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For anyone who’s ever survived one of Shelton Hank Williams III’s schizolicious live shows—the first half being hell-bound honky-tonk, the second half erupting in what he calls “hillbilly heavy-metal bullshit”—this much is clear: The 29-year-old twangy troubadour with the morgue-pale mug and the greasy rat-tail doesn’t want to be his grandpa; he wants to be Glenn Danzig. Nevertheless, Misfit-at-heart Hank III has always felt a certain burden—if not from himself, then from his record company—to uphold family tradition, and no amount of pre-show Jack Daniel’s has yet freed him to follow his preferred punk path. He’s still country, goddammit, even if not-so-deep-down he truly believes that country ain’t that cool.
On his sophomore effort, the new Lovesick Broke & Driftin’, the oft-besotted singer-songwriter-stoner still yodels and drawls like a younger, wilder version of his legendary relative. But the irascible cow-punk has taken a few steps to alter his tune since his safe-and-soundalike 1999 debut, Risin’ Outlaw, on which he had a songwriting hand in only a few tunes. Here, a suddenly inspired Hank III, who wrote 12 of the 13 tracks, has found a middle ground between punk-holler anthems and prairie-dog lullabies—and that middle ground is the music of bawdy badass David Allan Coe.
Just take a gander at the song titles on the new album and you’ll know what you’re in for: “7 Months and 39 Days” (about jail), “Lovin’ and Huggin’” (about nookie), “Mississippi Mud” (about moonshine), “5 Shots of Whiskey” (about, uh, whiskey), and “Whiskey, Weed and Women” (caught on yet?). Sure, the hard-livin’ lyrics could have been written by a hopped-up, horn-dog trucker on a midnight run, but Hank III and his slide-and-fiddle-strong band keep things so tight that the album successfully comes off as a puckish party soundtrack that you’ll never have to apologize for liking. On the best and most rambunctious track, “Nighttime Ramblin’ Man” (“Well I’m gonna do some drinkin’/I’m gonna drink all that whiskey that I can”), the pace is ass-on-fire frenzied and the front-porch pickin’ from his backing boys is absolutely flammable. The cool shuffle-boogie “7 Months and 39 Days,” supposedly about Hank III’s days time in the clink but perfect for a spin around the White Horse Saloon, makes a short stint in a cell sound as fun as it looked during the egg-eating contest in Cool Hand Luke. And the sexed-up “Lovin’ and Huggin’,” complete with a slinky harmonica solo and some randy down-low guitar breaks, is a playful boot-scootin’ warning that if the man’s tour bus is a-rockin’—well, you know the drill.
The album’s simplistic approach aside, it remains a perverse thrill hearing the somewhat naive Hank III talk tough and summon the vocal spirit of grandpa. When he slows things down—particularly on the acoustic alienation ode of “Cecil Brown” and a curious cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”—Hank III sounds as if he’s singing from the gutter, dropping world-weary hints that all that booze and all those drugs haven’t come close to dulling the pain his notorious brood has a knack for lugging around. But we might never know the real son of Bocephus until he releases an album that he’s had in the can for about a year. It’s called This Ain’t Country, and it’s reportedly hardcore punk. No word yet on whether he’ll cover the ‘Fits’ legendary “Last Caress”—”Sweet lovely death/I am waiting for your breath”—but with Hank III, you just never know.
A few years back, the National Press Club hosted an afternoon press conference for a that-evening concert benefiting the eradication of land mines. A few tables had been set up in a small room, and select journalists and local notables—and I—had been invited for lunch and the chance to mingle with a handful of rock stars. I was the first guest to arrive, and I quickly plopped myself down at an empty table. Fidgety and nervous and far too excited about meeting Sheryl Crow, I leaned down to take requisite pen and notebook out of my satchel; when I straightened myself, I was rather shocked to see that there was someone else across the table from me. The two of us—one of whom was a musical icon—were virtually alone in the room. I emitted a high-pitched chirp: “Hi, Willie!”
That’s right: I had made a total jackass out of myself—”Hi, Willie”?—in front of the one and only Willie Nelson. But the Red Headed Stranger simply smiled at my gaffe, exhaled a smoky chuckle, and extended his rawhide hand. He had no doubt seen this kind of buffoonery before. We talked golf for a few minutes—until someone else joined us and started asking pointed land-mine questions. I wisely didn’t say much the rest of the afternoon, but I had been won over by Nelson’s well-worn charm nevertheless. You could even say I was smitten.
So, being a close personal friend of Willie’s, I have been truly pained listening to his lame output over the past few years. Instead of heading back “On the Road Again,” or getting “Crazy,” the 68-year-old icon has been prolific in cranking out numerous novelty albums: Mexicali fluff, fake blues, and, as perhaps his lowest musical moment ever, a kid’s album. (Come on, Willie: “Rainbow Connection”?) It’s been a tough stretch, to be sure, but you tend to forgive the man who gave us “Hands on the Wheel” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
That said, on the new The Great Divide, Nelson dips back into the bottom of the creative barrel and gives us a laughably overproduced album of soulless pop duets. The celebrity cameos include Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Lee Ann Womack, Brian McKnight, and Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas. (I guess Babyface was busy.) The saccharine song selection is mainly hired-out sap and covers, the latter of which worked for Nelson on the soothing Stardust, but fail here because, er, he does “Time After Time.” (Come on, Willie: Cyndi Lauper?) The lamest of the lame include “Be There for You,” on which Nelson and Crow struggle over a faux-reggae beat, then give way for a New Age-y keyboard solo that not even Yanni would touch, and the penny-whistle-burdened “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me),” which finds Thomas (who apparently thought he didn’t do enough damage to Santana) and Nelson getting so cutesy it makes me wince just thinking about it.
Nelson’s cracked-leather voice is indeed a national treasure, and just about anything he croons will always draw interest for the blessed presence of his aged pipes alone. During the very rare moments on The Great Divide when Nelson ditches his VH1 friends—such as on the weeper “Won’t Catch Me Cryin’” and a toned-down “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”—you can still remember the good old days without the threat of nausea. Still, with all that syrup squirted over the mess, there’s hardly a moment to recommend. In fact, I think it’s time for Willie and me to have another lunch. And this time, we’re not gonna talk about golf. CP