It’s always been my assertion that Hank Williams III‘s 2006 album Straight to Hell was one of the most important albums in country music history because among other landmark achievements, it officially unionized a country music underground that had been building a foundation for years. Similar to the undergrounds that existed in punk music and other genres, now there was a network of support for artists who did not want to mess with the mainstream country oligarchy and their heavy-handed managing practices.
Straight to Hell also was significant because despite his famous country name, it was a punk musician taking country to the edge of the line, though not crossing it. As edgy as the album was, it was still undeniably country. Later Hank3 would leap right over that line, but in the mid-oughts and still in some respects today, Hank3 showed reverence for the traditions of country music by delineating his punk and country in different sets live, by tying his hair back during his country set, etc., and showing that he can do it “the right way” when representing the Hank Williams name in more traditional settings like the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Marty Stuart’s RFD TV show.
Of course, Hank3 was not the first to mix punk music and country. Jason & The Scoarchers were doing it in the early 80’s as one of the first Cowpunk bands. John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the punk band “X“, and Mike Ness of Social Distortion had forays into country in the mid 80’s. But in this current era that most music brains are branding “post-punk”, the influx of punk artists and fans into country and roots music has become huge, similar to how pop and R&B artists in the mainstream are flocking to country, looking for support as the music world coalesces into the two super-genres of country and hip-hop.
For some punk bands, the transition was obvious, for example Larry & His Flask, or The Goddamn Gallows, which both started as punk bands and then went in a roots direction. Others formed out of the ashes of punk scenes, like the .357 String Band. Generally speaking, the burgeoning country music underground welcomed these bands and their fans with open arms because they still showed respect to country music traditions, but soon parody began to creep into the equation as some bands and artists, armed with a knowledge of country only skin deep and Hank3’s Straight to Hell as their primary reference point, began to ape Hank3’s style instead of trying to be inspired by it.
I first broached this subject when reviewing Hank3’s album Rebel Within in May of 2010:
Hank III reinvigorated the “hellraising” attitude in country. One of the reasons it seems overused is because Hank inspired an army of copycats who can’t craft an original idea, throwing out “whiskey, devil, cocaine” references with no direction or purpose.
This theme also came up in a review for the band The Honky Tonk Hustlas. Whether it is punk bands that simply interchange their electric instruments for acoustic ones, or bands that have a more traditional country sound, but overload it with “whiskey, devil, and drug” references, parody in the “punk gone country” movement has become a problem, primarily by the way these artists can typecast other country punk bands, fans, and entities who actually do approach the country genre with respect, knowledge, and creativity.
And the dilemma is especially hurtful to bands like Hellbound Glory & Whitey Morgan & The 78’s for example, who never did time in the punk ranks, but have used the underground country network for support. Typecasting anybody and everybody coming out of the underground country ranks as foul-mouthed Hank3 clones is not fair to anyone, including Hank3.
JB Beverley is a musician who has spent time in both the country and punk worlds. His Waywards Drifters are about as country as it gets and have been around for a dozen years, while his Little White Pills have been playing hardcore punk music since 2002. Beverley did time as the frontman of the infamous Murder Junkies, who for a while backed up GG Allin, the notorious frontman who was another one of the first punk musicians to dabble in country. According to Beverley, parody in the “punk gone country” world is becoming a problem:
For as much as I like metal, punk, and hardcore music, I grew up on country music, and I don’t want to hear thrash metal with fiddles and banjos. I also don’t like to see and hear people who only know about the three Hanks, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson talking about how “country” they are. You might know Hank3’s catalog inside and out, but if you can’t name a few Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, and Hank Snow songs, you might want to rethink telling everyone how country you are.
Beverley says that the influx of misguided punk gone country bands have made it harder for bands like The Wayward Drifters.
As much as Hank3 has done to open doors for a lot of folks, the copycat image-jockeys not only take away from what he has done, thereby minimizing his efforts and hard work, they also make it hard on the rest of us who actually write original songs and don’t subscribe to that “whiskey, Satan, shotguns, moonshine, cheap thrills” formula.
All these copycat bands are actually driving the price down for the rest of us who are trying to make an honest living playing non-Nashville country. I recently had a promoter ask me: “If I book you, do I have to worry about heavy metal rednecks showing up and trashing my bar, or do you have at least some real country fans?” Statements like that are sad, and while they may not have much effect on Wayne Hancock or Dale Watson…. they kill guys like me who are covered in tattoos and have a history with aggressive forms of rock and roll.
Saving Country Music has been typecast from this trend as well, branded by many for only covering and supporting artists that fit a stereotypical “punk gone country” mold.
One way I commonly describe country music to people who are unfamiliar with the genre is to relate country and other genres to the difference between Christianity and Judaism. Anyone can be Christian, but being Jewish is not only a religion, it is a culture. That doesn’t mean you need to be born in to country music to play or listen to it. What it does mean is that the roots of tradition must stay in tact for the music to be respectful, and respected. Punks merging into country with little knowledge or respect for it is no different than the pop stars that many country punks complain about that do the same thing.
There is nothing wrong with having a fun, “punk gone country” side-project band even if it doesn’t respect the traditions of country music. It becomes a problem when that band begins vying for the fans, money, media attention, and performance slots with bands and artists that are touring nationally, and making sacrifices in their personal lives to attempt to make music full time.
Just like in the late 60’s, early 70’s, when the “Nashville Sound” pervaded Music Row and it was left to West Coast rock n’ rollers like Gram Parsons and The Grateful Dead to preserve and carry on the country music traditions, today it has fallen to punk rockers and metalheads. This can be exciting, but it is also an honor that comes with great responsibility. To preserve and pass forward these country roots to future generations, these artists must show reverence to the music, be better than Music Row, while still allowing the music to innovate, evolve, and when it is appropriate, infuse with the punk, metal, and rock music that makes up their own individual roots.