ROBBIE FULKS/JON LANGFORD ON HANK WILLIAMS
It's odd times indeed when Hank Williams's influence is more prevalent among indie rockers than among the stars of Nashville. Then again, Williams never did fit in with the Music City crowd. Jon Langford (of the Mekons and Waco Brothers) and Robbie Fulks have felt the country legend's potent impact, the aura of which seeps into their frenzied musical hybrids. The pair spoke with Amazon.com's Country editor, Marc Greilsamer, about the appeal of Williams's music, and they offer ideas about where he would fit in today's musical environment.
Amazon.Com: What was your first reaction to hearing Hank Williams?
Jon Langford: My immediate thing was, "Oh, we should play some of these songs with the Mekons because they seemed like three-chord punk-rock songs about death."
Robbie Fulks: It's real easy to play, and it's catchy the first time you hear it. I remember when I was 14 and George Thorogood came out with that "Move It On Over." George's version struck me as really cool rock & roll, and I worked backward from there.
Amazon.Com: If Hank were just starting out today, what do you think his impact would be?
Fulks: Oh, zero!
Amazon.Com: Where would they play him?
Langford: [Laughing] He would probably be a rapper!
Amazon.Com: Do you think people would catch on and say, "Well, this guy has talent, and he's going to do something"?
Langford: No, I don't think the country-music industry would allow him to make records within the natural framework, because of the subject matter. A lot of his stuff would be too heavy.
Fulks: Yeah, there's not a real easy place to fit in simple, direct lyrics nowadays for the country stuff. It has to be on a level that the 40-year-old Omaha housewife can understand and feel that it touches her concerns. And on the rock level, it needs to be kind of obscure, personal, and impressionistic. So Hank doesn't fit either one of those categories at all.
Amazon.Com: How would you guys describe the connection between punk rock and Hank Williams?
Langford: They talk to their immediate audience, and they talk about the world in a very direct way and not a kind of escapist way. They try to face up to the problems of life and talk about them in songs with a very simple musical structure. With Hank Williams, I always imagined his audience was made up of his peers, you know? He's talking to people with his lyrics; he's not talking down to anyone.
Fulks: Then there's the music, too. Guys like [steel player] Don Helms. Those guys all had their chops together, but they weren't like session men nowadays, and they weren't tablature-reading, chart-reading savants or anything--they were emotional and feeling players.
Amazon.Com: What would Hank Williams think about a song such as "Take Me to the Fires" [from the Waco Brothers' Cowboy in Flames] or "God Isn't Real" [on Fulks's Let's Kill Saturday Night]? Both are kind of antigospel songs.
Langford: They're not antigospel songs. I think they're anti-organized-religion songs--at least ours is, you know? There's something unpleasant about organized religion telling people to wait for your rewards in heaven--just be humble and quiet now and don't stir up any trouble. I think Hank would probably hate both of them, you know, because he was a good, God-fearin' Southern boy.
Fulks: You know, when you go to church every week--a weird kind of church just like those old guys did--and then you flip out about it like Jerry Lee Lewis or Hank Williams and start drinking and leading lives of quiet, evil desperation, you get a different point of view than I think Jon or I would have.
Langford: I'm sure Hank believed in God. I think Hank's problem was probably that he grew up in such abject poverty and there was no education for him. He was taking so many painkillers that everyone on the Opry thought he was a horrendous drunk, but he was actually only drinking a couple of beers and then the painkillers would flip him out completely!
Amazon.Com: "The Death of Country Music" [on Cowboy in Flames] and "Fuck This Town" [on Fulks's South Mouth] are both decidedly anti-Nashville, or at least anti-modern Nashville.
Langford: Well, "The Death of Country Music" was just about the fact that people have these fake kinds of tributes to the old people and they constantly hold up that tradition. But they don't acknowledge it in any concrete way. It doesn't inform the music they're making.
Amazon.Com: Do you think he would look at Nashville as sort of his Frankenstein's monster? That he helped create this thing and now look what they've done to it?
Langford: No, I think he had a pretty fierce relationship with the Nashville establishment the whole time. I think he wouldn't have thought much had changed. I think they treated him pretty badly.
Fulks: What was Hank's relationship with Jim Denny and the Opry brass back then?
Langford: They sacked him [in mid 1952] about six months before he died. I think he was really angry about that. He was completely shunned by the establishment there. He spent the last six months of his life just tottering about on the road.
Amazon.Com: Was Hank just able to convey emotions so much more directly than anyone else?
Fulks: Yeah. When you write about sadness that starkly and manfully, in a way where there's some restraint to it and some perspective on the sadness, it's really a lot more devastating than the self-pitying tone that is in so much new country music.
Amazon.Com: Do you think the mythology around him--dying young, for example--has contributed to his lasting popularity?
Langford: I think [his death] was the best thing that could have happened to people in Nashville because as soon as he was dead, he wasn't an embarrassment to them anymore and it was much easier to market [him]. They still evoke his memory as a way of shifting product. People like Bob Wills or Johnny Cash had to run through the whole thing. I think those are more interesting stories, in a way, because in England you're meant to be dead at 30, you know?
Fulks: He was kind of a troublesome bum. For him to be dead is a lot more useful to the people that were around him that knew what he was like. There's that story about Jerry Byrd, I think it was, at the funeral, where the preacher said, "We'll never see his like again." And then Jerry Byrd said, "Thank God!" And everybody turned around and stared at him! It was just something awful. But he said, "No, I just mean that he was really unpleasant and I don't ever want to meet anybody like that again. So, yeah, it's good that he's gone." [laughter]
Amazon.Com: Whether you guys see a direct connection or not, other people do see some element of Hank in your music.
Langford: I think it's kind of a feeling rather than anything else. Just an attempt to play it really simple. It's just a real huge presence when you think about that huge body of work; it's in the back of your mind.
Fulks: [Hank's] influence is so big, it's kind of tempting to shy away from it, because it's like being a rock writer and trying to write like Bob Dylan or something. It's something that you try to get away from, but it's also inescapable, because those two guys had such a distorting impact on the kind of music they played.
Amazon.Com: So when people use Hank Williams to describe your music, does that surprise you?
Langford: It might surprise Hank Williams!
Fulks: Well, we know that for sure. It would have killed him before age 29 if he heard about it! [laughter]