Hank Williams III – Rebel Within (Music Review)

Rebel Within cover

Hank III - Rebel Within

“Getting drunk and falling down has taken its toll on me,” announces Hank III as his latest album opens. That message repeats throughout Rebel Within. Even his unrepentant hard-partying tracks mention “the curse of living out my songs”, and hard drugs only come up in reference to the damage they have done to him or his friends. Is the icon of the country-metal scene finally reaching his limit?

There are other possibilities. Williams and Curb Records have fought repeatedly, both in and out of court, and the label even released Straight To Hell under the new name “Bruc Records” to avoid the embarrassment of publishing the first-ever major country CD with a parental advisory label. Rebel Within marks the end of Williams’ contract with Curb, and he has publicly said that he is keeping his best music in reserve for afterwards. Perhaps he just figured that he would have to fight with the label less if he churned out stories about his suffering along with his hell-raising.

It won’t be possible to fully understand this album until we see what he does now that he’s free. In addition to announcing that his lifestyle is catching up with him, Williams also takes his songwriting in a different direction. With this album, a majority of the songs find him solidly in the “country storyteller” vein that faded from fashion a few decades ago. It’s a good sound for him, whether it’s a permanent direction or just a temporary swerve to remind pop country fans what a rich history they are missing. However, these slow, steady songs do feel a little out of place next to the wilder ones like “Rebel Within” or “Tore Up And Loud”.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore Williams’ claim that he is intentionally keeping his best music off of this album. There is a ring of truth to that. It seems that many of the songs either go on for at least half a minute too long or repeat lyrics in places where something different should have been written. The worst offender is “#5”, a mournful song about needing to give up drugs before they kill him. At four minutes, this would have been the emotional core of the album. Stretched out to six-and-a-half minutes, though, most of that impact is lost.

“Drinkin’ Over Momma” might show another glaring example of cut corners. For the most part, the song finds dark humor in its lyrics about a mother who abandons her family for a life of drinking. But in the verse about finding his father a replacement wife, the narrator uses two of the four lines to announce that “she’s gonna have to clean all our shotguns/and skin those critters we bring home”. I don’t question that hunting would be a part of this family’s life, but it hardly seems like it should be the only criteria the singer would mention. Those lines veer dangerously close to the hicksploitation that Williams usually avoids so deftly.

Fortunately, even Williams’ lazier efforts are worth hearing. He still stands out in the modern country outlaw scene that he spawned, and at the best moments, you can see that he is still as innovative and risk-taking as ever, while growing more assured all the time. “Tore Up And Loud” is among his best party songs yet (well, at least until the ending, in which he just yells about being free from Curb Records), and the storytelling style adds more variety to Williams’ songwriting toolkit. This isn’t the first Hank III album anyone should buy, but it’s still good enough to impress anyone who does hear this one first.

Grade: B-


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