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Chicago Reader

By Peter Margasak

March 19, 1999

Nashville Calling

HANK WILLIAMS III, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chicago

The third Chicago appearance by Hank Williams III--the grandson of Hank Williams and the son of Hank Jr.--which was slated for March 6 at Lounge Ax, was a pretty hot ticket. The Reader and the Tribune ran positive previews, and Rolling Stone had just published a splashy five-page spread on the 26-year-old, who doesn't even have his own record out yet. But Williams was a no-show.

Two days before the show, he'd been summoned to the offices of his Nashville record label, Curb, ostensibly to discuss artwork for his upcoming debut album. But when he arrived, he was greeted by his parents (who are divorced), producer and A and R man Chuck Howard, and an ex-girlfriend, who teamed up to persuade him that he needed to enter drug rehab. By Saturday he was in a Los Angeles treatment center that he'd later describe to his bassist of five years, Jason Brown, as "a cross between rehab and jail" where he had to scrub toilets and mop floors. Last Saturday, March 13, he walked out, called Brown, who happened to be visiting family in LA, and returned to Nashville, where on Monday he checked into a two-week treatment program.

It's hardly news anymore when a musician or an actor shows up in rehab to get off heroin or cocaine. But by all accounts the only substance Williams indulged in consistently was marijuana. According to Maureen Herman, the former Chicagoan and ex-Babes in Toyland bassist who now works for Williams as a publicist and booking agent, the intervention was less about substance abuse than about "a clash between two worlds: Nashville versus indie rock."

She says Williams, who used to play drums in a rock band called Buzzkill and whose current stripped-down honky-tonk style is more No Depression than contemporary country, is interested in entering the mainstream through the alternative-country market. But Curb, a label in the belly of the beast known as Music Row, has other plans. According to Herman, Curb wants to market Williams through the Nashville machine, booking him into traditional country venues and angling for a hit on country radio.

Curb signed Williams in 1996, and the same year released Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts, an exceedingly tacky album on which all three Hank Williamses sang together through the miracle of modern technology. Hank III recorded his own album in early 1997 but it still hasn't shown up on the label's release schedule. In the Rolling Stone profile, by Mark Binelli, he drank till six in the morning and talked about swinging by his weed dealer's house, bragged about making a porn video with a girlfriend, and admitted that he'd turned to country music to chip away at mounting child-support costs. (Herman explains that he has two children out of wedlock.) And he told Binelli that the record he made for Curb "sucks." Brown speculates that the intervention was in part intended "to do damage control for the article."

Merle Kilgore, Hank Jr.'s personal manager, told me, "He's in rehab and we're very happy he decided to go. He's a strong-headed kid, always has been, and he decided, Well, I guess you're right, I need help, I guess. They convinced him he really did need help. That article in Rolling Stone, Christ! We hadn't even read that, but we knew that stuff was happening. . . . We saw his health just completely disappearing. God, he looked awful. He looked just like a skeleton."

When I asked Kilgore--who also happens to be the guy who wrote Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire"--what Hank Jr. thought of his son's music, he paused and said, "Well, we haven't heard his music. I think he's getting the syndrome of his grandfather. Every country star goes through the Hank Williams syndrome: I've gotta get on drugs, I've got to get messed up so I can be like Hank Williams. The problem is that if you die and become a legend you don't get to enjoy it and then everybody fights over the estate."

Hank III's mother, Gwen Williams, didn't return several phone calls. Hank III himself confirmed that he'd been in treatment in LA and that he was heading into the program in Nashville, but declined to comment further.

But Brown and Herman say Williams doesn't have a big problem with pot, that he was naively exaggerating for the Rolling Stone reporter. And Bob Campbell-Smith--Howard's head engineer and, more significant, the person who actually called Williams to get him to come to Curb's offices--says, somewhat ambiguously, "It's not like he has a serious drug problem. He has decided, along with his family, that it's now or never."

Williams did enter treatment voluntarily, according to everyone I spoke with, but he told Brown that he was under intense pressure. "They needed him to make a decision very fast or they weren't going to back the album," says Brown. "He was very upset about missing the Chicago gig, and he pushed to enter rehab after playing there, but they gave him half an hour to make up his mind."

In fact Williams had to cancel a seven-day tour to enter rehab, but Brown says the Chicago show was particularly important to him. Not only does the city have a thriving alt-country scene, but local booking agent Boche Viecelli--who also handles the Jesus Lizard, Freakwater, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion--was supposed to come to the gig to see if Williams was right for his roster.

"When we first played in Chicago we played in front of people who were our age, who like rock 'n' roll and punk rock and different kinds of music that we like," Brown says. "The feedback we got from them was exhilarating. Hank likes performing, but he feels like he's missing his time with his own people."

Brown says that when Williams finishes his treatment in Nashville, "he wants to sit everyone down at one table and tell them to stop messing with our business."

Copyright 1999 Chicago Reader Inc.

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