By Jon Black
“I’ve stood on my own two feet, carved my own niche and found my own voice,” Hank
Williams III says of a music career stretching almost a quarter century.
That is no mean for a man who is heir to the most hallowed moniker in country music.
“It’s been hard to do that,” Williams acknowledges, “Coming out of the family that I’ve
been in.” But done it he has. Like his grandfather, Williams has been a music trailblazer,
pioneering new genres like Hellbilly and Cattlecore that stretch country’s basic elements
in radical new directions, as well as a rebel unwilling to make the artistic and personal
compromises necessary to get the blessing of the country music establishment.
CountryMusicPride.com talked with Williams at the conclusion of his recent West Coast tour
to talk about the recent tour, his thoughts music, some recent success and future plans.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
Williams confides that, at heart, he thinks of himself as a touring musician, even referring
to his road show as a “bar band”, who loves life on road “It’s always a rollercoaster, you
never really can predict it,” he says, “Some nights you’ll have 1000 people and some
nights you’ll barely get 100.”
He is pleased with the most recent tour went. “The West coast usually has a good run.
It’s got a lot of energy. The crowds were there and everybody had a lot of fun.” One hitch
in was an injury to Shawn McWilliams, the band’s longtime drummer. McWilliams had
been coping with a torn rotator cuff for many years and the issue begun catching up with
him during the tour.
Asked about his favorite locations to play on the road, he talks about places like
Minneapolis, “where you would least expect it,” as he says —where his band has earned
a very loyal and intense following. “With the all-ages crowd and show times at 6:30 or
7:00, they always come out,” he says, “So that place has always stood out to me.” Other
favorite stops on Williams’ tours include Atlanta, Texas, Florida and California.
He admits some smaller cities can be more challenging, “Places like Little Rock and
Joplin, places where people would think I’d do better, it’s still really hard to get to the
working men and working women out there,” Williams explains.
Asked about why those places might be more difficult for his music and message to
reach, he points to promotion as one part of the equation. Even more importantly,
however, Williams says, “Those people are working twice as hard just to get by and they
don’t have as much time to go out as our fans in some of the larger cities.” In spite of
the challenges he has faced thus far, Williams remains committed to playing the smaller
cities of America’s heartland, “We’ll keep going to those smaller markets. Those are the
kinds of people I want to play for. So, we’ll just see what the future unfolds.”
THE RULE OF THREE
One consistent aspect of Williams’ live shows is their distinctive format, broken into
three very distinctive sets, each is a practically a stand-alone concert. The first set
features his more traditional country repertoire. The second showcases William’s music
from cowpunk, cattlecore and other more distant cousins of classic country. The final
segment gives free reign to his earlier influences in punk and metal.
Williams says he chose this format intentionally, based upon his observations about his
fans. He believes that there are more fans of his country and country-influenced music
than of his work in other genres. With that in mind, the format of his shows became a
simple concession to practicality. “I understand that a lot of folks don’t necessarily want
to see the second part or third part of my show. My roots run deep in country music and
I understand that. I want everyone to feel that they got their money’s worth. It’s really
about respect for the fans,” he explains.
Few artists have a fan base as diverse as Williams.’ At any show, the venue will be filled
with an eclectic mixture of punks, rockabillies and rockers as well as more traditional
country fans. He says the three-part format goes a long way to ensure smooth relations
between the different demographics in his crowd. “Everyone gets along a little better
between the rockers versus the cowboys. It’s been a good formula over the years and
everyone’s become used to it by now,” Williams says.
Williams has spent his entire career pushing the envelope of different genres and
exploring how they can work together. The result of his most recent musical
experimentation is the genre he branded “Cattlecore.” Debuting on Williams’ 2011
album, “Cattle Callin,’” Cattlecore blends his fast, garage-influenced approach to metal
with superimposed audio tracks of livestock auctioneers—with a result that sounds more
post-modern industrial than roots music. .
Going into the project, Williams knew this wasn’t going to be something that would
appeal to everyone, “That record and that style of music definitely isn’t for the masses.
It’s for the select few out there. It’s a very anxiety fueled, frantic sound.” Ultimately, he
says, Cattlecore is all about the auctioneer and the drums.
“Cattle Callin’” was very special project for Williams. Having worked on a farm earlier
in life, Williams has worked with cows, milked them and even branded them. Livestock
actions were part of that world and Williams developed enormous respect for auctioneers.
He recorded the album, and developed Cattlecore itself, as a way to pay tribute to
auctioneers and to inspire younger members of the craft.
From the beginning, however, Williams knew he was going to have a battle explaining
his vision to more traditional auctioneers, “It was really hard to explain to the older guys
that, ‘You’re not going to like this music and you’re going to not understand it. But know
that I’m not making fun of your industry or your organization. I have respect for what
you all do.’” Williams’ found that his experience with livestock and his country music
pedigree gave him at least some foundation when talking with auctioneers.
While some older and more traditional auctioneers never got completely behind his
project, Williams feels he made important headway, “A lot of the older guys came out
and met me. They understand what I do and how I have to be a rebel. They saw I might
cuss and raise a little bit of hell but I’m a good guy,” he explains, “At the end of the day,
they might not 100% agree with it, but they understand what I have to do out there. I
think my hard work on the project impressed them more than anything.”
One of the biggest challenges in making “Cattle Callin’” a reality was negotiating with
auctioneers to appear on the album. In this task, Williams took the same egalitarian
approach he brings to every other aspect of his music, “I didn’t care if they were a world-
famous auctioneer or a 14 year-kid. It was the same amount of money, it was the same
contract.” At times, the process was very frustrating, “Sometimes I’d spend $1,000 in
lawyers’ fees negotiating with an auctioneer for a month and they’d still say ‘no.’”
At the end of the day, however, Williams put together an impressive lineup of auctioneers
to appear on “Cattle Callin,’” including Dan Clark of South Dakota, Joe Doggens out of
Montana, Tim Dowler out of Canada and Mitch Jordan from Arizona. “All those people
were very receptive to what I was doing,” Williams says, “They were excited because it
was something a little different for them.”
He also says that the addition of Cattlecore to the lineup has been very good for his live
shows, “By the time we play it, we’re already about three hours into the show and some
people are barely hanging in there. It seems like the Cattlecore stuff moves a lot of people
and gets them going again.”
THE QUADRUPLE CROWN
In 2010, Williams performed a unique feat of musical endurance, simultaneously
releasing four full-length and very distinctive albums: “Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown” a
double-LP of country music, the above mentioned “Cattle Callin’” as well as the sludge
metal influenced “Attention Deficient Domination.”
He says there were a number of factors that led him to such an unprecedented course of
action, “I’ve always been the kind of guy to try and take things to the next level. For me,
this was a way of making musical history. I’ve got the rest of my life to only play one
hour or only do one record.” Another motivation can be found in Williams’ often uneasy
relationship with some of his previous labels, “I’ve been held back for so many years it.
I haven’t been able to sell my own CD at my own show in 18 years. Being able to sell
my CDs, for people to see each style of music and then have an option to buy it, was very
important to me.” A third motivation was that, with Williams’ eclectic tastes and fertile
mind, he was felt pulled in many different musical directions at the same time. “I was just
trying to put some different things out there,” he says.
Williams, and the critics, were pleased by the results of this ambitious frenzy of recording
output. He does, not, however, downplay the effort and went into it, “When you’re trying
to juggle 60 to 80 different songs, playing, recording, mixing and being involved with
every aspect of every song, it definitely is very intense. I doubt I’ll be able to ever do it
OUTSIDE MUSIC ROW, LOOKING IN
Throughout his career, Williams has often been critical of the country music
establishment. He famously summed up his complaints in a 2006 interview, saying:
“Everybody calls themselves outlaws and all that stuff, but that’s what’s
missing in country music. Everything’s so clean and pretty and perfect,
and you need a couple of people in there that aren’t perfect and that don’t
sound the best. That’s the way some of the best guys were, man.”
In that quote, it is hard not to see a mirror of Williams’ grandfather and many of the other
country music greats with which Hank Williams Sr. was associated at the Louisiana
Six years after that quote, Williams seems less inclined to criticize the country music
establishment than to simply ignore it and focus on making his music his way. “I’m the
first one to say I’m definitely out of the loop on what’s currently happening in country
music,” he comments, “Every now and then I get to listen to outlaw radio. But the last
big country artist I listened to was Alan Jackson in the early ‘90s.” Williams is not,
however, completely unaware of current developments in the genre, referencing the
guitar-driven/alt-rock trends in many recent releases and speaking dismissively of the
auto-tuned pop-country dominating much of today’s country radio airplay.
For all that, Williams is aware of his unique status as perhaps country music’s best-
known outsider, “You’re talking to a guy who has never been to an award show. I’ve
never been in that world at all. I’ve always been on the outside looking in and marching
to my own drum. If you compare me to someone like Kenny Chesney, there there’s a
huge difference in what I do.”
Expanding on that point, Williams thinks the most significant difference between him
and Nashville’s superstars is not the music itself but, rather, his approach to the music.
“We’re a bar band. I help load the trailer, set up the stage, write the songs and record
the music. Some other artists out there only want to get onstage and sing the songs
they’re told to sing. They’re not into all that other stuff I do. Maybe I’m just a little more
In discussing the origins of that independent streak and hands-on approach to every
aspect of his music, Williams cites many musical heroes from his pre-country days,
including The Melvins, Henry Rollins, The Dead Kennedys, and The Reverend Horton
Heat. “All those people have offered me a different kind of work ethic over the years,” he
One of the most ambitious steps Williams has taken to ensure his musical independence
is the creation of his own record label, Hank3 Records, as he says, “If you want to be
completely in-house and completely do-it-yourself, you just need a website. Put it up and
start burning CDs on your own. You can make your own records.”
He says the most challenging aspect of starting Hank3 records has been finding
distribution, “It’s like Henry Rollins said, ‘You tour, you’ve got your fans, you work
hard. You don’t need a manager. All you need is distribution.’ I took that to heart and it’s
definitely worked for me.”
Aspiring country, cowpunk and hellbilly artists seeking a label, however, should probably
look elsewhere. Williams does not anticipate signing a lot of other bands to the Hank3
label. “It’s hard enough just keeping up with what I do because I don’t have a secretary
or a manager. I don’t want other musicians to feel like their getting cheated or not getting
the respect or promotion that they deserve.”
Williams does, however, have some advice for young artists just starting out. “All you
need is a Shure 57 microphone and portable recorder or recording program on your
computer,” he says. Beyond that, his advice boils down to one simple concept, “just do
it,” saying, “Start laying down tracks. Get into the recording aspect because no one is
going to like your music more than you do.” There are so many options now to get good
sound for not that much money that it’s really important to be productive.” He also touts
the benefits of social media sites like YouTube and FaceBook that allow bands to get
their sound out to people more easily than their peers in previous generations.
So, if Williams isn’t listening to mainstream country these days, what is he listening
to? The answer, unsurprisingly, is a lot of things. “I’m really stuck in the ‘50s to the
early ‘80s,” he says. Current favorites include Jonny Paycheck, bluegrass virtuoso
Jimmy Martin, rockabilly artist Roy Duke and old-time banjoist Dock Boggs. He also
acknowledges a current fondness for ‘70s rock and roll. Williams sees a common thread
to his current musical interests, the exploration of America’s rich musical history, “It
seems like still doing my homework on the past right now.”
For the immediate future, in spite of a pledge to tour constantly for two years, Williams
says he needs to stick close to home for a little while, “Since I said that, I’ve toured the
West Coast twice. I’ve been to Europe and played a bunch of places I’d never played
before in Spain and Italy. No matter what, I need to take a break.”
The main motivation for a hiatus from touring, however, is drummer Shawn
McWilliams’ rotator cuff. Williams says McWilliams is essential to the act, “He’s
the kind of guy you just can’t replace. He knows more than 150 of my songs. I don’t
even have to tell him what I’m playing and he already knows.” On a personal level,
of all Williams’ regulars, McWilliams has been with him the longest. “In the name of
friendship, I needed to take a while we wait for him to heal. So I’m probably going to
make some records and play locally as much as I can.”
Williams is already thinking seriously about his next record. While he’s not ready to
go public about it, he acknowledges he has already selected the album’s name and has
a theme for many of the songs. And, while he won’t confirm which of his myriad of
musical styles the record will follow, Williams does offer the following comment, “I do
think it’s time for me to do another hellbilly-style record. It’s been almost ten years since
I’ve done that kind of record, so that’s definitely coming up.”
.Even as he thinks about the future, Williams expresses great satisfaction with where he
is right now, “If something happened to me tomorrow, I would feel proud of my family.
I’ve met my rock and roll heroes, I’ve met my country heroes and I’ve worked with
some of the biggest names in both. I’ve performed on some of the biggest stages and
performed on some of the smallest stages. I’ve done what I’ve done and I’m proud of it.”
Hank Williams III is many things. He is a musician and label owner. He is a cowboy, a
punk and metal head. He is a rebel who carries the most famous name in country music.
Just shy of 40 years old, he has a long potential future ahead of him shaping, interpreting
and creating a multitude of music genres. For all that, he has already accomplished what
may be his most remarkable triumph: Hank Williams III is his own man and stands on his
own two feet.