Hank III reminds us we'll never get out of this world alive

Hank III

Hank III

In the past year I've been to only a handful of shows that really stand out, and seeing as how I've been to more concerts in my lifetime than the number of pills choked back by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Mindy McCready combined, it's usually not the performances anymore that make a show memorable - it's the crowd.

The last memorable show I attended was when Insane Clown Posse visited First Ave late last summer. Friends warned me I'd be raped. I'd be mugged. I'd be raped and mugged and then sprayed with Faygo.

Not at all the case. Those Juggalos were the most polite group of kids I'd encountered in a good long time at a show, aside from the handful who called me a "bitch" but even that, I was told, was a Juggalo term of endearment. A show of respect.

You know who wasn't being so polite? The crowd at Hank III/Assjack's show Saturday night at First Ave. Unlike the Juggalos, I hadn't expected so many of these folks to take Hank's shoot 'em up lyrics (drugs or guns, take your pick) to heart, but boy, did they. After I saw a 400 pound gorilla of an angry man look like he was edging closer and closer to punching the next sprite of a girl who squeezed around him to get closer to the stage, I turned to my companion, myself edging closer and closer to wanting to fight one of these drunk 'billies. (I'll disclaim we'd been drinking and were a little punchy as a result, perhaps ourselves a little too wiling like most of the men in the crowd to take Hank's lyrical who-gives-a-fuck-let's-fight attitude a little too seriously, and in fact before we walked in were engaged in a yelling match with a parking attendant outside. Intense night.) I said to him, "If I get in a fight, you don't have to have my back. Just grab my camera." "I'll throw a punch, then I'll grab your camera, okay?" Okay. If I get in a fight with a man three times my size at least my camera's safe. Now I can relax.

Drinks in hand, feeling more at ease, we stopped scoping the aggro- crowd and listened to the band. And they were amazing. Upright bass, steel guitar, banjo, fiddle and all the rest kept a steady pace as Hank confidently and professionally powered his way through a set of his own songs peppered with country classics by his grandfather and Johnny Cash. For as much as he's not embraced the country establishment, he and his band sound more authentically old Nashville Ernest Tubbs-style country than anything out there today, whether you compare them to bands trying to embrace that style or those playing slick pop with few references to their country roots at all.

Toward the end of the country set, the band played Hank Williams' hit "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," a song which is obviously poignant after it hit #1 posthumously for his grandfather and which really seems to emphasize Hank III's attitude toward life and music. His angle clearly has been to embrace rather than wholly deny his heritage, though you'll more easily draw comparisons and hear him make reference to his dead grandfather, whom he'd never met, than his father, who likely doesn't even remember a whole lot of his own father himself.

The other night, ABC broadcast a pre-Country Music Awards special which covered a handful of young country artists who, like Hank, have parents or grandparents in the business - Rosanne Cash, Tayla Lynn. Vince Gill, whose daughter tours with him and is trying to make it big in her own right as a solo artist, mentioned that if she did well in country people would say it was because of him; if she flopped, people would say it was because of him. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. The only option is to do your own thing so there's little room for comparison, and Hank III has done it well.

Hank III

Hank III

As his country set drew to a close the band turned psychobilly in the transition to Hank's Assjack metal set. This point in the show was a little underwhelming, and made me think there was a young Hank at 16 playing metal in his mom's garage hoping he could someday be a rock musician. And now he can, but he's definitely riding on his country. Not because of his daddy and gran, to be clear. His country is indisputably good. But I doubt this place would be as packed to see Assjack only. That said, bless his li'l heart for saying now here's what you wanna hear, and now here's what I'm gonna give you - live with it.

When Assjack takes the stage, it becomes apparent Hank III happens to also be in a band with Phil Anselmo - same vein. I don't listen to much metal. I listen to country. Now, maybe that shouldn't be my point; after all, most kids I grew up with listened to Slayer as readily as Garth Brooks. That said, I don't listen to metal. I listen to country. When I was 13 and kids were listening to Metallica I was listening to country but quit to listen to the Melvins and punk. Country and sludge metal and punk seemed incongruous. Now, to my refined adult brain (pfft) matching a band like Assjack to Hank III country makes sense like matching Slayer to Garth did in my small town in the early 90s. And here I am a decade and a half after abandoning Brooks & Dunn to listen to the Melvins and in the meantime, Hank III has become a Melvins collaborator. Who'da thunk.

But Assjack still sounds to me like a band my cousin would have played in when I was a kid - pretty much your average metal band, "your" being my boyfriend at 15 who would have loved this stuff. Meaning I personally don't know enough to elaborate on this Assjack shit. All I know is I really only want to hear this kinda stuff when I'm getting tattooed in the shop in my hometown that got shut down for giving college students Hepatitis. Since I'm not getting a tribal band inked around my wrist I'm not really diggin' it. But again, bless his heart for pulling it off. That's no small feat, and definitely exemplifies the backbone and fierce independence that's made Hank III an outsider in Nashville, but endearing to a crowd of hillbillies, punks and metal heads in a club like First Avenue. And that's really something.