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A tale of three Hanks

By Bill Kisliuk

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  How would you expect Hank Williams III to act? Reverential and kindly, giving props to Ernest and Lefty and Patsy, saying he can only hope to honor their memory? Might be nice in a way, but it surely wouldn't be very Hank-like. After all, Hank I was a wild-eyed maverick, addicted to alcohol and painkillers, whose reputation kept him off the Grand Ole Opry stage until his passionate music and popularity forced the Opry's hand. He went on to hit the Top 10 about three dozen times, recording 11 #1 hits in the six years between his first single and the day his life ended, at age 29, in 1953. His son, Hank Jr., has been a success of similar stature if not musical import, evolving from daddy's imitator to his own brand of Southern-fried rebel who occupied the country charts with rowdy redneck anthems throughout the 1980s.

And now, ladies and gentlemen: Hank III. The restless 26-year-old veteran of Atlanta punk bands just put his bony elbow into Nashville's ribs with his solo debut, Risin' Outlaw (Curb), and before three minutes pass he's warbled something about trying to get into Shania Twain's pants. Whether this is calculated rebel posturing or evil genius is hard to tell. The biographical hype that Curb provided with the CD says Shelton Hank Williams's turn toward country music came as the result of the corporate-inspired 1996 "Three Hanks" project, where he sang alongside his pop and a tape of his grandfather. But Hank III told Rolling Stone earlier this year that it was a paternity suit that kicked his reckless ass toward tradition. "I told my punk friends, 'If I'm gonna do country, I'm gonna milk it,' " he said.

Listening to Risin' Outlaw, you find it doesn't much matter how he got there. This is a thumping good honky-tonk record, with muscular, uncluttered guitar, fiddle, and steel accompaniment and swaggering tunes. There are strains of both earlier Hanks in the imagery of H3's originals, especially "On My Own" and the lo-fi "Blue Devil," which was scratchily recorded at home with a four-track. The sinewy Hank III also bears a considerable physical likeness to gramps.

Yet he doesn't take after Hank I or Hank II so much as after current honky-tonk howler Wayne "The Train" Hancock. In fact, Hancock -- who spurns today's country-music machinery in the notes to his newest release Wild, Free and Reckless -- wrote and previously recorded three of the songs H3 does on Risin' Outlaw. Williams's drawling vocals, talky and direct, also take on some of Hancock's little quirks on "Thunderbolts and Neon Signs" and "87 Southbound." Of course, Hancock owes most everything to the original Hank, so in a way the circle remains unbroken.

Meanwhile, Hank Senior's role as the most influential performer in the history of country music means fans and historians keep getting new cracks at him. Last year the exhaustive -- and exhausting -- 10-CD Complete Hank Williams was issued by Mercury. And now we have a more manageable set in the two-CD Live at the Grand Ole Opry, which brings something new to the feast. The first of the two CDs culls tunes from nine separate Saturday nights in Nashville, featuring hits that vary only slightly from the familiar versions, though it's fun to hear a well-placed whoop or holler from the crowd when Hank cranks up his ragged yodel. Other tunes, the accordion-drenched gospel number "Let the Spirit Descend" and the sprightly cover "Dear John," add more to the legacy. Flavor also comes in the form of Hank playing straight man during comic routines by Opry jesters or saying it was "mighty neighborly" of the folks at a recent concert to greet him so warmly. The second CD offers a half-hour excerpt from a 1950 night at the Opry, including a couple of tunes by Williams and Red Foley amid other, museum-quality Opry hokum.

Other than blood, the Williamses do have an awful lot in common. Hank Sr., whose blues-and-spiritual influence helped broaden the horizons of country music to come, formed his famous Drifting Cowboys while still a teen. Hank Jr. was an Opry vet at 11 and is a bit of a rocker, and Hank III played drums behind his dad before playing punk.

What comes through clear as a train whistle on Risin' Outlaw is that Hank III has songwriting skills, the raw appeal of his forebears, and the power of the industry behind him. So there's not much to stop Hank III, except maybe Hank III. It all makes you wonder, though, assuming he really is doing this to help pay for the child he sired, whether it'll be that long before we hear from Hank IV.

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