By Rebecca Bulnes
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Shelton Hank Williams III terrifies most folks in his hometown of Nashville. He has alienated himself from every Music City name, including his estranged father, Randall Hank Williams Jr. Taking his cue from the legendary, hard-living grandfather he never knew, Shelton has dedicated himself to a life of alcohol, pills, powders, weed, witchy women, and fiercely honest music. In doing so, he has built a nationwide army of diehard fans.
The tall, lanky singer has angular facial features and deep-set eyes that hauntingly recall the immortal visage of Hiram Hank Williams Sr. The youngest and wildest of the Hanks, Hank III chronicles his seedy and, at times, sad midnight adventures in song with a high, lonesome yelp, just like his granddaddy's, and the candidness of a hardcore punk rocker.
His latest release, Damn Right, Rebel Proud, includes titles such as "Candidate for Suicide" and "Stoned and Alone," which both allude to offing oneself. Shelton sounds wearier here than on previous records. "I'm always preaching against suicide, but it crosses everyone's mind, so yeah, I'm a candidate because I have been down that road, but it's definitely not something I'm trying to promote," Shelton says via phone from a recent tour stop in West Virginia. "I've had lots of people who have said they had those thoughts in their head but changed their mind after they heard those songs. I write about the dark and the happy. It's just a song — nothing I plan to ever do."
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Damn Right, Rebel Proud also includes the track "If You Can't Help Your Own." Without naming him, it implies Shelton's famous father is a man "filled with greed" and chastises Mr. Monday Night Football for not lending a financial hand to Shelton or his mother. It's also Hank III's response to Hank Jr.'s self-righteous 2002 Kid Rock duet "The F-Word." Hank Jr. starts that number by saying he's been "hanging out with [his] rebel son Mr. Rock;" it's easy to see why this would make Shelton seethe. Have father and (biological) son ever discussed their feud?
"Nah," Shelton says with more than a trace of disappointment in his voice. "He never brings up any music around me or anything. It is what it is — just one of those things. He brought that on himself calling me out with that F-bomb/Kid Rock thing."
In any event, Damn Right, Rebel Proud's sordid subject matter and explicit language earned the disc a "Parental Advisory" label. It's Shelton's second, a record for major-label country artists that will likely stand for decades. Still, his fans remain fiercely loyal — his shows include as much as an hour of interacting with diehard fans. Many proudly display prominent "III" tattoos. "Aside from the family name, I think that's what has been [the key to my success]: signing autographs after every show, talking with the people, creating that loyal foundation," Shelton says. "It's good to see it pay off and finally get a little respect."