Collisionville: A Bay Area Band with Alabama Roots Confronts the Ghost of Hank Williams
I said to Hank Williams: "How lonely does it get?"
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song
Leonard Cohen, “Tower of Song”
If, as Leonard Cohen writes, Hank Williams is “a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song” (high praise from one of the great poet-songwriters of the modern era), there is no doubt that the Father of Country Music has exalted himself into the pantheon of American popular culture – that he has transcended the barriers that divide American society – high and low, rock and country, hillbilly and Brahmin, and achieved the iconic status he sought when he was alive. So it shouldn’t surprise that the Hank Williams memorial industry has hit full throttle in the past few years. In 2011, Timeless, the Williams tribute record, won the Grammy for Best Country Album. The Bob Dylan-curated The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a compilation of Hank's previously unrecorded lyrics performed by artists as diverse as Alan Jackson, Jack White, and Norah Jones, soon followed, to wide critical acclaim. I Saw The Light, a Williams biopic starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, is scheduled for theatrical release in March 2016. Lost among these tributes is a concept album that is poignant, personal, and strangely underappreciated – a record by a decade-old but little-known Bay Area band with Alabama roots called Collisionville. Stephen Pride, Collisionville's lead songwriter, guitarist, and jack-of-all-trades, traces his family's connections to Hank in Depression-era south Alabama. He leavens his record, The Revenge of Two-Gun Pete (Booplet Records, Berkeley, 2013), with the humor, anger, and melancholy that marks the Hillbilly Shakespeare’s life and music.
To understand Two-Gun Pete, you have to grasp the time and place of Hank’s early childhood and the role Stephen’s family played in it. The summer days of 1930 in Georgiana, Alabama, a cart-and-mule town on the Louisville & Nashville line between Montgomery and Mobile, suffocated Hiram King (“Hank”) Williams and his family like brushfire smoke. A scrawny hunchback seven-year-old with a spinal disorder (one that would eventually claim his life through the soothing effects of opiates and alcohol), Hiram lived with his mother, Lilly, and sister, Irene, in an elevated shack on Old Highway 31 near the commanding home of the Pride family. Herman Pride, the family patriarch and future mayor of Georgiana, was to the manor born. In the social and economic environment of the time and place, the Williamses were red-dirt peckerwoods, boondock hillbillies, just a sliver notch above blacks, which, in view of Jim Crow racial codes, was about the worst thing you could be. Hiram’s father, Elonzo “Lonnie” Williams, was laid up in a Louisiana VA hospital suffering the aftereffects of a brain aneurysm – a combination of a drunken fist fight in WWI France and continued battles with alcohol during his career as an itinerant railroad worker in post-war south Alabama. In the hot months when the town runts were outside getting into whatever trouble they could find, Herman’s son Roger mocked Hank’s poverty and fatherlessness, and called him “Two-Gun Pete” (perhaps a corruption of “Poots”, the nickname the other kids gave him) because he liked to play with toy pistols. Hank would never forget it. Hank never forgot nor forgave nothin’. Late that summer, the Williams house burned to the ground, the family escaping with nothing but the nightclothes on their backs and Lonnie’s shotgun that Lilly spirited out of the house at the last minute. Insult, meet injury.
According to Your Cheatin’ Heart, the intimate Williams biography by Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo, Hank remembered the Pride’s taunts well into his heyday in Nashville. Hank’s alias, “Herman P. Willis”, the name he used in hotels while on tour and in his increasingly frequent run-ins with the police, puzzled some members of his band, The Drifting Cowboys. Jerry Rivers, the Cowboys’ fiddler since Hank joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1948, asked him before a series of Dallas shows what the “P” stood for. “Pride, by gum!” Hank sneered.
(Below, Hank in concert, 1951.)
“Herman Pride was my father’s uncle, my paternal grandfather’s older brother”, Stephen Pride told me by phone from his home in Berkeley, California. Stephen, a Denver native, released in 2013 The Revenge of Two-Gun Pete, a theme-based meditation on Hank’s legacy in American music and the blood curse that Hank’s specter may have visited on Stephen, his family, and his band. Stephen divided the record into halves (a design tailored specifically for vinyl) – the first a whiplashing set of power trio songs that recall early 1980s West Coast punk rock, the second a mournful, alt-country sound. He sets the scene in the opening number “The Ballad of Herman P. Willis” with Hank’s phantom Death Ride in the legendary blue Cadillac (now on grim display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery): “There is a car, a goddamned Cadillac/There’s an angry spirit still riding in the back/He’s watching me everywhere I go/Heard me thinking/He heard that lonesome whistle blow…”
(Below, Hank's "Death Ride" Cadillac, in which he was found deceased on January 1, 1953 in Oak Hill, WV; displayed in The Hank Williams Museum, Montgomery, AL.)
Stephen draws the listener into the source of the curse, linking Hank’s hit “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” to the primal sin inflicted on the child who would become The Drifting Cowboy, Luke The Drifter, a national treasure:
Sick little boy, burned-down shack
And his daddy ran away
We called him Two-Gun Pete from our big porch
And laughed at his angry face
And he never forgot it
He sings it every goddamned night
"You'll never get out of this world alive"
The chorus then invokes the “curse upon your bloodline” that summons retribution and regret, but not redemption.
For Stephen, karma is a two-way street: “I felt some of the tension there. It seems like it factored in at least subconsciously for me to see the whole ridiculous charade of Hank Jr. losing his Monday Night Football gig over whatever kind of idiotic, bigoted, outrageous statements he had made at some point or another and thinking about my upbringing. [The cover art of Two-Gun Pete is a parody of Hank Jr.’s Family Tradition album cover.] I’m the only one in my family who didn’t go to graduate school. Other people talk about being the only one in their family who went to college. For me it’s kind of an opposite thing. Some of the tension between Hank and Herman Pride was that Herman Pride was this prominent man in town and Hank’s father had run off and he and his mother were destitute. He had resentment about that. So I felt like that kind of divide – the two Americas that he [Hank] and I are on two different sides of. And that should be part of what the record is about.”
For all things Collisionville, check out their website by clicking here.
Hank had some advice about the two sides of the social divide as well. He had formed much of his world view early in life at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, a fire-and-brimstone, shout n’ holler congregation, typical of the region, then and now. The sermons, in the end-of-days rhetoric straight out of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction and Billy Sunday’s radio broadcasts, focused on eternal damnation for a variety of sins – drinking, smoking, fornication, gambling – unless the sinner, usually male and under threat of abandonment by his wife and family, repented, confessed, and became born again in the redeeming blood of Jesus. Hank the sinnin’ and singin’ Drifting Cowboy became Luke The Drifter, the name under which he recorded an album of the same name. The record consists mostly of songs in Hank’s quivering, choked-up voice – recitations of loss, penance, and salvation – broken hearts, booze, infidelity, forgiveness, divorce, jail, death, and the Hereafter. These themes resonate with Stephen, who sees a doubleness in Hank’s life with which he empathizes. “I had the impression that for a lot of people, especially the more indie-rock type listeners who were like ‘Sure, yeah, I like Hank’. He was a rowdy troublemaker, the original outlaw country guy, singing about hard luck and good times and drinking. I really identify with that and that’s the way people think about him. By the time I was putting this record together the side of him that I was thinking about more was that angry, judgmental guy, who’s giving those chilling sermons in the Luke The Drifter stuff. There’s that aspect of him as well”.
Luke The Drifter was well-versed in the violence that simmered beneath Southern geniality. In “I’ve Been Down That Road Before”, he inhabits a Pride-like man-about-town, delivering a sermon that’s part cautionary tale and part revenge fantasy:
A little fellow about my size got tired of being pushed about
So he went to work and when he got through he'd knocked every one of my teeth out
One time too many I'd rubbed him wrong and he evened up the score
Now that's what happens when you get too big for your britches
And I've been down that road before
The “curse” side of Hank, Pride continues, “came out of my thinking about those other aspects of Hank – that bitter, judgmental type of presence and connecting it to various misfortunes that were stacking up for me, particularly in the couple of years before making the record, so it felt like finally the time had arrived to reckon with it. Rationally I don’t believe in ghosts or curses or anything like that but I also think that sort of irrational superstitious part of the mind is not to be ignored – it’s the imagination. So I decided to plunge into it to see what I could get out of it.”
The Revenge of Two-Gun Pete evolves into a dialogue between Stephen and Hank, with the blood curse on one side and Stephen’s wrestling with fate, his conscience, and his own circumstances on the other. Collisionville evokes Hank’s destructive, hard-living ways in the propulsive punk-country of “No Way To Live”: “All the dreams that once sustained me, I have ground them into dust/ I sleepwalk through the days, betraying everybody's trust/ I've forsaken every oath and gave up all the secrets too/ It's no way to live, but it's the best that I can do.” This cross between self-loathing and confession finds its counterpart in “Dancing With A Broken Heart”, which echoes Hank’s “Cold Cold Heart” and his alcohol-soaked hard-luck tunes, driven by Stephen’s serpentine lap steel and vocals channeling Merle Haggard’s Lonesome Fugitive: “There's hurt inside that big deep sound/ Driving every note…/It's the story of my trainwreck/Made so real”.
This across-the-generations call and response announces itself in Stephen’s rejection of the hellfire and damnation religion that charged Hank’s persona, in the blues-heavy “The Devil Can’t Hurt You If You Don’t Believe” – enough said, and “I Still Haven’t Seen The Light” – a playful reply to Hank’s camp meeting standard that wavers between missing out on the divine light and just not giving a damn: “It may seem a crazy thing to think/But when it flashed I must have blinked/And I still haven't seen the light”.
Stephen sees a curse afflicting his band in one particular way – the DIY, stripped-down nature of the indie rock business, with no label, no management, no touring infrastructure, and no money. The streaming era has not been kind to struggling subterranean bands, who find it difficult to establish a presence in the overcrowded real estate of streaming and social media. As alternative labels like Sub Pop are Hoovered up by huge companies like Warner Brothers, bands like Collisionville have few alternatives but to self-publish their records, book their own shows, and pay their own expenses. Instead of being content creators, they’re more like Mardi Gras revelers, snatching what they can from the passing floats, straining to connect with, or create, an audience. “I feel like it’s been a real struggle trying to find an audience for what I’m doing. It’s kind of “The sun will never shine on your garden of stone” [from the “Ballad of Herman P. Willis”], trying to create something that connects with people on a smaller scale than he [Hank] did and failing to do so – seeing that as part or evidence of a curse, if you believe that kind of thing. There are more serious things, tough things, that my wife and I have gone through that can be a little hard to talk about. Difficult things that we’ve been through together.” Stephen pauses and takes a more humorous tone. “[I’ve been] a rabid fan of the Denver Nuggets [the professional basketball team]. There was this moment in the 2009 playoffs when Chauncey Billups had been traded to the Nuggets and he had grown up in Denver in the same neighborhood as me [sic]. They had made it to the penultimate round of the playoffs and were playing well against the hated Lakers. They had a chance to make it to the final round for what would be the first time ever. And suddenly they find themselves unable to complete a simple in-bounds pass play at the end of a couple of tight games. And the series dribbles away from them and they lose in six games and they’ve never been anywhere near there since. So I’m watching that in-bounds pass get picked off and I’m just sitting there shaking my head thinking ‘Hank…’ “ Comeuppance and score-settling drove Hank’s Nashville success and shaped his personality and music; Stephen, like many indie artists of his generation, is content to have the love of a good woman and a roof over his head.
(Below, Collisionville performing live in Berkeley, CA, May 17, 2014: Stephen Pride [left], vocals and guitar, Conor Thompson [right], backing vocals and bass; photo by Shifra Pride Raffel.)
Pride reflects on the musical pedigree of the record, the influences that the hung in the air of “old, weird” Alabama (to paraphrase Greil Marcus): the dirty, poverty-plagued South of honky tonks, juke joints, and snake oil salesmen like Stephen’s great grandfather (“Try It On Your Horses”), as well as iconic country-blues Americana. “The Devil Can’t Hurt You If You Don’t Believe” recalls the wicked bottleneck slide of Son House’s “Death Letter”, while “These Are Not the Words to a Song” and “Something Happened to the Milk” tickles nostalgia in the melodies of Willie Nelson’s poisoned valentine “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s lovesick dirge “Write Me a Few Lines”. Stephen’s falsetto howl rhymes Hank’s “Lovesick Blues” yodel throughout the record. “The more I’ve gone into this blues and country stuff, the more I’ve tried to home in on it in my own way, especially things like playing bottleneck. That’s something I’ve really tried to develop, that thing I’m reaching towards is playing bottleneck in a way that evokes something of those great old players like Fred McDowell or Muddy Waters – to evoke a piece of that in a way that’s different than others have evoked it and also to be putting it into a context that’s unique. So I hope that there are no other bands around who are closely similar to what we’re doing. It feels to me that we’ve gotten to that place, but it feels like a hindrance at times. We’re touching on stuff like that but it isn’t the whole of what we’re trying to do.”
Stephen emphasizes that Two-Gun Pete isn’t just another alt-country record. He insists on the separation of rock and country, but allows that the two genres inevitably mingle. “Another thing about Two-Gun Pete,” he continues, “is that I was making a conscious attempt to avoid writing like a rock songwriter. I was thinking about how rock music tends to dramatize and to make personal struggles seem almost epic in scope, whereas with country and blues music, I hear a fatalistic expression of powerlessness. So for a number of songs I was trying to write things that I could imagine particular country or blues singers singing.” Pride and his band have created a palette that reflects the sonic landscape between the Lost Highway and the Big Sky sound of western punk rock, in bands like X, The Meat Puppets, and Social Distortion. The tension between past traditions and present-day pressures, between settling scores and letting go, pervades the The Revenge of Two-Gun Pete. The black cloud that hangs over the record registers Hank’s struggles as well Pride’s reckoning with his ancestry and its connection to the towering figure of mid-century American folk music. In his own life a battle raged between the two Hanks – Saturday Night Hank and Sunday Morning Hiram. Saturday Night Hank won. In The Revenge of Two-Gun Pete, the two Hanks war on, between each other and Hank’s musical and cultural legacy. Hats off to Collisionville for fanning the embers in the rubble.