Joe Buck still remembers the night he met Hank Williams. Fresh off his family's Missouri farm in 1980, Buck was attending a punk-rock house party when a stocker from the local Piggly Wiggly walked in the room and announced, "Y'all's music sucks." Things could have gotten ugly.
But the man put on a record of Hank Williams' greatest hits, and 27 years after the country music paterfamilias' death, Buck was transfixed. "He was singing right to me, like he sang to everyone," Buck says. "His music was selfless. He was exposing himself and his frailties and his problems so that you knew that you weren't alone and he wasn't alone, you know, and it's pretty fucking affecting."
For four years, Buck says, he listened to nothing but Hank Williams. He learned the songs and even adopted Williams' style of clothing. His punk friends thought he was losing his mind.
Today, under the stage name Joe Buck Yourself, Buck plays a one-man-band cavalcade of go-for-broke songs that sound like Hank Williams huffing gas fumes — or the Dead Kennedys playing for a redneck bar. His act is not so much rockabilly as it is a testament to the idea that real country music takes some serious stones to play.
Buck paid his dues and then some before embarking on a solo career. After years spent churning out eight-hour gigs in bars and playing for tips outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, he made himself a name in the blues-punk world as a drummer, bassist, and guitarist with Th' Legendary Shack Shakers. Eventually, his musical passions came full circle, and he found himself playing upright bass with Hank III, Hank Williams' hellion grandson, as a member of the country punk's Damn Band.
Buck didn't consider going the solo route until 2004, after things went south with some of his bandmates. "I'd just been kicked out of the Shack Shakers," he says, "and I was just like, 'I'm never gonna play in a band again ever. Can't trust anybody.' It's like, wow, back in the old days, man, people needed each other. You know what I'm saying? It's an expendable world."
For the one-man show, Buck sits in a chair, hunches over his guitar, and stomps away on a kick drum, yowling and seething like a feral Ghost of Cowpunks Past. He plays a one-of-a-kind 1948 Gibson ES-125 that he bought off of his friend Gary Bennett, formerly of the seminal alt-rockabilly band BR549, for a mere $600. It's a historical oddity probably worth well more than that, with a solid mahogany body and Stratocaster pickups. Buck believes it was a one-off experimental guitar for Gibson, and he plays it through an amp that previously belonged to Duane Denison of Austin, Texas, noise-rock heroes The Jesus Lizard.
"I don't use effects, plug it right into an amplifier, turn it up, and I can beat the crap out of it for an hour-and-a-half and it's in perfect tune," Buck says.
The latest Joe Buck Yourself album, 2012's Who Dat?, showed a slightly softer side to Buck, with fewer F-bombs per minute and less distortion on the amp, a shift that Buck owes in part to a recent fascination with mid-20th-century swing band leader Louis Jordan. The next project, he says, will be a straight-up country album, and he's not ruling out an album of Hank Williams covers sometime in the future.
And don't get Buck started on this latest wave of neutered milquetoasts parading around in the mainstream with banjos and claiming some vague lineage to country and roots music. He says he's heard a few artists trendily claiming Hank Williams as an influence, but when he asks them to play one of the songs, they always draw a blank. So he's bringing the songs back.
"Art isn't going to get better unless people hear art," Buck says. "Literature is not going to get better unless people read the greatest works relentlessly so they can judge when shit is bullshit."
So he crisscrosses the country, sowing the seeds of historic country music in dark barrooms amidst the moshers and greasers who crowd in close to see him. He doesn't preach, but he does demand attention. "I'm 50 years old, so the challenge of it is awesome," Buck says. "I'm in real good shape; I have to be. I can't stop working, because if I do, I'm done."