Rebel Hell: Hank Williams III Overcomes Studio Adversity

Recording Damn Right, Rebel Proud [Sidewalk], Hank Williams III’s fifth album—and the second done at his Tennessee home—was a bitterly frustrating experience. There were times during the sessions when Williams’ simmering rage at the tracking engineer he had hired just about boiled over.

“A pal of mine was talking about this engineer forever, but when the kid showed up I could tell that he thought working with me was going to be a party,” remembers Williams. “Then came the grim realization that he was here to work, and this was his first acoustic project. He’s like, ‘I’ll make it through, man. I’ll make it through.’ But within four days, I knew it was going to be a long two weeks. I thought, ‘This kid is going to make this album a jumbled cluster f**k.’ Then, he started getting pissy with some of the players I had coming in—he was totally working against us. I’ve never in my life had to lean over and say, ‘Do we need to pull the plug and send you home right now?’”

The recording process was likely a bit less problematic for William’s granddad, the truly legendary Hank Williams, Sr., who, in 1946, made his way to Nashville’s Castle Studios—a state of the art facility run as a side project by seasoned engineers from the city’s flagship radio station WSM. The studio management was aggressively committed to innovation, and the purchase of a Scully lathe to cut master discs—the first such unit in the South—allowed for rapid duplication and distribution of recordings. Williams, Sr., and his accompanists would cluster around a single RCA 44 or 77 ribbon mic that was fed to a simple tube console, and, ultimately, out to the lathe (which was too large to be kept onsite, so it was housed in a warehouse 12 miles away, and connected to the studio by a telephone line). Three-hour sessions were the protocol, and each session was expected to produce four songs. It should be obvious that these sessions were live to disc.

While the Damn Right, Rebel Proud sessions embraced the benefits of digital technology, Williams III tried to stay true to the basic tenets of his grandfather’s organic “capture it live” approach. After straightening out “the kid’s” messy Pro Tools files with his friend Jim Lightman, Williams returned to the task of building up his songs layer-by-layer. Typically, he started with acoustic rhythm guitar and a scratch vocal, and then recorded drums, bass, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro, pedalsteel, and electric guitar. Williams’ living room saw most of the action, with drums, guitar, fiddle, and steel all tracked in the same room, and vocals recorded in a little hallway.

“It’s not a fancy room or anything,” he says. “It has hardwood floors and an eight-foot ceiling. Separation was decent, because we had enough room to get the drums away from the other instruments, but there was still some signal bleed.”

A console was rented from the local SIR [Studio Instrument Rentals], and the mics were almost exclusively Shure—SM57s for bass and guitars, a KSM9 for vocals, and KSM44s for room mics.

“I’ll tell you this,” says Williams, “we didn’t use any old fancy or high dollar mics—it was basically all stuff that Shure has given me. We’d just kind of mess around with the mics we had, and see what we could get going on.”

For the album’s musicians, Williams called up about half of his touring band, and filled in the other spots with Nashville session giants.

“[Session guitarist] Johnny Hiland is the king of the record,” says Williams. “He’s a virtuoso and an incredible guy. He walks in, and says, ‘How you doing, buddy—how many are we going to do today?’ I’ll answer, ‘Well, we’re probably going to do 12 tracks today, Johnny,’ and he’ll just say, ‘Alright, hook me up!’ He’ll take two passes at each song, and, within an hour and a half, he already has his stuff packed up and he’s heading out the door, saying, ‘Man, I can’t wait to see you next time. I hope you let me play on one of your rock records one day.’ He’s as quick as they come. Randy Kohrs— who flatpicks the acoustic guitar and dobro on all the fast songs—and banjo player Charley Cushman are also guys that get it done fast. However, my steel player, Andy Gibson, likes taking a little bit more time, because he likes to pick a song apart and really listen to it.”

Whether it’s his welldocumented and hard-won rebel persona, or the exhaustion talking after having to wrangle sounds out of “the kid,” Williams is brutually honest about the fact that Damn Right, Rebel Proud didn’t exactly nail his vision.

“The record is not as psychedelic as I wanted it to be,” he says. “I always like adding what I call ‘The Pink Floyd Effect’—strange echoes and other weird sounds that appear on every single damn song—but things were working against me on this one. Simple moves that I know should have only taken a few minutes ended up taking almost an hour—you know, just getting an echo going or something. The kid wasn’t feeling it. “Stoned and Alone” has a little bit of the Floyd Effect. I just wish more of the record had it.”

Another aspect of the album’s production that was more-or-less out of Williams’ hands was a contractual obligation to deliver “safe” songs such as “I Wish I Knew.”

“Yeah, that’s really in the contract,” says Williams. “I have to give them two songs that are good enough for the radio. If you ever hear a real pretty song on one of my records, that’s probably the reason why. Of course, every song I think is a hit never is. That’s just the way it goes. But I hope people can see the difference in the songs I write for myself, and not for the radio. It would be nice if we stood out a bit, compared to the way most country records out of Music Row sound these days. I really want to keep us kind of underground.”