mxdwn’s admiration for Shelton Hank Williams has been well-documented in the past, but our interactions with him have mostly been in the South and West. Hank III ventured north and east for part of a new tour exploring not just his gleefully twisted takes on country and western, but some of the heavier music from his 2011 quartet of self-released albums.
The fans welcoming him and his crack musical team to Philadelphia’s Trocadero in March included a wild cross-section of subcultures. Among the squares were vintage rockabilly chicks and sloppy metalhead dudes, cowboys and veterans who liked Hank’s father and grandfather, and an unnerving number of skinheads and neo-Nazis sharing his Southern pride, their ranks thankfully thinned by St. Patrick’s Day weekend events elsewhere. Here were the good, the badass, and the ugly; the crowd a fitting parallel to the show onstage.
Hank III spent the first half of his three-hour set in front of a modern jug band, his electrified acoustic guitar and vocal twang supported by standing bass, violin, banjo, and slide guitar. His “hellbilly” music—the crass and speedy country that defined him as a black sheep in his industry and family—was a highly entertaining watch and listen. The band’s playing was deceptively effortless, especially that of bass player Zach Shedd, his profane call-and-responses a playful and incongruous counter to his down-home bottom end.
In this most familiar role, Hank III plays the backwoods individualist to the hilt. There’s the nasal yee-haw whine in his delivery; there’s his Johnny Cash-like affection for drug, drink, and fisticuffs. He also ranges from the sad balladry developed during his early major-label days to blue lyrics: fiery refrains full of C- and F-words to emphasize a diss or a good time. Combined with this performance’s easy stage banter, it felt like he was playing to neighbors off a back porch, even as some of those neighbors moshed and crowd-surfed in return.
After maybe a five-minute break, Hank returned stripped down literally and figuratively. He’d removed accessories so his dark clothing and stringy hair recast him as an entirely different artist. Just his drummer joined him, lit only by sparse green beams and experimental film. This was Attention Deficit Domination, Hank III’s excursion into doom metal, and after watching his effort surely you could do worse than having it serve just as an introduction to the genre. A worthy student of the game, Hank gave Sleep props at the outset, brought up Pentagram lead singer Bobby Liebling for a performance, and built a guitar-and-drum wall of sound for almost an hour nonstop.
Another brief break onstage, another transformation—a bassist joined the fray, all players wearing masks, spikes, and twisted cowboy hats. This was now 3 Bar Ranch showcasing Hank III’s newly-concocted style of “cattlecore,” swift death metal under field recordings of livestock auctioneers. In look and sound, this experiment notably channels Ministry circa “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” the cattle-callers standing in for Al Jourgensen and Gibby Haynes. Like that song, it probably works best in small doses.
Forty-five minutes of music based on four, however, was an anti-climactic way to round out the evening. 3 Bar Ranch lacked the powerful dread of Attention Deficit Domination and the trio’s performance was more of a standstill and less of the headbanging, hairwhipping frenzy you normally associate with metal. This sure wasn’t Assjack, Hank III’s longstanding punk outfit. But really, none of the night was, and that felt like it advanced Hank’s overarching goal: music that claws and tears at fan and industry pigeonholes. The oldheads had left satisfied, before the heavy shit started; the diehards were bewitched by the entirety of the evening.