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It’s 3 a.m., the promise of Saturday night has soured into the coming down of Sunday morning, and drifting cowboy Hank Williams IIIwho lit up D.C. a few hours ago with one of the wildest goddamn shows I’ve ever seenis still ringing in my ears. This tympanic disturbance is just as well: While I was at the Black Cat drinkin’ too much, dancin’ too poorly, and staring drop-jawed at the future (and the past) of country music, my landlord apparently installed a high-tech spinning device under my apartment, and now the goddamn place just won’t stay still.
So with a head full of Anchor Steam, I avoid my Tilt-A-Whirl bed, remain in the upright position, and count the minutes ticking off the clock. And, with one eye shut for balance purposes, I ponder this: how Shelton Hank Williamsson of Hank Williams Jr. (aka Bocephus); grandson of the Hank Williams (aka the Father of Country Music); a chronic pothead, cigarette smoker, and drinker; a cash-poor high school dropout; a guy who recorded a major-label album only after discovering he had an illegitimate kidcould also be the future of punk.
(I also can’t stop pondering the Blonde in Red Leather, a front-row Hank III groupie who, during the first song, asked me, “What do I have to do for a good review?” She followed that up with: “Do you write for Penthouse?” God, I love country music.)
Anyway, this is how the Best Show of the Year goes down: At 27 years old, 6-foot-2, and weighing no more than a buck-naked buck-fifty, Hank III (pronounced Hank Three) saunters onstage around midnight wearing a beat-up white cowboy hat, a braided ponytail down to the middle of his bony back, a silver-link chain tight around his throat, a black Misfits T under a black C&W snap-on shirt adorned with tumbling dice, black leather pants decorated with cannabis leaves, and grime-rich boots. His arms are thin but strong, and roped with veins, and he’d definitely lose a leg-wrestling contest to Ichabod Crane. His morgue-pale face is pointed, and his eyes are sunken with lack of sleep, but let’s just take the easy road: Hank III looks like Hank the One and Only (who, it should be noted for literary tension, died from record-breaking drug and alcohol abuse when he was only 29).
“We’re gonna do about 30 minutes of country and then give you some of our hillbilly heavy-metal bullshit,” Hank III says to the three-quarters-full crowd, kicking off his last show of 2000. “And I’m gonna need some goddamn whiskey up here in a minute.”
And with that declaration, a smattering of cowboy hats is raised roofward as Hank III, backed by a skeletal Space Age fiddle, stand-up bass, drums, and lead guitar, grabs his acoustic guitar andwait a sec, you gotta hear about the acoustic guitar: Hank III’s weapon of choice is beaten silly with black-marker scribbles, myriad violent scratches (not to mention a dime-sized hole), and a large X-rated sticker of two curvaceous female devils, one of whom is going down on the other.
And then holy goddamn hell: Hank III may look frail, but the guy can flat-out gogo faster, harder, louder than any cowboy out there. Sounding like BR5-49 dipped in kerosene, he went about settin’ the club on fire with a handful of taut rockabilly burners and ended most songs with a familiar soft, twangy yodel. With a shout-out to “real country musicians like David Allan Coe,” Hank III rebel-yells “I Don’t Know” and “If the Shoe Fits,” both from his 1999 debut album, Risin’ Outlaw. He hammers out a take on “Cocaine Blues” that hasn’t been played so fast, so tight since the Man in Black was chain-popping uppers. (During the song, a young woman in a red T-shirt and denim hiphuggers hops onstage and starts dancing. Hank III doesn’t miss a beat, and when he finishes, he smiles and says, “It’s amazing what that moonshine will do for you, I’ll tell ya what.”)
Hank III even busts out, as he sweetly puts it, “one of Daddy’s”: Hank Jr.’s “Women I’ve Never Had.” Maybe this is just a shot at pop. Or maybe Hank III is setting up us writers, who will no doubt interpret the curious cover as a sign that fences are being mended in a relationship that has been lukewarm at best. Hank Jr. wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout during the ’70s and ’80s, and a nonstop touring schedule, plus a messy divorce, kept him and his checkbook away from home for, well, ever. Whatever: “Women I’ve Never Had” is a classic redneck anthem, and Hank III pleases even the rowdiest Bocephus fans in the house.
But it’s really not until Hank III stomps into his grandfather’s “Move It On Over,” that I finally, truly believe in reincarnation. It makes perfect sense really: Distilled down to his essence, Hank Williams was a cowpunk at heart. And now his essence, his grandson (the two never met), is turning D.C.’s premier indie-music club into a demonic hoedown.
During the spectral moment, an urban cowboy sidles up next to me with a seeing-is-believing grin. “It skips a generation, you know?” shouts “born and raised” D.C. native J.B. Habit, a Hank III follower wearing a black cowboy hat, black metal-studded leather jacket, and black jeans. “A little while ago, I went through some of the old records, and the critics were saying the same thing about Hank as they’re saying about Shelton.”
After the last tune of the “country” seta brand-new song he wrote especially for the Nashville suits: “I’m Here to Put the Dick in Dixie and the Cunt in Country”Hank III peels off both his western shirt and his cowboy hat, and trades his acoustic guitar for an electric. The looming skull on the Misfits shirt is chattering under the lights. All of the other instruments and players remain unchangedhowever, the fiddler does strap a pair of plastic devil horns high on his glistening forehead.
Beware: Hank III is done paying the bills.
Most of the cowboy hats have left the building by the time Hank III finishes his first song of the second seta speed-metal thunderstorm and a whole lotta harshly put “motherfucker”s. That beautiful voice is gone, all of it: the twang, the rich tenor, the sound of days gone by. There’s just universal screaming nowno accent, just anger. The mosh pit grows larger and larger. The Blonde in Red Leather is being tossed around like a volleyball. This may be “hellbilly,” but it makes Nashville Pussy sound like Dottie West.
Hank III (whose punk outfit has played on the same bill as Fugazi) throws some Minor Threat in the mix and tosses in some of his own scream-garbled mayhem. The band is tight, the energy ferocious, but for many, the blissful mood set earlier has simply turned into an endurance test. There’s always the chance that, if you stay, maybe Hank III will encore with the good stuff, cue up some “Honky Tonk Blues” and get the séance started again. Because that was something. It really was.
Finally, Hank III lifts his electric guitar high in the air and smashes it down against the stage, angry detritus flying everywhere. He doesn’t say, “Thanks now.” He doesn’t say, “Goodnight, ya’ll.” He just stomps off the stage. And he never comes back. Not even for his hat. Sean Daly