Music Review: Hank Williams 3 - Ghost To A Ghost/Guttertown
Being anybody the "third", except perhaps royalty where you take a name of your own choosing upon ascending the throne, can be quite the burden. Not only do you have to live up the expectations of being your father's son, you also carry the added burden of his father's achievements around on your shoulders. I've always looked at people saddled with that type of burden with some pity, wondering what kind of life they can have carved out for themselves when somebody has tried to dictate who and what they will become right from the word go. Of course that sympathy is usually mitigated by the fact most who are bequeathed their grandfather's name also end up having a few million dollars or pounds placed at their disposal in compensation. At the very least it's sufficient to pay for any therapy they desire.
Of course some are given a far less tangible inheritance, and something harder to live up to than mere wealth - a reputation. Even those children of famous people who don't share their parent's given name have a hard time living up to the expectations generated by the accomplishments of the previous generation or generations. What most of the world fails to realize is that some talents are akin to lightning strikes and aren't genetic traits to be passed along from parent to child. Genius, in whatever form it might take, is not an inherent right. Intelligence may be something families share in the same way similar shaped noses will show up in generation after generation. But the circumstances which create a person's ability to perceive the world in a singular enough fashion that the impact of their actions lives on for generations are usually as unique as the individual who lives with them.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Hank Williams changed popular music forever. He was one of the first popular musicians to combine all the various cultural influences in popular music (Anglo/Irish/Scottish rooted country music, African American blues and French and Spanish Cajun from New Orleans) and in the process paved the way for the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and all the other early rock and roll stars of the mid to late fifties. Songs like "Move It On Over", "Hey Hey Good Lookin'", and "Jambalaya", to name only a few, not only influenced future generations of musicians, they are still being played and listened to sixty years after they were written.
However, whatever inspired his greatness wasn't passed along to his son. Hank Williams Jr., although a capable musician, has never shown the same spark of originality nor the willingness to experiment with content and form that marked his father's work. So, when I heard his son, Hank Williams III, had in turn become a musician, I really wasn't interested. It wasn't until I started to hear rumours of something called "Hellbilly", a combination of punk, country and Cajun with occasional forays into speed metal, that he seemed to be a nexus for, that my ears perked up. Now on the surface it might appear punk and country have little in common. But at their most basic both feature bare bones music relying on a few chords fuelled by passion and production values that allow for a "do it yourself" approach to recording. Any doubts you may have about their compatibility, at least in the hands of Hank Williams III, will be laid to rest upon listening to Ghost To Ghost and Guttertown being released September 6 2011 on his own Hank 3 label. The two discs, packaged together as a double, are half of the four disc assault that Williams has planed for that day. As I gathered the other two discs represented the harder edge of his repertoire, and I have a limited appetite for speed metal, I elected to review this package, advertised as representing his country/punk/Hellbilly side.
Now, if like me, you've had no experience with this type of music, you'll be in for a bit of a surprise that even the title of Ghost To Ghost's opening track won't have prepared you for. Okay, maybe a song title like "Cunt Of A Bitch" will prepare you for the fact this isn't going to be country music of the likes you're used to seeing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. However, since that place has done more to to ruin country music than any other so called institution in America, that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. It still refuses to recognize the contributions of Hank III's grandfather to country music which ought to tell you more than enough. (Hank III has set up a page at his web site, Reinstate Hank Williams, where you can sign a petition asking the Opry to reinstate Hank - sign it if you love music) Anyway, before this turns into a rant against the country music establishment, let's get back to Hank III and Ghost To Ghost
It definitely won't be on the top ten playlist of Tipper Gore and any of her cronies who worked so hard to get warnings about offensive lyrics put onto album covers to protect innocent ears from being ravaged. But damn if it ain't music that will put the fear of god into any God fearing, hate mongering asshole. Not only will the lyrics burn the paint off most automobiles, the music is an all out assault on the ears as well. Turmoil, anarchy, the threat of random violence, cursing, substance abuse and everything else everybody pretends they don't partake in six days a week when they're sitting mouthing their prayers in the pew on the seventh is packed into the ten songs on this disc. So called American values take a well deserved beating as Williams and company rip a hole right into the heart of darkness at the rotting core of a nation caught in downward spiral. If you can't hear the greed and excesses of the last fifty years being indicted on this disc, well you're not listening. Your ears may bleed and your mind may reel, but you won't be bored and you won't ever mistake it for bullshit "New Country".
However none of what you hear on Ghost To Ghost will prepare you for what's in store on Guttertown. For instead of the wild careening anarchy of the first disc you are immediately plunged into a world filled with the mysteries buried in the depths of fog shrouded swamps, ghost towns and other places lining the borders of the spirit world. The opening piece in this nineteen song opus, "Chaos Queen", introduces a world of "haints" and others who occupy the mythology of the South. The sounds of the night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures, mixed with just the right amount of atmospheric music serves as an overture. Slowly what sounds like a child's voice becomes audible, offering to guide us only so far to meet with somebody, presumably the Chaos Queen of the title, but no further because the woman is of an uncertain temperament and you never can be sure of how she'll take to you.
As the child leaves us to our own devices and the night sounds creep back upon us we move into the first song of the disc, "Chord Of The Organ", as fine a piece of Cajun country zydeco as you'll ever hear. While most of us are used to the upbeat and celebratory sound of the genre, Williams and band bring another element into play - the bayous and swamps where the music was first heard and played. While the cadences and patois are what we've grown accustomed to, there's an underlying element that evokes something darker and dangerous you'll not have heard before. As you listen to this song, and the other "songs" on the side, you start to feel like you've wandered into some backwoods carnival where the games are rigged and for an extra dollar you can go out behind the tent to watch the geeks bite the heads off chickens.
Meanwhile underneath it all is playing a calliope whose motor has seen better days and the music is just slightly off, either too slow or too fast, your not really sure which. Its the kind of place, and music, which reminds you the swamps were once home to more than just zydeco. This is where the gods and goddesses who travelled from Africa with slaves took root and what we call voodoo was practised. As the disc progresses, with songs interspersed with more trips back to "Guttertown" accompanied by our strange voiced guide, we feel like we are being led deeper and deeper into something strange but oddly familiar. The music is brilliantly played by Williams and his band, as they somehow manage to play wonderfully tight zydeco and create the atmosphere conducive to scaring the crap out of you.
I guess it's sort of obvious that Hank Williams III is not going to be showing up on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry anytime in the near future. Nor are you likely to see any of his videos in heavy rotation or hear his music on the radio. While some of the songs on Guttertown might be more accessible than anything on Ghost To Ghost, he's still not the kind of safe and predictable performer the music industry feels comfortable with. However, if you still believe popular music shouldn't be either of those things, rather it should upset the establishment and reflect the disquiet of the times, and you understand being a rebel doesn't mean waving the stars and bars or singing songs about beer, boobs and football, than give Hank Williams III a listen. He may not sound much like his grandfather, but he definitely inherited his spirit and his willingness to take risks with his music. He might be carrying around the weight of a famous name on his shoulders, but after listening to these two discs it doesn't seem like its been too much of a burden for him.
Photo Credit: Cindy Knoener
(Article first published as Music Review: Hank 3 - Ghost to Ghost/Guttertown on Blogcritics)