There is no less sin and depravity in the deepest reaches of the American South than anywhere else. Perhaps there’s even more. It’s just the prevalence of religious customs and traditional norms pushes the sin and subversion underground, hiding it in the shadows. In the South, secrets are buried and urges suppressed in ways that make some deviant, leaving the upright status of the South merely a facade as a seedy underbelly persists. Sin, judgment, and hypocrisy create a sort of macabre theater in Southern society. These truths comprise much of the inspiration for the 1st record from this 4th generation performer.
The life of Coleman Williams is very much wrapped up in the Southern myth, or as he chooses to phrase it, the Southern Circus. As the son of Hank Williams III, he’s a legitimate heir to a Southern musical dynasty. As a son born out of wedlock, some in the South would euphemistically label him as “illegitimate.” Coleman Williams chooses to embrace his history by saying he’s a “Son of Sin,” but he chose not to take up his family’s legendary stage name of “Hank,” and instead simply adopted the Roman numeral “IV.” In other words, he’s not running from who he is, but he’s not fully exploiting it either.
Musically, Coleman Williams is looking to pick up where his father left off, which is taking underlying inspirations from the country realm, and mixing them with more dark and heavy music. This is what Hank3 came to be known for, helping to create a country music underground where there had never been one before, and seeding it with many punks and metalheads who found camaraderie with the heavy themes country music contains.
But beyond that starting point, we honestly didn’t know what to expect from Coleman Williams, who didn’t choose to pursue music full time until he was 30, and whose early cuts and scratch videos sounded curious, and sometimes, inconsistent. Perhaps Coleman misunderstood just how serious the implications were for him to get involved in music. So the release of an early EP slated for last year was paused, and Coleman was put out on the road to refine his chops before heading back into the studio to finish off a full album.
The sonic baseline for Southern Circus is the stuff Coleman’s father calls Hellbilly music, which melds an aggressive form of punk and metal with banjo, and matches that all with themes steeped in Southern decay. This is the kind of stuff you get in songs like “Son of Sin,” “Deep Down,” and “Filth,” which even start to veer into sludgy Doom metal territory. This was probably the approach Coleman’s original EP looked to take for the most part.
But Southern Circus is surprisingly omnivorous and diverse from there, and favorably so, mixing in more understated songwriting material than you expect, including songs that still have a punk roots edge to them, but that are a bit more purposeful. The first song on the album “Train” sounds downright Americana, immediately resetting your thoughts and expectations on this project. You also receive a few country tracks in “Malice” and “Drinking Sad,” though they still come with an underground grit that is consistently present throughout this record.
Perhaps the best, and most interesting moments of Southern Circus are when Coleman finds a strong balance between the dissonant and the melodic, the edgy and rootsy, like in the songs “Cigarette Ends,” “Stand Your Ground,” “Southern Despair,” or the duet with Jaime Wyatt, “Broken Pieces.” This is where Coleman Williams is contributing something to the musical canon that is mostly uncharted, removes himself from the shadow of his father and famous family, and turns in something quite novel. If nothing else, Southern Circus is like nothing else you’ve ever heard, even in underground country. It’s a Southern curiosity for sure.
Of course we wouldn’t be talking about Coleman Williams a.k.a. “IV” if it wasn’t for his famous father, or grandfather, or great grandfather. This goes without saying. But Coleman’s critics will say it anyway. A famous last name is always the greatest asset, and the heaviest burden for an artist such as this. Coleman has an interesting warble to his voice mid verse, and an eclectic claw-style guitar technique that comes from a talent pool that is all his own.
But if we’re being honest, there’s not that immediately gripping timbre to his voice that reminds you of a ghost like the first time we heard Hank3, or the generational talent and perspective that Hank Jr. forged into a Hall of Fame career, or even the best-in-class songwriting of Coleman’s aunt Holly Williams, at least not yet. Sometimes the themes or messages of Coleman’s songs are hard to discern. There just isn’t that singular generational talent, at least not yet, to immediately grip the audience. If Coleman Williams is going to make it, it’s going to be as a scrapper, consistently getting better as a musician and singer, continuing to hone his voice as a songwriter, and outworking others.
But that is exactly what Coleman Williams is trying to do. He is still a work in progress, but this is a debut record, and that’s to be expected. He’s a late bloomer looking to find his own way in the musical world, while still trying to pay homage to the family name. What happens next with him, and where it goes from here might be the most interesting, and the most important. But for now, Southern Circus truly offers a unique approach to underground country that gives you lots to ponder and digest, taking unexpected turns and daring chances, while still trying in his own way to adhere to the musical legacy he was born into.
It’s most certainly strange. But in music, that’s not always a bad thing.
1 3/4 Gus Up (7.5/10)
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