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Hank Williams III: Like grandfather, like grandson

By Tom Netherland, October 1999

Like father, like son. Like grandfather, like grandson.

That seems to be the unfolding story of Hank Williams III. With a set of sad songs in his heart, a trail of troubles in his recent past, the grandson and son of country music legends Hank Williams Sr. and Jr. came with a will to talk about it all.

A recent feature in Rolling Stone told the world much about the young prodigy, who just released his debut, "Risin' Outlaw."

In the story, Williams spoke and cursed openly of his drug problems and recent stay in a Los Angeles drug rehabilitation center.

"I went into that interview thinking that I'm gonna put every bad thing about me out in the open, that there will be no more surprises," he says. "I've always told the truth."

Barely a month out of drug rehab, Williams says that while he recognizes his addiction problem, he doesn't feel that it any way compares to drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

"I'd go through an ounce (of marijuana) a week," he says. "One day I'd like to quit. I do abuse it. I use it more than I should. I smoke a couple here and a couple there. In the Williams blood, they've always taken everything to the extreme. I've got a very addictive personality."

He says the decision to admit him to a rehab center came as a result of his record label, Curb, deciding that without some sort of treatment they'd be unwilling to assist in moving his career forward.

"They came to me and said, 'You need to come by the office, or we'll do the album stuff without you,'" Williams says. "So, I walked in and there was Hank Jr., my mom and my old road manager. Curb tells me that if I don't do rehab that they'll not get behind me. It was all a power move."

"(Rehab) was nothing but hell," he says. "I got sent out to L.A. with all the gang bangers, guys straight outta prison. It was pretty intense. I could only handle it for 15 days. I walked out with 7 bucks in my pocket, called my mom and said I was gonna do the rest of my time in Tennessee."

The 26-year-old singer says he was a bit surprised at how his father, with whom he has had a rocky relationship, took interest when he learned of his problem.

"I'm proud of him," Williams says. "He stepped forward and tried to be there for me. He says, 'I had no idea how low you were going.' He tried. He invited me to stay in Montana with him after my rehab. He was there 100 percent. He and Waylon (Jennings). They don't want to see me go down that road. Waylon went down it a whole lot further than Hank Jr."

A punk rock musician for much of his childhood, Hank III only recently began a country career.

"We (now) try to get the old style," he says. "We try to do it some kind of justice. We've been at it for four years. I played punk rock and heavy metal for five, six years. We've had a lot of good shows."

"I'm not happy with it," Williams says of his debut. "I hate it, can't even listen to but maybe two songs on it. I said (to the label) that every damn interview that I do I ain't gonna talk good about it. Curb thinks this album is so different and so alternative. It's a headache."

His grandfather, often referred to as 'The Hillbilly Shakespeare,' remains perhaps the most mysterious, most talented country musician of all-time. His grandson says he does look to him for inspiration, but not exclusively.

"Wayne 'The Train' Hancock is who I get my inspiration from," Williams says. "Wayne is pretty belligerent. You know, 'Don't mess with my music. Period.' He writes great songs. He's the Hank Williams of today in my eyes.

When asked about the young Williams, Hancock says that he has the tools and the backing to make a real go of it in Nashville.

"He's a good kid," Hancock says. "If he keeps his head on straight and people stay out of his music, he could do real well."

One look and little doubt as to his lineage comes to mind. He has his grandfather's steely looks and raw-boned build. He says older folks sometimes do a double-take when they see him. Until they see his foot-long braid of hair.

"When we sign autographs, that's all I'll hear," he says of comments on the likeness with his grandfather. "I've had a bunch of 'em say 'if you'll cut that damned hair, you'll make it a lot faster,' that kind of thing."

And at that Williams, who had been lightly strumming his heavily autographed guitar, broke into a mid-tempo song he wrote some time back about his father.

"My daddy was a rich man, but he never called," Williams sings, "I ain't got a thing to say to a man filled with greed," from a song titled, "If You Can't Help Your Own."

"The label won't touch that," Williams says.

"This song will never be recorded," he says before he began to sing the lines: "I ain't got no money, and I'm doing fine/I'm just a hillbilly hellraiser killing time."

After he played about two minutes worth, the veins in his forehead popped out as he sang with seeming heartfelt conviction, he ripped briefly into another. He took another drag from a cigarette, kicked something with his battered boot, and says he works on songwriting as much as possible.

"I've got my lord and devil song," Williams says while thumbing through a theme notebook of song lyrics he'd written. "Out of the songs I've written, I've got one called 'Calling Your Name,' 'I Won't Go Down,' 'I Never Thought I'd End Up On This Road,' 'Blue Devil,' 'Back By My Side,' 'High Test Toker,' 'Down In Houston,' 'On My Own Again.'"

"'Two Little Rosebuds,' he continued, "is about two little girls who drown in a river. It's a song that Hank Williams wrote that got lost and never recorded, so I just took the idea and ran with it.

"I just do what I do," Williams says. "I'm nothin' special. I'm not a great player, I'm not a great singer. We're different. My favorite guys are not polished. We're just trying to take Tennessee back as Wayne Hancock puts it."

"I've never done a show sober. I've never not done a show without pot. I need something to get me out on that stage."

He picked up his guitar, took a drag and looked up to the sky as he sang: "I've been up all night and I can't sleep/I've been thinking about you and I can't eat/I tried to go outside but it started to rain/And I'm sittin' here in tears callin' your name/Callin' your name....It's been so hard livin' all alone."

And with that the lanky son of a legend took another swig of whiskey, straightened his hat and headed for the stage.

"We ain't no Bryan White," he says, "and we don't want to be."