It sounds amazing.
Hank 3: It’s just getting in there, part of that, you know, we’re using a really old school, big Ludwig Vistalite drum kit, and help to bring that sound. You know, a 26-inch kick, an 18-inch tom and a 20-inch floor tom, so some of those aspects just really (come off) that drum. I’m still getting used to playing a little rhythm banjo. So, I’m still, we still got things to do to get it right. Right now that song’s just pretty basic. Yeah, I hope to get the dog samples in there, and I hope to get some of that laughing, weird sound in there, you know. But people are really sparking an interest, I don’t know if it’s just because I’m picking up the banjo for a second or what it is, but people are definitely responding to that one pretty well.
THIRSTY: It seems to be everything you’re known for all in one song.
Hank 3: Well, most bluegrassers and most old-time country guys always sang about their dogs, you know. And this is Trooper’s, I guess, his fourth track he’s been on throughout the years. So it’s special to have him there for me. I’ve always been very intense about my animals and stuff like that. It’s a crossover song in my eyes. It brings it all together and that’s one that the younger kids will identify with, I think. Hard to say.
Hank III (credit: Cindy Knoener)
THIRSTY: Regarding some of the other songs, on “Move Them Songs”, is that someone else on the track with you or is that an effect on your voice?
Hank 3: Eddie Pleasant has been like a grandfather to me. And he worked with my dad for many, many years and he is a songwriter that basically writes a song every day. He’s had it all, he’s lost it all, and he’s just a really sweet, energetic old man. That’s him singing his song and I’m just doing a backup harmony. He’s like, “I can’t sing! People don’t want to hear me sing!” I’m like, no Eddie, you don’t understand. It’s real, it’s that old sound. And I think you’d be surprised! I think there’s a lot of people that would identify with your voice. You might not think so because you want a big production and you want someone to cut your songs the Nashville way, or whatever. But let’s hit record, and let you do your thing. So that’s what we did. I like hearing old people sing sometimes. He’s a very inspirational man.
THIRSTY: In the background of “Dyin Day”, it sounds like you have someone dancing, so the first thought I had was Jesco White. Is there someone with you on that?
Hank 3: That’s just going back to part of that Cajun sound, stomping the floor. Most of those old Cajun recordings, you hear someone going “thump thump” just with their foot and that’s basically what it is, just keeping that beat. You know, getting into it. You’ve got the drums laid down, four different drum tracks stacked up and then you’ve got stomping on the ground, just bringing that whole other feel to it.
THIRSTY: Who else would you like to work with?
Hank 3: I mean, it’s hard to say. There’s so many influences out there, you know. I don’t know music theory and all that, I just know how to write songs, record songs and play songs. So that kind of limits me if I wanted to work with a Mike Patton or a Buzz from the Melvins or something like that. There’s a part of me that would be kind of insecure about it, because I’m limited on what I do. But I know me and Wayne Hancock have talked about a “WH/HW” record for a long time. And I think that’s something that we need to do, as far as a purist kind of country thing…it’s getting close to the right time. Nan (Warshaw) of Bloodshot Records knows how much…how we’re all on the same page, basically. I think that will probably be the next country thing. But collaboration, who knows? There’s so many different inspiring people out there. It’s hard to say.
Attention Deficit Domination (2011)
THIRSTY: Since “Attention Deficit Domination” is just you playing all instruments, who are you going to bring out on the road with you?
Hank 3: Right now ADD is just me and my drummer, that’s it. I mean, I’ve got a big subsonic guitar tone and all this stuff, trying to work in my guitar tech to play a little bit of, some weird stuff. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a band called Jucifer. Jucifer bring a lot of inspiration to ADD. Edgar and Amber, it’s amazing what they do as a team out there. Setting their own gear up, creating a sound, touring the road as hard as they do. So that’s just kind of where it’s at for right now. It might change, but right now, it’s just me and Shawn (McWilliams).
THIRSTY: You love touring and don’t usually tour specifically around a record. With all this new material, you’re going on a 2-year tour right?
Hank 3: That’s my goal. Month on, month off, you know. The wear will be the hardest part for me, just because I’ve always been kind of weak on my immune system and stuff like that. But my goal is to stay out there as long as possible. I think this is the first time ever in my career that we have a CD coming out and then a tour starting. Never has it been like that. It’s just I had to get all this work done, and things like that, to get it to line up. So it’ll be good to finally have a piece of product at my merch table! I’ve never been able to sell my own CD at my shows, so that’s going to be huge in itself, just be able to have a chance to get that to a fan.