When Hank Williams III made his recorded debut in 1996 on the album Three Hanks (a compilation also featuring performances by his father and grandfather), Curb Records presumably thought they were getting a retro-styled alt-country act with a very marketable name. But it didn't take long for Williams to make clear he wasn't interested in playing nice or conforming to anyone's expectations, and he made no secret of his anger and frustration with the label as he struggled to release his punk and metal-influenced music alongside his trad-country sides. In 2009 Williams was finally allowed to release an album under the moniker of his death metal/"hellbilly" hybrid Assjack, but that was hardly the first time he'd put his edgy rock to tape; in 2003 he cut an album called This Ain't Country that Curb refused to release, and now that Hank III has parted ways with Curb and announced his intention to release his next album on his own, Curb has pulled a classic "don't let the door hit you on the way out" move and finally issued the widely bootlegged This Ain't Country recordings under the title Hillbilly Joker, without Williams having any say over the release. As music, Hillbilly Joker ranks with the best rock material Hank III has recorded to date; the approach is more musically and sonically diverse than the Assjack album and feels more satisfying than the rock material on Damn Right, Rebel Proud or Rebel Within. Williams has an excellent band on these sessions, anchored by former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Dennison and Shaun McWilliams on drums, and they bring the fire to revved-up rockabilly ("Hillbilly Joker"), neck-snapping metal ("Pistol Packin'"), fifth gear hardcore ("Life of Sin"), speed-ravaged boogie ("Drink It, Drug It"), demonic doom tracks ("10 Feet Down"), and even a Ministry-influenced electronic piece ("Now He's Dead"). Hank III is no rock & roll dilettante, and Hillbilly Joker confirms he's every bit as serious about his uncompromising underground rock as he is about his old-school country material, and it all pours from the same part of his ragged soul. But while it's good that this music is finally getting the official release it deserves, many serious fans are going to feel iffy about buying an album released under circumstances that are ultimately an insult to the artist, no matter how raw and powerful Hillbilly Joker may be.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming