Just because Hank Williams III is the scion of country-music legends doesn't automatically excuse him from accusations of rednexploitation. Every other alt-country band on the college circuit gets scrutinized for using images of poverty and desperation as a joke or a tease, so surely a born-rich music-biz insider like Williams should tread very carefully before recording a song like "Crazed Country Rebel," about a drug-crazed road hog "driftin' state to state." It's a funny song, but it panders to people who think that "authentic" country music has to be about outlaw losers, as though nobody in the heartland ever held onto a job or fell in love.
Williams walks that thin line throughout his new album, Straight To Hell, but he gets by—and makes a fine record, truth be told—because he's got an argument to make. More than one song on Straight To Hell rips at pop-country, calling it "a bunch of fuckin' shit," and Williams offers an encyclopedia of alternatives, roaring through bluegrass, honky-tonk anthems, western swing, spooky folklore, two-steppers, and tear-in-the-beer ballads. The album even includes a second disc with a 45-minute sound collage, recreating the fragmentary psyche of a traveling musician. There's an element of gleeful sacrilege about Straight To Hell, starting with the title track, which samples The Louvin Brothers' gospel-bluegrass classic "Satan Is Real" before shredding it in a torrent of demonic cackles and lines like "the sheriff wants to kill me 'cuz I fucked his wife." Williams bookends and excuses that song with the dreamy, syrup-slow "Angel Of Sin," where he insists the gods of decadence "won't be there for you" at the end of the day. But it's too late for excuses. As every street-corner preacher knows, even stories of redemption only pack in the crowds who want to hear about the sin.