I’m going to have a lot to say about this record, but the upshot is that its damn good. It is an improvement from Hank III’s last offering Damn Right, Rebel Proud. It may not be his best album, or the album of the year, but considering all the different factors Hank had to juggle when making it, he hit just about as close to the bulls-eye as anyone could expect.
Hank has been in a 14-year battle with his label Curb Records, and while making this album he had to ask himself, “Do I make it with his best material available, and hand the rights of those top-notch songs over to my mortal enemy so they can continue to fill their filthy coffers even after I leave?” He’s publicly said that once he’s done with Curb (which happens after this album release), he wants to be independent, mainly because he wants to reserve all his music rights.
But if he puts out a dud, he jeopardizes the loyalty of his famously loyal fan base. Hank has to keep his fan’s attention to proceed without label support. And that’s another issue: the fans.
EVERYBODY seems to have an opinion about what Hank III should be doing with his music. He cut his teeth as a neo-traditionalist, but his album Straight to Hell, considered his masterpiece, created an influx of punk and metal fans into the Hank III fan base, and into country music in general. Now the traditionalists and metalheads are going 9 rounds over what direction they think Hank III’s music should go, and Hank III has gone from being the most revered man in underground country to being one of the most polarizing.
And EVERYONE wants to compare any new Hank III album to his previous ones. Hank III might have started this trend, famously saying “Damn Right, Rebel Proud ain’t shit compared to Straight to Hell,” a message still on his MySpace page. But is every Willie album compared to Red Headed Stranger? Can’t we judge subsequent albums, good or bad, on their own merit?
Somehow, someway, with all these balls in the air, Hank III has figured out how to strike a balance between warring forces, and not forget that the way for him to make the best album possible is to listen to his heart.
The Rebel Within has those traditional country elements that his country fans crave, and a little of the metal edge to keep red meat in the bellies of the folks in black. And it does so fairly seamlessly. It doesn’t feel like “oh here’s another metal country song,” the album just flows. There’s some new sounds here too, new for Hank III, and new, period.
This album is Hank III settling into a sort of early Hank Jr., late Waylon, Johnny Paycheck-esque “hard” country style. He’s not reinventing the wheel; he already did that once, and if he does it again it might as well be when the Curb leech is off his ass. He doesn’t wow you with his songwriting, though it does have it moments. This is more of a party album, even more than his previous two.
The standout tracks for me were “Lookin’ for a Mountain,” “Karmageddon,” and “Tore Up & Loud.” Many people are calling the first the “Waylon Song,” and yes it has that identifiable two note bass line. But it also opens up a new theme for Hank. He’s always said he prefers the simple life, cutting the grass and running the dogs, and this song delves into the yearning for simplicity we all have.
“Karmageddon” is one of the “new sounds.” It comes across as plain weird at first, but multiple listens reveal its genius. Down the road we might look back at this song as a hint of the direction Hank III goes post-Curb. “Tore Up & Loud,” is just Hank III doing what made Hank III famous, but unlike some of the “hellraising” songs of Damn Right, Rebel Proud, this one works. The production isn’t overdone, and the heavy metal elements blend with the country elements smoothly. This is Hank III. This blend is his contribution to country music.
In some ways, this album made me judge Damn Right, Rebel Proud even more harshly. I’ve always said it was an album of good songs buried with poor production, a sentiment Hank III has asserted himself. But again, let’s look at this album on its own merit. The production of Rebel Within is clean and balanced. It’s more country, but not in a way that usurps Hank III’s country/metal blend. Simply put, the album works.
Some will complain that the drinking songs are too much. I agree that Hank should open up some new song themes in the future, though he starts down this path in this album. But 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.
My least favorite song is the title track, with the “screams” feeling out of place and dragging down an otherwise good song.
If handed this album and told to grade it, I would give it a B+. But knowing the challenges facing Hank III in making it, I give him an A.
It seems everyone wants to criticize Hank III, second guess him, pontificate of how he should live his life and what direction his music should go. I’d like to see those people try to fill the biggest boots ever handed down in country music while fighting off a malevolent music label. I say just enjoy the music, that is what it is there for. And if you can’t, leave it.
But don’t forget who brought you back into country music after years of disappointment from the mainstream. Don’t forget who introduced you to country music when you were listening to who knows what kind of filth. Don’t forget who introduced you to Wayne Hancock and Dale Watson, and a slew of other musicians who have changed the very complexion of your life, brought you countless joy, helped you through endless sorrow. Don’t forget who made you feel hope that maybe everything in country music isn’t lost. Don’t forget who introduced you to countless other fans who now feel like family. Don’t forget who made the music that was there for you when nobody and nothing else was.
If it wasn’t for Hank III, I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for Hank III, YOU wouldn’t be here. Hank III created all of this: this genre, this scene, this website, your interest, everything. We may not even be able to agree what to call this music, but we can all agree to call Hank III the king of it, and always will be, whether he puts out another country album or not.
You can listen to all the tracks of Rebel Within in their entirety by CLICKING HERE.
The best place to purchase or pre-order ANY album is through your local record store. But if you can’t, you can pre-order the album through Amazon by CLICKING HERE.
Note: Long time artist for Hank III Keith Neltner, who did his last two album covers did NOT do the cover art for this project.
Also for everyone hoping that now Hank III is free we might see a double disc dump of some of the best country music we’ve ever heard, don’t hold your breath. Sure, Hank III probably put some songs in the can until Curb was in the rear view, but we might not see another pure country project for years. Hank has a lot to sort out, and anyone who thinks they know what is coming up is high.