There are albums that are a hoot to listen to, and there are albums that sell lots of copies. And then there are albums that help completely reshape music into something different than what it was before they were released. The first two don’t always translate to the third, and sometimes influence doesn’t always equate to sales and enjoyment. But whether these records are recognized by the wide population or not, they’re the projects that change music as we know it, broaden possibilities, and become so influential that the music can be heard in the bones of countless other albums and songs spanning well into the future.
Hank3’s Straight To Hell, released 10 years ago today, was one of those albums.
We talk today about how technology has put the power of music back in the hands of artists. Hank3’s Straight to Hell was arguably the first record to illustrate this truth in country music at large. Recorded on a piece of consumer electronics—a Korg D-1600 digital workstation—it took all the power of budget and production out of the hands of Hank3’s label Curb Records, and put it back into the hands of the artist. With help from bass player Joe Buck, and steel guitar player Andy Gibson, Hank3 set all budgetary restrictions aside, and allowed any and all creative juices to flow until it resulted in a double album magnum opus.
Along with being the first truly DIY album to be released in the country music industry proper, it was also the first album released under the CMA umbrella to include a parental advisory sticker, and the first to be required to be released with a “clean” version for consumer big box stores like Wal-Mart. And most importantly, it put all the disparate elements of underground country under one tent.
In underground country, there was before Straight to Hell, and after Straight to Hell. The album united angry country music listeners with its unabashed country protest songs like “Dick in Dixie” and “Not Everybody Likes Us.” It united country punks, and country metal fans from its hard edge, and Hank3’s affiliation with metal supergroup Superjoint Ritual, and elements of the “insurgent country” scene first championed by indie labels like Bloodshot Records in Chicago. And Straight to Hell did all of this while still being very much a country record, and not crossing the line into country punk or country metal, and even offering something for neotraditionalists to enjoy as well.
Straight to Hell created a rich and vibrant scene of bands and artists that is still around today, completely devoid of the industry, using the internet to find fans and connect with them, and inspiring bands to make music on their own. It opened doors for artists of today like Sturgill Simpson to have a space to operate in without the help of a major label. The album was a direct tie to the mid 70’s Outlaw era in country with artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and Tompall Glaser’s renegade Hillbilly Central studios. It was the Outlaw attitude awakened in the modern era in both words and action.
But the most lasting legacy of Straight to Hell is the music itself. Angry, raw, explicit, but also erudite in its own way, Straight to Hell set a creative high watermark that arguably has yet to be attained again in country. Many fans only focus on the candid and raw lyricism about drug use and other explicit themes. But Straight to Hell was a concept record through and through. The songs of hard living, while making an excellent gateway for escapism and character creation, lead to the last song on the first album, the 6-minute “Angel of Sin” that resolves in the wisdom of how the lives of it’s characters lead to a dead end.
All of this is the setup to the second disc—a 42-minute foray into ambient sounds, rich audio imagery, and multiple raw acoustic tracks that capture Hank3 in his most pure form. Once again, an album-legnth conceptualized track was something never done before in country music, and it wasn’t just the groundbreaking approach that made it great, but the effort and outcome that still holds up today as something more than just a listening experience, but a journey into the mind—something many thought was not possible in the country format.
In the 10 years since Straight to Hell, underground copycatters have done their best to erode the magic of the album by taking only the sin, and none of the virtue from Straight to Hell. Many are fair to question Hank3’s own output post Straight to Hell, but as he puts it, it may take years for him to top the album, if he ever does. Many have tried. Few, if any, have even come close. But how could they?
Time is the ultimate judge and critic of music. 10 year anniversaries don’t always fall favorably for legendary records. They’re still too young to be considered vintage or retro, but are just old enough to be out of style. But unfolding the flaps of Straight to Hell today, re-living the music, looking at the iconic photo of Hank3, Andy Gibson, and Joe Buck holding up the D 1600 recording device defiantly, it’s hard to not feel the same magic you heard when you listened to the record for the first time.