SHOOTER JENNINGS . Electric Rodeo . Universal South
HANK WILLIAMS III . Straight to Hell . Bruc
Cursed, plain and simple. That looks to be the fate of Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon) and Hank Williams III (grandson of Hank, son of Hank Jr.). Both inherited a family weakness for drugs and drink, both were raised without a steady fatherly presence, and both live in the shadow of their forebears’ incalculable mythic power. Likewise, these boys face a common vortex where audience expectation is likely to tear apart even the baddest of country asses. And they share one more thing: They hate each other’s guts.
The dimensions of the curse are clearly reflected in two new albums, Jennings’ Electric Rodeo and Williams’ Straight to Hell. Williams’ is a two-disc barrage of frustration and toxic aggression, its spectral hillbilly dub effects rendering the atmosphere as sulfurous as its titular destination. Bristling with condemnation, it’s an emotional holocaust that aims to destroy everyone from ex-girlfriends to Music City’s current chart toppers. The fast-moving Electric Rodeo, by contrast, is swathed in swanky cat clothes and illuminated by the twinkling party lights so peculiarly suited to celeb spawn.
Each trades in the family country franchise, yet both artists started their professional lives in rock & roll. Williams — despite Mike Curb’s staunch refusal to release any of it — still regularly dives into the “hellbilly” thrash of his Assjack band, and Jennings toughed it out for years with the cringingly named hard rockers Stargunn. Where Williams has collected an avid confederacy of disenfranchised lowlife fanatics, Jennings’ Sunset Strip highlife music has reached for a crowd more likely to be found sipping cocktails at Chateau Marmont than sucking flasks in the men’s room.
Electric Rodeo’s title track is a chewy slab of shimmering Southern rock, a tale of Jennings’ recent nonstop road work that suddenly implodes, allowing him to channel several lines from Waylon’s 1974 breakout “This Time” before lurching back into his Jimmy Page–Dickey Betts skirl. While eerily authentic, the transition is baffling; Jennings’ propensity for vacillation, though, never completely derails the proceedings. There’s plenty of doping and drinking (“Little White Lines,” “Hair of the Dog”), pining for poon (“Some Rowdy Women”), and musing on life as an artist, particularly “The Song Is Still Slipping Away” (“Your heroes turn out to be assholes/The light in the tunnel that you’re chasin’ is a train”), the single strongest argument for the 27-year-old Shooter as a creative force. He closes with a straight cover of Hank Jr.’s “Living Proof” that climaxes with a sudden shift into brassy disco — obviously as much of a fuck-you to Hank III as his handlers would permit.
As soon as he could, Hank Williams III cut and ran far from the Nashville hothouse, raging in a series of Southern thrash and punk bands, hanging out with rockabilly slop genius Hasil Adkins and dodging dung at GG Allin shows before cleaning up enough to take the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1996 and cry Granddaddy’s “Lovesick Blues.” For the past decade, when not playing bass in metal king Phil Anselmo’s Superjoint Ritual, he’s been running a schizo show where he does a set of classic honky-tonk, then invites fans to leave or suffer a blast of Assjack, whose music III is so desperate to get out, he bootlegs it himself.
Now 33, Williams mixes the Assjack attitude with accelerated honky-tonk on Straight to Hell. Opening with a spliced verse from the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan Is Real,” right through to Cheech & Chong’s “Up in Smoke,” which he transforms into a chilling junkie blues, Hank covers a lot of frequently disturbing ground. When he does Hank Sr., it’s profoundly creepy; a ghostly version of “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You” is spewed with tormented bile. III’s vocals are clenched up, wound tight, his music graced with Sr.’s sense of melody and propelled by the mixture of austere hillbilly and hot boogie that made the Drifting Cowboy such a prize hell-raising unit. The blunt nature of III’s lyrics (“the kind of country I’m hearing these days is a bunch of fuckin’ shit to me”; “If you think Kid Rock is a son of Hank, goddamn you’re fuckin’ dumb”), though, keeps the show firmly in his own ramshackle playhouse. Appealing in its sheer brutality and definitely not for the KZLA listener, Straight to Hell is, at the very least, the most beautifully ugly country album of all time.
When all is said and done, these two are uncomfortably alike, and the bitching about each other in the press only proves it. While Shooter occasionally and rather unconvincingly gags on the silver spoon, III keeps it handy in case anybody needs something to cook dope in. Ultimately, barring an official Assjack release, both have allowed themselves to be chained to simulacrums that pay the bills even as they further damage their authors’ independence. Well, shit, hoss, you do need some extra cash to get high on.