Review Summary: Damn Right, Rebel Proud is brutally, self-deprecatingly, honest and musically inspired.
Hank Williams III (III to his fans; Shelton to his momma) likens the way he records his music to a moonshiner making alcohol: what it lacks in smoothness and clarity, it more than makes up for in brute strength and purity.
While Sean Lennon and the Jakob Dylan have spent most of their adult lives desperately trying to escape the massive shadows cast by their fathers, III has chosen to take his famous name head-on. Having spent much of his early twenties drumming on the Arkansas heavy rock circuit, Williams got hit with a hefty child support bill and was forced to cash in on his famous name, shopping himself around to labels as Hank Williams the Third. He was signed to Curb Records, the long-time home of his father Hank Williams Jr., and in 1996 the pair released Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts
, superimposing their own vocals over original recordings of some of Sr.’s best-loved recordings. Three Hanks
is a record III has since disowned and, when the release failed to hit pay dirt, Williams pulled a complete about-turn. He rediscovered the rebellious country music of his father and grandfather and began to mix it up with his own core influences, punk rock and heavy metal. In the years since, III has come to embody the outlaw spirit of Hank Williams, of Johnny Cash and David Allan Coe: artists who have succeeded despite the system rather than because of it.
Which segues nicely into Damn Right, Rebel Proud
’s rousing opener, the sublimely-titled ‘The Grand Ole Opry (Ain’t So Grand Anymore).’ As the granddaddy of country broadcasting, the Grand Ole Opry’s prestige has taken a hammering in recent decades, a process of decay that began when it dissolved Hank Williams’ membership in 1952 until such a time as he learned to control his alcoholism and drug intake. Obviously he never did, and the Opry has steadfastly refused to reinstate him ever since (even in an honourary capacity, as only living musicians are eligible for membership). ‘The Grand Ole Opry (Ain’t So Grand Anymore)’ is III, essentially, calling bullshit on the Opry’s admissions policy. The track’s nervous tension and explosive energy kick the album off on just the right note, with banjos blaring and bluegrass guitar licks fluttering with breakneck speed and precision, while III’s simple lyrics cut right to the core of the issue. He sings, ”The Grand Ole Opry ain’t so grand anymore / Did you know Hank Williams ain’t a member but they keep him outside their door / Hell they didn't even really want Johnny Cash back in '74 / Yeah the Grand Ole Opry ain't so grand anymore"
Those familiar with III’s records will notice how he’s progressed as a writer from the juvenile rumblings of ‘Dick In Dixie’ without losing any in the way of righteous indignation. Elsewhere, it’s more or less business-as-usual for Hank Williams III: his music is primarily fast-paced country rock, helped by his natural rural Arkansas twang, infused with a healthy punk snarl and rockabilly rhythms that are as distinctive as they are predictable. There is the lingering sense that III’s heart isn’t fully in the country dealie, though he’s more than adept at it, and Damn Right, Rebel Proud
’s best moments generally come when he subtly subverts genre conventions and injects a little heavy metal lawlessness into the equation. ‘P.F.F.,’ all ten minutes of it, is a grand tribute to legendary nutjob G.G. Allin: essentially the same track played twice- once fast and once slow- with a spoken word interlude. The second half, the mid-tempo country part, would probably be better served appended to the end of the album, but the front portion is a beautiful marriage of bluegrass and oi! punk. Lead single ‘Long Hauls And Close Calls’ attempts to bridge the middle ground between latter-era Dylan and The Cramps, while Williams’ doomy, Sabbathesque take on the Sun Studios sound in ‘H8 Line’ is breathtaking.
III’s lyrics are arguably his biggest weakness, as he tends to fall back way too often on the hackneyed drunken recluse schtick, but they also provide some of the album’s best moments. On the deceptively upbeat ‘Wild & Free,’ he boasts, ”Livin' hard, wild and free is the life for me / And I'm always good friends with bad company / I drink all day just to get to feelin' right / And I'm just trying to get ahead in this reckless life.”
‘Six Pack Of Beer’ is about as close as Williams gets to replicating the mainstream country rock of Brad Paisley et al. (Joe Sixpack!), but even then his lyrics shout his individualism from the roofs: ”I'm gettin' real high, and I'm gettin' down low / And I live in a shack on creditor's row / and my best friend is my magnum ‘44”
‘If You Can’t Help Your Own’ is about as close as III gets to a political song, using his own family’s neglect at the hands of the Williams clan to the US government’s abandonment of its rural poor: ”I was raised by myself down in Arkansas / My family had some rich folks but they never called / If they wanna be that way then that's fine with me / 'Cos I ain't got a thing to say to a man filled with greed [...] If you can't even help your own / Well my friend one day you're gonna be all alone.”
Damn Right, Rebel Proud
is by no means a perfect record- it’s as flawed as its maker, to make an easy comparison- but, despite its shortcomings, it’s brutally, self-deprecatingly, honest and musically inspired. Its crossover potential is huge, from the Black Crowes-like blues noodling of ‘If You Can’t Help Your Own’ to the everyman appeal of ‘Wish I Knew’ and closer ‘Workin’ Man’ (written and sung by Williams’ guitar tech Bob Wayne), and as a musician and a critic it’s always refreshing to come across an artist who’s unafraid to speak his or her mind. And Hank Williams III has plenty on his mind.