RENO — There’s this great scene in “The Blues Brothers” where Bob, owner and proprietor of Bob’s Country Bunker, suddenly realizes his band for the evening isn’t quite as country and western as he expected.
“That ain’t no Hank Williams song!” he says with great disdain, quickly leaving his desk to turn off the power and stage lights, silencing the band.
It’s probably a good thing Bob doesn’t own The Knitting Factory concert house in Reno, because there’s no telling how he might have reacted Saturday night during Hank Williams III’s off-the-charts-raucous concert of country, western, punk, doom metal and – OK, let’s just say “music that isn’t always easy to stick into a category.”
Because, the thing is, there were dozens of Hank Williams songs – 3 generations’ worth, to be exact. And the country music portion of the show was played with a reverence to “Country Heroes” that would have made Hank’s grandpa and his legendary Driftin’ Cowboys band downright proud.
The thing that would have thrown Bob (and, no doubt still comes as a shock to a small percentage of concert-goers) was, shall we say, the variety – not just of the music, but of the people who came to see it.
I’ll make this personal: I’ve seen just about every big-name rock and country performer of the past 40 years – multiple times in most cases. And I’ve never seen anything even remotely like this show in terms of the setlist, or the mix of people who came to see it.
Williams doesn’t just roll into town, put on a two-hour concert, thank his fans and move along. He puts on an act of sheer musical endurance, roaring through four distinctly separate “portions” of the evening, which usually clocks in around four hours.
If he so much as paused to catch his breath or even take a sip of water between sets, I didn’t see it. For a man who seemed doomed to “self-destruct,” as told in his anthem-like “Dick In Dixie,” he seemed more like the Hunter Pence of the music world in terms of sheer, unbridled energy.
It was an energy that had the wildly varied crowd dancing, hopping, slam-dancing and mosh-pitting and ballad-singing from the opening number.
And let’s talk about this crowd.
You could see this wasn’t going to be an ordinary concert experience just by the line of people in the alley outside the Knitting Factory. In one 25-person stretch of the line, I saw four people wearing cowboy hats, two punk rockers with mohawks, one guy wearing a sailor’s cap, a man in his 60s wearing a flowered shirt, jeans and sandals, a half-dozen girls dressed as if they were going to a Toby Keith concert, a wild mix of rowdy young men seemingly polishing off beers and shots every 20 seconds and, finally, a middle-aged couple that looked as country as it gets, wearing an expression that said “We don’t know what all this other business is about, but we’re here to see Hank Williams.”
For the first 2 hours and 15 minutes of the show, absolutely none of these people were disappointed for a second.
First, you can’t write about Hank 3 without stating the obvious. The man is a spitting image of his grandfather, a legend who cast a shadow so huge over the country music landscape that it continues to this day, more than 60 years after his death. It was a shadow that Hank Williams Jr. struggled mightily to escape (and eventually triumph over, even as he accepted and embraced the titanic legacy of his father’s work).
Hank Jr. was 2 when his father died. Hank 3 was 3 when his parents split up. His dad wasn’t much of a part of his growing-up years. So, somehow, you have three generations of men who each blazed their own unique trail in the music business without any of their fathers ever telling them how to do it.
Must be in the genes.
Hank 3 looks like his grandfather, talks like his grandfather and boy, does he sing like him. This was never more evident than when he performed what he called his ode “to the Hillbilly Shakespeare, my grandfather, Hank Williams, the last song he ever wrote, ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.’ “ There probably weren’t many people in the audience whose parents were even alive when that song was written, but for about the 20th time of the night, they knew all the words.
And that may be the most amazing thing about this artist. The country side of his music might be as hard-core and authentic as anything ever recorded, especially as performed by his Damn Band which consists of a fiddle, banjo, standup bass, drummer, steel pedal and no lead guitar (with Hank on rhythm). But, you’ll never hear it on the radio as long as “that shit they call pop-country music” (from his song “Not Everybody Likes Us”) dominates the airwaves.
But thanks to Hank’s steady touring and word-of-mouth and, let’s face it, his famous name, his fans know every word from every song dating back to 2002’s “Lovesick, Broke and Driftin’” and especially 2006’s brilliant “Straight to Hell.” The hard-stomping “Gutter Town” had the jam-packed crowd bobbing in unison and the first singalong followed with “Smoke and Wine.”
“Country Heroes,” a beautiful ballad and probably the most Hank Jr.-sounding of the lot, left little doubt about what constitutes real country music in Hank’s world:
“I’m drinkin’ some George Jones, and a little bit of Coe,
Haggard’s easin’ my misery, and Waylon’s keepin’ me from home.
Hank’s givin’ me those high times, Cash is gonna sing it low,
I’m just here getting’ wasted, just like my country heroes.”
That one had the whole crowd, from the mohawks to the sailor caps to the Stetsons, swaying and singing. For one moment, it almost could have been Bob’s Country Bunker.
But, with Hank 3, there is that matter of the “F-word.”
Hank Jr. and Kid Rock once performed a song called “In Country Music, You Just Can’t Say the F-Word.” Hank 3 disagrees, which is probably one reason you don’t hear him on the radio. The word pops up frequently in his songs, often when you’d least expect it, and was even part of a big audience-singalong chant during his hilarious rockabilly song “Rebel Within.”
The rebellion continued. Hank went longer than usual with the country set, about 2 hours and 15 minutes, thanking the crowd for “spending your hard-earned money supporting live music.” He got one final singalong going on “Dick In Dixie” before announcing that was the end of the country set.
For any other performer, this would have been the final song of a magnificent, plenty-long-enough concert. (Dwight Yoakam, for example, played less than 2 hours at his last Reno stop.)
But for Hank 3, this was barely halftime.
Hank took off his cowboy hat, wrapped his ponytail, put on a ballcap and started playing punk. Or cowpunk. However you want to categorize it. And the Hank Sr. voice was no more. If you closed your eyes, you’d swear you were at a Ramones concert, and Hank3 was Joey.
The transition, surprisingly enough, was pretty smooth. The first couple of songs, lyrically, had a lot in common with the two dozen country songs that preceded it. By the third song, Hank had strapped back on the same guitar he’d used when he sang his grandfather’s song.
The mosh pit grew. Piles of bodies started hitting the floor. Some of the country diehards left. That set went on for a half hour.
Next came the hour-long doom metal set. Hank3 strapped on an electric guitar as “End of Times” videos played on the screen, showing everything from snakes to protests to Godzilla to quotes from the Book of Revelations to newspaper headlines praising the health recovery of Dwight D. Eisenhower (a favorite politician of Hank Williams Sr., by the way).
Doom metal and end of times may at first seem like a long ways from “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” until you actually think about the lyrics, I suppose.
Anyway, this was no doubt the portion of the evening where “Bob’s Country Bunker” would have turned off the lights and thrown all those loud troublemakers out onto the street, assuming Bob didn’t have a heart attack before he made it out of his office.
But this was just Hank being Hank and being loyal to his own musical tastes, which is the ultimate Williams family tradition. Long before he ever stood onstage and sang one of his grandfather’s songs, he was the bass player in a punk band. He obviously still enjoys playing punk and metal; some might think that only serves to drive away the country fans (and several dozen did leave).
Actually, though, this also has an opposite effect. Because Hank3 still closes his shows with speed metal, the end result is this: A surprisingly large number of punk rockers and metalheads have gained the incredible gift of learning to love country music.
Name one other artist who has pulled that off.
Pulling off the impossible has been in this family for 70-plus years. Hank’s grandfather came from seemingly nowhere, a child from a small Alabama town who learned to play by hanging out with black blues musicians and went on to change the landscape of popular music forever.
Hank Williams Jr. had to follow that seemingly impossible act. It nearly killed him, but he survived and somehow carved his own, unique place alongside his father on country’s Mount Rushmore.
But think about this: Hank3 had to follow both. He struggled with it, he overcame it, he came to embrace it and ultimately, he succeeded, taking the whole thing in directions even his father wouldn’t have dared attempt.
And with apologies to Bob from “Bob’s Country Bunker,” if that whole story of heartbreak, survival and triumph isn’t the ultimate Hank Williams song, I’m not sure what ever could be.
– Mike Wolcott