By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
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Which is much the same way he treats Risin' Outlaw, an album he says "that I about 50 percent like." But hearing him talk about the disc, 50 percent seems to be a fairly high estimation. He doesn't sound angry about the situation, though, matter-of-factly ticking off a list of complaints that includes just about everything except the artwork.
"It's definitely too slick," he starts. "They kind of killed my nasal sound on that album. And they pieced that album together over two years, man. That's just pathetic to do that. When I go in, whether it's two weeks or two months, it's constant. You know, we're gonna get this thing done, and that's our priority. I don't need to sing 99 vocal tracks and crap like that. They just overdo it and kill it. But, you know, that's cool. I knew that I would have to deal with things like this if I ever got into a commercial label. But I'm still trying to be as independent-minded -- in ways of thinking and recording-wise -- as possible."
A few years ago, Williams might not have said that. He had a rebellious streak, but he couldn't complain about the situation he was in, mostly because he'd put himself in it. He didn't care anyway: He'd rather be playing punk rock in a dingy bar, so if the country songs he was singing weren't absolutely perfect, he didn't mind. After all, it was only a job, "a desperation move to get them off my ass," he says, referring to the one-night-stand gone awry that started his country career. He just wanted to play his songs -- well, his grandfather's songs, more often than not -- and get the hell back on the bus so he could drink and smoke pot and forget a little bit.
Gradually, he began to appreciate the songs he was singing, playing them because he liked hearing them just as much as the audiences did. As he took his show on the road, he learned that he didn't have to dye his punk-rock roots just because he became a country musician. He added more songs to his repertoire -- adding to a setlist that already included Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash -- and started playing them the way he wanted to.
"Then I started writing songs, and I met guys like Wayne Hancock and Dale Watson," Williams remembers. "Those guys opened me up to a new realm, as far as saying, 'Man, you can still be punk rock, but you gotta do it with a country attitude. You just gotta swing it and play hillbilly, man.' And meeting those guys really changed my views, 100 percent. I mean, from being, 'Well, I don't really like country music, but I'm going to get in there and see what I can do.' They turned me on to this old Texas swing and Webb Pierce and all this stuff -- it just opened up a whole new realm."
He also went to extraordinary lengths to put some realism into the songs he was beginning to write. A little more than two years ago, he left the woman he'd been living with for seven years for no good reason, except that he felt he needed the hurt before he could write songs like his grandfather. Looking back, Williams regrets that the ploy worked out so well, sounding as if he wouldn't mind swapping authenticity for another chance.
"I broke my own heart," he admits. "I lived with a gal for seven years, and I shoved her out of my life just to feel that damn feeling. And son of a bitch, I felt it, I felt it. That's either helped me or hurt me, but it's given me that understanding. That's part of it: You can't be a country singer-songwriter if you've never had an official heartbreak. I had to experience that pain. It was close to two years ago, and I'm still having dreams about her. It's just one of those things."
Yet little of Williams' newfound appreciation of heartbreak can be heard on Risin' Outlaw, at least as far as his own compositions. There aren't any Hank Williams Sr. songs on the trad-heavy disc (though any album with three Wayne Hancock tracks deserves an asterisk), but there aren't that many Hank Williams III songs either. Of the 50 or so tracks he's written, only four found their way onto the record, and only two of those were solo efforts. That, more than anything else, has him fed up with the way Curb has handled the project. He insists that he isn't ready to leave the label yet, but he just as strongly vows that if he does stay, the next album will be done his way, no compromises.
"I know exactly what I want to happen, and if they can't make that happen, then we're gonna have a problem," he says. "I'm not gonna budge, man. I mean, I'm not gonna go through it. I got over 50 songs written, and I could barely get two of my own songs on the fucking album?" He laughs. "What's up with that? That's just the way it is for now. I had to get that first step out there, either to get more respect or to lose it, one of the two.