In an ongoing attempt to bleed my opinions all over your computer screen, I’m selecting one album from every year that I’ve been alive that has some sort of significance to me…and then writing about it. Welcome back to 35 Albums in 35 Years.
What can I say? I had been familiar with Hank III for a few years, but had never really paid him much attention. Then, on a whim, I decided to check out the massive double album Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown, one of three different releases the man put out in 2011, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Here we have an album that blends old school country, bluegrass, punk rock, folk, and just some all around general weirdness with occasional lyrics akin to some white trash, hillbilly take on gangsta rap…and that’s just the first half. The Guttertown section then delves even deeper into the strange with a creepy mix of field recordings, drone, experimental sounds, zydeco, and dark country folk. It’s like wading into a black and eerie swamp with the devil as your companion and joining in with the locals in some old voodoo ritual.
Growing up in Texas by way of Louisiana, country music of various forms and genres had been virtually inescapable, be they the old bluegrass records my dad adored, the 80’s and 90’s country albums my sister preferred, or simply the ever present hum of modern (and old school) country radio. It seemed to be quite literally everywhere…all of the time. And while I would dig on a few songs here and there either by novelty or actual interest, I’m just not what you would call a fan. Traditionally, I am not a country music kind of guy, but Hank III’s album was just too odd and interesting to pass up. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s really damn good too.
The Ghost to a Ghost section of the record kicks in instantly with the outlaw honky-tonk flavor of “Guttertown,” a foot-tapping tone setter that feels equal parts barn dance and sleazy dive bar, a rousing number for the roadhouse set. From there, the album blasts through sex, drugs, guns, booze, and violence with a rip-roaring, sneering, and spitting vengeance. “Riding the Wave” comes off as a gangsta-country jam, cruising the streets with guns drawn. “Don’t You Wanna” is a crude and straightforward weekend party tune, an ode to inebriation and fornication. “Cunt of a Bitch” is…well…it’s something…an ugly and blistering fiddle punk rock song fueled by cocaine and misogyny that should be taken with a grain of salt. While these tracks are fun, the album really shines when the mood veers toward a more personal slant like on the ballad “The Devil’s Movin’ In,” or when Hank experiments with sounds and textures that lie further outside of the country-fried roots music he dabbles in. Songs like “Time to Die” and “Ghost to a Ghost,” the latter of which features Tom Waits and Primus’ Les Claypool, mix in elements of jazz and Americana to craft an even denser musical palette. It’s really wonderful stuff.
And then there’s Guttertown.
The second half of Hank 3’s magnum opus sounds like something the aforementioned Tom Waits would have experimented with during his long career, which is a complement of the highest order. Guttertown is creepy, but it’s also a lot of fun. The whole thing has this fish-out-of-water vibe, like you’re a stranger in some foreign land, unfamiliar with the local customs, or with whom to trust, and whom to be wary of. The album is thick as mud, drone, swamp noises, and zydeco making up most of the body of sound, but with occasional flourishes to flesh the rest of the album out, like the train track rhythms and hobo lullabies of “The Low Line.” The whole record sounds like being at wild and weird party, where you’re having fun, but you don’t know anyone, and you’re too drunk to understand anything, and all the while something bad or evil is happening on the periphery. It’s really uneasy stuff. It should also be listened to in full to get the whole effect.
So there it is. I’m still not a country music guy, but I’ve been following Hank III’s career ever since hearing this record. He’s an interesting character, sometimes playing the part of the punk brat, or the stoned metal head, or the American country troubadour. His live shows reflect this multiple personality, as he often incorporates varying sets of all of his musical styles to his audience of bikers, good ol’ boys, white trash, stoners, punks, and hipsters. I’ve been in the mix before. It looked like a roomful of extras from a Rob Zombie movie. But we all came together. And it was wonderful.
On a side note, Hank’s dog Trooper is listed in the liner notes as a guest musician, as the pup supplies some howling vocals for the song “Trooper’s Hollar,” just another weird and crazy tune on a weird and crazy album.
- Favorite song: “Ghost to a Ghost”
– Runner up: “The Devil’s Movin’ In”
Some other albums I almost wrote about instead: Death Grips’ Exmilitary; Alvarius B’s Baroque Primitiva; Destroyer’s Kaputt; Panda Bear’s Tomboy; Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact; John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves; Washed Out’s Within and Without; The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond this World.
From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.