Calling from an unspecified location, Unknown Hinson offers some sagely intended, comedically delivered advice to up and coming musicians. "Practice your guitar, piana or whatever, at least a half hour a day. Don't give up because you never know. But most of all - try to avoid a prison sentence if humanly possible. Because your rakkerd sales will drop off if you go into the joint for 30 years like I done."
Sound advice and like many of Hinson's statements, he makes a claim that can't easily be proved or disproved. You see, the singer-songwriter, who looks like the living embodiment of the 1966 B-movie "Dracula Meets Billy The Kid," is more of a stage persona than an actual person. Part late-night horror-movie host, part novelty act with a death row attitude, he is the most unique performer in country music today.
This fact was not lost on Capitol Records, which recently released the bottom-fanged felon's first major label album "The Future Is Unknown."
According to the artist himself - who seems comically stuck in a timewarp - Capitol is getting the best of the deal. "I figured, they need some help. They lost their ass on them Beatles and Beach Boys, maybe I can help 'em out and sell some rakkerds."
That's right. He said "rakkerds." Hinson's working vocabulary is larded with pure backwoods pronunciations á la "womerns" for "women," "rawk" for "rock" and "rakkerds" for "records."
Further, he punctuates his gab with little self-encouraging asides of "yeh-yeh," and refers to anything having to do with him or his music as "chart-toppin'." The singer best employs this mongrel articulation in boasts like "I'm in a class all my own. Yeh-yeh. I ain't like the steroid-eatin' pretty boys who wears them black cowboy hats and tight designer jeans and ain't playing nothin', just tushy-pushin' around the stage with a McDonald's microphone in front of them. That ain't me, Hoss. I play the guitar and sing country and western chart-toppers to the folks. The reason I don't wear a cowboy hat is I ain't bald! They all bald. I got a full head of chart-toppin' jet-black hair that drives the womerns wild!"
It's all an act, of course. The same type of inspired role-playing Andy Kaufman used to indulge in when he took on the character of Tony Clifton. However, whereas Clifton was a no-talent and a bore (which is why the bit was funny), Hinson is an edgy, funny songwriter and a top-flight guitarist equally at home playing traditional acoustic country and hard-assed rock.
Hinson's true identity isn't too hard to discover.
Two clippings in his press kit and one article link from his official website mention that he is the alter-ego of a Charlotte-area music teacher and studio musician named Danny Baker. Moreover, his Capitol CD's songwriter credit reads "All songs written by Unknown Hinson (sdb Music, SESAC/Pacific Winds Music, SESAC)." A trip to the SESAC website quickly reveals that all the songs listed were written by one Stuart Daniel Baker.
That said, Hinson won't admit that he and Danny Baker are the same person. Why should he? Besides, it's much more fun to hear his version of the chart-toppin' truth.
So who is Danny Baker?
"I met him," says Hinson. "When I got out of the joint, as part of my community service, I went around and entertained people at various rest homes and certain institutions. I met his'n, and he was a patient. I won't name the exact hospital, but it was somewhere in North Carolina - and he got a little bit too overzealous when he heard my music, ' and he kindly got obsessed with me. He's been stalking me ever since. I can't help the boy. He's got a problem. He needs to get his life together."
How does Hinson, known for his quick temper and carrying a .38 pistol deal with the alleged stalking of Danny Baker?
"Well, man, when he comes to the door, I'll greet him and say, 'Hey, Hoss, you need to think about it. You need to get yourself together and be somebody and quit trying to live vicariously through me - The King of Country Western Troubadours.' He ain't never become violent or nothin' like that. He knows what would happen if he does. Yeh-yeh, I ain't scared of him."
This comic turnabout leaves us with only the mythology of Unknown Hinson to pursue. Born in the foothills of North Carolina, his mother sang him traditional western-folk songs until he was old enough to start learning the guitar. The alleged start of his professional career, circa the early '60s, sounds like something drawn from a Harlan Ellison novel.
"I left home when I was 14-year-old, and I hooked up with a six-truck carny that run around the deep south working country fairs, yeh-yeh. I worked there in the midway at a 10-in-1 show. To the laymen, they would call that a sideshow, and I did work with various wildlife including snakes and chickens and a few others."
Interrupting his colorful narrative, this writer respectfully asked Hinson if he had been a geek (a sideshow freak who attracts crowds by biting the heads off of live animals). For the first time, the accent dropped a bit.
"That's a little strong. For the sake of your magazine, we won't get real graphic. They's a new trend where we got to watch what we say. I will say that I've always been an animal lover, yeh-yeh. I never got hurt, never got hurt. Can't say the same for some of the animals. It was purely unintentional if they did.
"Anyway, the evolution of the chart-topping hits started right there on the midway. The owner of the carnival, he let me sing a few of my chart-topping songs that I had wrote, to the audiences. In a matter of weeks, the gate receipts for the fair was up because they was coming to see me. At the time, I was billed as Troubadour Boy. Yeh-yeh. In betweenst working with the animals, I would sing to the crowd three or four country-western songs that I had wrote myself."
According to Hinson, his act proved so popular that major record labels began to show interest. However, just as his career was about to take off, some men "known in the history books as the pioneers of country music" ruined his chances by framing him for several criminal offenses, including "the ultimate crime."
This writer could find no evidence of a jail record for either Hinson or Danny Baker.
Suffice it to say that the character of Unknown Hinson was created in 1993, the year the singer-songwriter says he got out of prison. This provides a wonderful explanation for why most of the performer's attitudes and references are stuck in the 60s. He writes about "hippies," still rails against "womern's lib" and disdainfully covers Jimi Hendrix and "the Led Zeppelins."
"I do it as a disclaimer," explains Hinson. "The reason I play occasional rawk in my show dates and concerts is just to show the youngerns that it don't take no talent to play that mess."
Hinson burst into prominence via a cable access show aired in Charlotte, N.C. called the "The Wild, Wild South Show." Quickly he followed with his own regular cable access program of comedic vignettes, all while working the local club scene. Donning an embroidered Western gambler's outfit, exaggerated eyebrows, sideburns, and fangs, Hinson quickly became known as a "hillbilly vampire."
"I get that all the time," Hinson sighs. "That was something that was started by - pardon the expression - the evil, wicked press. Yeh-yeh. They call me that. Youngerns who sees me, these young folks who listens to the rawk music - that gothic mess - they think I'm dark. They say, 'Oh dude, you dark. You've got the black hair and the black show day clothes, you've got a chauffeur dressed in black, and he drives you around in your black Cadillac. You must be a vampire.' No, man that don't work. Because a vampire's fangs is on the top rack, right? That's it. And my fangs or my teeths, if they were fangs, they're on the bottom. So, the physics of me biting somebody on the neck is pert near impossible unless I stood on my head. That throws the vampire theory right out of the window."
Recordings for the independent Uniphone label eventually led to a 2002 EP for Capitol titled "Rock'n'Roll Is Straight From Hell," which got him booked on tours with the likes of Rev. Horton Heat and Hank Williams III. What did the harrowing hard-tail think of his tour mates and their respective audiences?
"I like 'em fine," Hinson reports. "Hank's a good boy. Me and him drunk a lot of liquor together, chased a lot of womerns. He's a good boy. And, Rev. Horton Heat? Fine fella, wonderful guitar player. The youngerns that you're talking about - the gothics, the greasers - that come around? The womerns look good. The mens, I can't say much for them, but the womerns look good. Some of them look like the Bettie Page type. They realize their femininity, and they show it off. I like that."
The release of his first full major label album, "The Future Is Unknown," while a triumph of character-based satire, must be something of a challenge for a mainstream label like Capitol to promote.
Not that Hinson lacks talent.
In both conception and execution he proves to be a supremely gifted craftsman. It's just that country music, even with its massive influx of northern middle-class female listeners, doesn't have much of a taste for politically incorrect humor.
"Everything I write about is about real life experiences that I have experienced in my life," Hinson explains. "Or, at least situations that I have witnessed with my chart-toppin' eyes."
These situations include the heavy-breathing, possibly violent stalker in "Foggy Windows," the romancer of rubber sex dolls in "Polly Urethane," the recalcitrant adulterer of "I Ain't Afraid of Your Husband" and the sex-changed divorcee addressed in "Man To Man." It's funny stuff, indeed. Yet, outside of radio's shock jock-oriented Morning Zoo crews - who frequently call Hinson to liven up their programs - very few mainstream country stations are biting.
Right now, Hinson, who can count such Hollywood hotshots as Billy Bob Thornton and Tim Robbins among his fans, isn't worried, "because I've got a rakkerd deal with the biggest, baddest rakkerd label on the planet, and the Unknown Hinson phenomenon is happenin' raht now!" Moreover, the charismatic country caricature loftily predicts, "Well, a year from now, I expect that the next rakkerd will be out after this one has done gone platinum."
Will Hinson sell enough records to justify another major label release? Will Danny Baker ever emerge from Hinson's ominous shadow? At this juncture it's only safe to say: The Future is Unknown.