Shelton Hank Williams—known on stage as Hank III—might only be the most recent generation of three Hank Williams boys to make his name in music, but, with or without the legacy, he's an absolute American original. Rocking just as hard as he lives, Williams has always cut his own path, fighting the bridle thrown over him by those who hoped to ride him to their own riches.
Had it not been for a paternity suit and a subsequent court ruling ordering him to pony up significant cash, Williams' musical life would certainly have taken a different course. But in 1996, he made a bald cash-in move, appearing on Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts, which united Hank III with the tracked vocals of his country-singing relatives. Curb Records subsequently refused to allow Williams to release music by his death metal and punkabilly-based side projects. They wanted to shoehorn him down a country path, and—family tradition being what it is—he bucked all the way.
But what if we'd all met Shelton Hank Williams simply as some guy named Shelton, a punk-loving metalhead who'd heard country all his life and who didn't have a legacy that a major label shoved down his and our throats? Would he sound any different? Probably not: Hank III had to work against the successes of his forefathers, but his indomitable spirit suggests that even if Hank had been an unknown musician rising though the ranks, he would have eventually clawed himself into his current menacing mix of country, punk and metal. That is, Hank III by any other name would have arrived in many of the same places. Here, we fancy Hank III as Shelton, the disgruntled drummer for some punk bands out in the sticks of Arkansas.
After playing drums in a horde of Arkansas punk-metal outfits, a young drummer named Shelton Williams moved from behind the kit to the front of his group. A paternity case forced the issue, of course, as Baby Mama always gotta get paid. Frustrated in his attempts to find musicians as dedicated and road-hungry as himself, Shelton set out for Memphis, meeting the Dickinson brothers, Cody and Luther, and sitting in with their thrash-funk band, DDT. The Dickinsons—son of a famous Mississippi bluesman and Rolling Stones sideman—helped Shelton record his band Assjack's '96 debut disc, Funk as Puck. They started talking about a new band, though, which they called the North Mississippi All-Stars, but Shelton called "pussy hippy monkey-spank." Obviously disillusioned with their direction, Shelton set out for Nashville.
Shelton had just assembled a new band when he lost his bassist to rival Nashville upstarts, Th' Legendary Shack Shakers. Not to be outdone, Shelton poached their guitarist, Joe Buck, who had also been bred on a mix of hardcore and country and possessed the same kind of burning desire as Shelton, as well as his unhinged stage presence. Buck encouraged Shelton to meld his punk-metal inclinations into a combustible country-punk combo. Hellbilly: That's what they called it.
The band was an immediate local sensation. Buck slapped, rode and cajoled the upright bass like its pint-sized pimp, hair flying, a maniacal glint in his eye. Shelton's crisp vocals and hard-charging guitar pumped paeans to getting fucked up and fucked over and giving the world the middle finger. He delivered them with the breakneck pace of a roadrunner hopped up on meth. Yes, some crystals might have been involved. Hell-bent fiddler Adam McOwen raised the stakes, and by the time of the band's '99 debut, Crazed Country Rebel, they'd established a reputation throughout the Southeast. Their 2001 follow-up, Thrown Out of the Bar, earned even more accolades, highlighted by a sizzling, warp-speed cover of David Allan Coe's "Willie, Waylon and Me."
Coe took a shine to Shelton, who opened for the legend down in Tallahassee. Coe invited him on tour, after which they partied for another two weeks. Shelton did enough cocaine to stop a rhino's heart. Rumor has it, he tried to smoke one of Coe's dreadlocks while the outlaw patriach slept. Through Coe, Shelton met Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, a professed fan. The movable drug fest followed Dimebag back to Texas, where Shelton met Phil Anselmo. When the 9/11 attacks cut short Pantera's summer tour of Europe, Anselmo returned home, made a few misguided public statements about minorities and gave Shelton a call about drumming for his side project, Superjoint Ritual. He wasn't getting along with drummer Joe Fazzio.
But Shelton was preparing his fourth album and Bloodshot debut, This Ain't Country, and he took his time getting back to Anselmo. By then, bassist Michael Haaga had left, so Shelton took his place. Fazzio stayed. In honor of this new role, Shelton had his thumb tattooed to look like a smoking fattie.
This Ain't Country garnered copious critical genuflection, but Shelton was already in the studio with Superjoint. Raised on hardcore, he missed the loud sets and mosh pits, not to mention working with a great punk-metal belter—something he still saw himself as. Shelton hardly toured with Hellbilly, spending his time with Superjoint and infuriating his label. To apologize, Shelton mailed a fake horse head (lifted from Hellbilly's appearance as Hell's house band in the partially shot but ultimately unreleased sequel to Todd McFarlane's Spawn) to their Chicago office.
Superjoint disbanded, though, so Shelton decided to try his hand at solo acoustic gigs, mining a mix of old-school honky-tonk, Bakersfield shitkick and outlaw country. He was broke, and this was his heritage just as much as hardcore. Its themes of fuck-ups and rebels were consistent with his own. In the end, Shelton capitulated to Bloodshot, reassembling Hellbilly for 2005's Even if I'm Dying Don't Give Me a Bloodshot Tour, which produced a live disc and contract-fulfilling odds-and-sods collection.
Finally freed of his contract, Shelton started entertaining new labels: Nashville's Lost Highway sniffed around until suffering the realization that it already owned one impetuous nut job from the South named Ryan Adams. Shelton signed with New West, which released his debut solo album under his middle name, Hank, backed by a crack backing band, including former Elvis drummer Jim Keltner, on tunes by Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and—what do you know?—Hank Williams Sr.
A month into the tour, though, he hitched a ride back to Nashville. He missed Hellbilly and Assjack, so he set about finding a cast of characters that could accompany him in all aspects of his musical personality. Six months later, they were back on the road, playing three sets of progressively harder music, from classic country to Hellbilly and concluding with the fire-breathing punk-metal of Assjack. He pledged to never again compartmentalize his different interests.
So, our lesson: You could take the heritage away from Shelton, but the decadence, maverick spirit and lyrically honest, no-bullshit music? That's all Hank, and ingrained in his soul bright as a beacon.
Shelton Hank Williams plays Lincoln Theatre Friday, July 3, at 9 p.m. Lucky Tub opens, and tickets are $15-$18.