By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Charleston, West Virginia's Yeager Airport sits atop a mountain, which is typical in a state that enforces few, if any, building codes. Request a window seat if you ever drop in; the views are spectacular. Green hills roll forever, with soft "fairways" notched into the landscape as though it were God's own country club. Charleston has golf courses and other spoils sprung by the same out-of-state interests that have come in and pillaged West Virginia's resources (coal, oil, and gas), but like the Matewan miners who taunted the National Guard into action, the true treasures of West Virginia run wild and extreme by the coal fields outside city limits. That's where you'll find Hasil Adkins, anyway.
Up until last year, Adkins--standing six-foot-two, with serial-killer-sunken yet soft-as-a-prayer blue eyes--lived alone in a tar-paper shack tucked in the Boone County hollow where he was born. The shack caved in a few months back, so the 62-year-old now sits, strums, screeches, and hollers in a 14-by-70 trailer parked on his pay-as-you-can leased property. Littered around his trailer are broken-down autos, a Jeep, and an old GMC city-transit bus with "The Hunching Bus" spray-painted on its side. As a visitor approaches, Igor--Adkins' fat, black tire-biting shepherd-mix--lets out a welcoming, or not so, bark.
Then the legend steps to the trailer door and waves, a rope of shoulder-length gray-yellow hair billowing from beneath a blue baseball cap. He grins through rotting teeth, delivers a chuckle harshened by years of exposure to tar and nicotine, and drawls, "Welcome to Sanford and Son!"
Inside, rock posters from his concerts with sometime label mates, such as The Flat Duo Jets and Southern Culture on the Skids, line the interior faux-wood-paneled walls. On a partition shelf between living area and kitchen is a human skull wearing a fright-wig, and some horrific rubber Halloween masks. (Adkins has been performing in wigs and costumes since the 1950s--"way back before all that started.") His CDs and 45s are nailed to the walls around the living room, and prosthetic severed limbs and feathered talismans hang randomly from the ceiling. He walks back into the living room, bends his bones onto a ratty couch, lights the first of many generic cigarettes, and holds up a Polaroid of an adorable 9-year-old neighborhood girl.
"She took my vodka away," he says. "She inspired me to write a song called 'Drinking My Life Away.'" He sips a mysterious red liquid from a yellow plastic cup. "You ever put tomato juice in your beer? Keeps you from getting sick or drunk or anything. Some girl taught me that one time."
Some girls, liquor, meat, and the Lord have given Adkins something to wake up for over the years. Them, and his music: Ever since he picked up a guitar after hearing Hank Williams on the radio 40-some years ago, he's been plying some of the most primal rockabilly skronk that's ever seeped out of the backwaters. He spent the '50s, '60s, and '70s performing his one-man-band freak show at whatever dives would have him and sending out tapes full of tweaked home-recordings to whoever would listen. Eventually, people did.
The Europeans began touting him in the early '80s, and, in 1986, a couple of U.S. rock primitivists named Billy Miller and Miriam Linna made Adkins the flagship act on their newly formed Norton Records, a label that went on to issue or reissue a series of vintage Adkins platters. The progenitor of such post-punk Luddites as the Cramps and Jon Spencer had, at last, found an outlet for his unaffected combination of urgency and lunacy. In the years since, his audience--and his legend--has only grown. After a bunch more records and a few aborted label deals, he hooked up with Fat Possum Records, which released the brand-new and typically raw What the Hell Was I Thinking; coupled with a nationwide tour and a recent documentary on him, 1998 looks to be Adkins' biggest year yet. And one a long time in coming.
As Adkins recounts, he was born at the tail end of the Depression, the youngest of 10 kids. His papa wheezed to the ripe old age of 71, despite being handed a retirement package of black lung disease and other ailments from a coal company 30 years earlier; Hasil's mama lived in the dilapidated shack outside until she passed in '86. Hasil started singing as a pre-teen accompanied by a milk can. He switched to a lard bucket, then a 10-quart water bucket, and finally got his first arch-top Gibson guitar in exchange for a particularly potent batch of home brew.
The legend behind his one-man-band concept has him listening to Hank Williams on a tube radio for as long as the car battery it was attached to would hold out. He heard the announcer say, "And that was Hank Williams," and he naively assumed Williams was the only artist playing all the instruments. To this day, though many have tried, no one can accompany Adkins--especially when he's deep into his own grooves.
"I been studying all my life," he says with pride. "But what they [other musicians] play is the beat. It's all written six beat, or 12 beat. But I don't play no beat. I just change when I feel like I should change beats. Ain't nobody that can play with me. I've tried it with good people, and they said, 'Man you ain't never gonna get anybody to play with you. We don't know what you gonna do. You just take off.' And when they start playing the lead, I just jump in, and they say, 'Whatcha go 'n' do that for?' and I said I just felt like I should start hollering or something."
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