By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Shelton Williams was just another face in another crowd, an anonymous punk with safety pins in his clothes -- and occasionally, his skin -- playing in unknown bands with names like Buzzkill and worse. He was onstage from the time he was 15, yet rarely at the front, usually playing drums, sometimes guitar or bass. Moving from group to group, he drifted from Nashville to Atlanta to Charlotte and back again, never really going anywhere. No one would have noticed him, and even fewer people would have remembered him. And that's pretty much how Shelton Williams thought the story would go, at least until he was too old for punk rock. Then, he figured, he'd move on to something else.
But someone did remember him, all too well: a young woman with a 3-year-old kid that bore a striking resemblance to Williams and a daddy that picked up a paycheck working as a vice cop. The price of recognition: around $24,000 in back child support, plus another $400 a month. Only 20 years old and making just enough each night to last him until the next tour stop, Williams wasn't left with many options. He could take a square job and tough it out, chipping away at the debt slowly but surely.
There was only one thing he was really cut out to do -- born to do, you might say. He had fought the idea for years; it was one of the reasons he turned to punk rock in the first place. But with no other choice left -- at least, not one that appealed to him -- Shelton Williams dropped his first name, and started over. Of course, with his new name, Hank Williams III, and his new career as a country singer, Williams didn't have to start at the beginning. Picking up where the grandfather he never knew left off would work just fine. And the best place to start was Branson, where tarnished country gold comes with a two-drink minimum.
"They didn't know if the kid was blood or fake or what the deal was, but they knew it was a tribute show from Hank III to Hank Williams Sr.," Williams says, calling from his trailer on the outskirts of Nashville, where he was born and raised. He's in between legs of a tour supporting his recently released debut for Curb Records, Risin' Outlaw. "It was just a learning ground. We did 52 shows a month, two to three shows a day. Each show was an hour long, and singing to crowds that were very old. It's a place I never want to go back to unless I'm 60 and can't walk. But it was good place for me to learn how to sing, really."
Williams freely admits that when he started out, his only intention was to milk his spot-on looks and passable voice for all they were worth, letting the gaunt ghost of his grandfather endorse his checks. Sure, he loved old country music, but he would have grown a beard and sang the Monday Night Football theme with all his rowdy friends a dozen times a night if he thought imitating his father would pay more. (Of course, no one could top the late Chris Farley's spoof of Bocephus, so there wouldn't be much point to it.) He was an opportunist, and this was one opportunity he couldn't pass up. Besides, he knew his grandfather about as well as the people who came to see and hear him. You can't dishonor a memory that you don't have. Williams doesn't offer much on the subject of his grandfather, except to say, "If Hank Williams had kept living, I'm afraid that he would have burned so many bridges that he might have been one of the most hated names in country music."
He couldn't dishonor the memory of his father either, because he doesn't have much in that department. He grew up with his mother Gwen, Hank Jr.'s second wife, and saw his father only sporadically after they divorced, when Hank III was three years old. You can ask him anything you want about his father, just don't expect him to tell you much. There's nothing much to tell.
"I've only seen him a few times a year," Williams says. "That's the way it's always been. He's been busy: new wives and new kids and stuff. But I see him here and there, and everything's cool. I mean, we're at least able to talk. We don't fight or nothing. We just probably feel a little weird around each other." He laughs. "We've never really worked together. I've played with him when I was 11 or 15 or something like that on stage, but we haven't done any shows together, and we don't really talk about business. He talks about hunting and stuff. It's hard. It's like he doesn't wanna say nothing, really. So I've just gotta figure it out myself."
Williams had to figure out how to sing country for himself too, and he didn't have much to go on. And as the flesh-and-bone ghost of his grandfather, he wasn't half bad. His tribute wasn't as crass as it could have been, at least by Branson standards. Still, until not too long ago, he was a novelty act, reaching his lowest point in 1996 when he teamed up with Hanks Jr. and Sr. (as The Three Hanks) for the dreadful Men With Broken Hearts, giving an album's worth of classic songs the Natalie Cole shoulder. Unfortunately, most of the inspiration of the project was wasted on the not-so-clever name of the group. Williams is duly embarrassed by the album, either ignoring it or brushing past it in interviews.