Guitarist, singer, songwriter
Hasil Adkins is a one-man band who plays drums, guitar, and sometimes harmonica, while singing. His recordings are riddled with missed chords, sour guitar leads, out-of-time drumming, and craggy, off-key vocals. There are few politically correct moments on an Adkins record, particularly the early ones. He has composed songs about cannibals, about sleeping with extraterrestrials, and about hanging his girlfriend's head on a wall because she eats too many hot dogs. Yet Adkins is revered as the "Godfather" of psychobilly music—a frenetic hybrid of punk and rockabilly. Supporters have not championed this artist because he is musically accomplished or a good singer (he is neither); rather, they love his intensity, improvisational creativity, and cut-to-the-bone weirdness. Of all the performers from the original rockabilly era, Adkins is one of only a few who has developed a cult audience among punks, performance artists, and independent filmmakers alike. Late in his career, the singer/songwriter has even carved out a second career as a film personality.
Born in Boone County, West Virginia, where he resides to this day, Hasil Adkins was one of ten children. Raised deep in the country, he learned the joys of rural life while soaking up musical influences; first from his mother, who sang to her children, and later from the radio. Adkins listened to 78 RPM records by such country music greats as Jimmie Rodgers, the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams. According to an Adkins interview with Kicks magazine, the idea of becoming a one-man band was the result of a childhood misunderstanding of what he heard. "I'd hear all them play and figure they was doin' the whole music themselves and even if they wasn't I'd have to get just as good or even better for me to have a hit."
Raised in the Backwoods
Young Hasil (pronounced hassle) began experimenting with homemade instruments at an early age, pounding on milk pails and washtubs in between playing with kazoos and toy guitars. Later he traded home brewed moonshine to a local store owner for his first legitimate guitar, a Gibson. As a teenager, the first rock records he heard were by Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino, and they meshed with his appreciation of rural blues. However, his frantic style took root when he began hearing early recordings by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He billed himself as "Elvis" Hasil Adkins and tried to impress local girls with his crazed renditions of all the latest hits.
As early as 1956 Adkins tried to get his music across to a larger audience. He hitchhiked to California and other spots in the United States hoping to catch a break, but when it all came to naught he ended up returning to Boone County, where he bought a tape recorder in order to produce some demonstration tapes. Earnestly taking up the mantle as a one-man band, he outfitted himself with a personally modified drum-kit and harmonica rack, and began playing for any gathering that wouldn't openly assault him. While attempting to pitch demos to the tiny Star-Light label, he created a body of work that eventually brought him a measure of fame.
A prolific, energetic, and just plain unusual artist, Adkins mailed his demos out to everyone he could think of. In 1961 he began catching on with some independent labels, releasing 300 copies of his bouncy dance number "Chicken Walk" through Air Records. Another stab at a dance craze, "The Hunch," appeared on Jody Records two years later. In 1963 he released one of the strangest records to ever be commercially recorded—the panting, screeching "She Said," which, as far as anyone can tell, outlines the story of a man who wakes up with a woman in his bed who looks suspiciously like an ape. Apparently influenced by late-night TV horror movies, Adkins can be heard ominously rattling bedsprings and cartoonishly chanting "I Need Your Head (This Ain't No Rock 'n' Roll Show)." Adkins told the Deuce of Clubs website that these outlandish songs were intended as humor. "I really made them up back in the fifties as a joke, you know, kinda all us kids runnin' around together, you know, girls and boys and stuff…. I just had the recording stuff set up, so I just done it [just to] have somethin' to do. And then they took off, man, they loved it!…. I got letters from every place in the world, man." But that was later. During the 1960s and 1970s, Adkins recorded in obscurity for Avenue, Hub, and his own A.R.C. label.
Adkins, who had very little formal schooling, estimated that he has written more than 7,000 songs, very few of which are committed to paper. His creative method has consisted of jamming like mad with his one-man band rig and making songs up as he played. If he stumbled across a lyric or theme that he liked, Adkins tried to remember it the next time he made a home recording. "I never practice," he told Tristram Lozaw of the Boston Phoenix. "When I write a song and go in front of people to play, that's when I learn it." This spontaneity has been the key to Adkins's appeal and the primary reason that he remains an interesting performer.
Discovered by Record Collectors
Adkins is one of many performers from the original rockabilly era whose career prospects improved when Elvis Presley's death in 1977 inspired archivists and historians to comb the woods for his contemporaries. At the time, Adkins was earning small paychecks as a handyman and mechanic. His career had been reduced to playing to miners on payday for drinks and tips. Although he lived with his mother until her death in 1985, the singer was a pure country hellraiser. Sexually promiscuous and constantly drunk, he survived several nasty car accidents and was repeatedly incarcerated. As a result, he was completely unaware that there was a new underground buzz about his early recordings.
It seems fitting that of all the 1970s' punk-rock bands, the Cramps—who are avid record collectors—should cover the Adkins song "She Said." Although their version shuddered with creepy intensity, it still paled next to Adkins's original rendition. With rockabillies and punks alike creating a new demand, the German-based Dee Jay Jamboree label took an interest in Adkins' work and began re-releasing his old masters during the early 1980s.
However, Adkins's greatest champions proved to be Billy Miller and former Cramps drummer Miriam Linna. Record collectors and musicians in their own right, they also created Kicks, one of the most highly regarded music fanzines of the 1980s. Filled with zany writing, comically captioned vintage photos and solid pop culture archaeology, Kicks shed some light on the trash culture movement of the era. And someone as authentically alternative as Adkins was right up their alley.
Miller told the authors of Incredibly Strange Music, Volume 1 how he learned about Adkins: "I first heard 'Haze' in the '70s when I found a copy of 'She Said.' What's wild is that record was produced on a Brooklyn label about a mile from where we live! Then a friend showed me 'Chicken Walk' and I went, 'Wow—this guy made two records?' Another friend, who generally only looks for R&B groups, located Hasil in West Virginia. The great thing about him is: his personality, his vision, his talent were still intact—that's rare; most of these guys who are really crazy fizzled out or drove off mountains."
For the Record …
Born on April 29, 1937, in Boone County, WV; son of William (a coal miner) and Alice Adkins.
Began playing guitar and singing, 1949; recorded demonstration tapes for Star-Light Records, 1958-65; billed as Hasil Adkins & His Happy Guitar, recorded first single for Air label, "Chicken Walk," 1962; recorded "She Said" for Jody label, 1964; recorded dance number parody "The Hunch" for Roxie Records, 1965; recorded singles on independent Avenue label, 1966-70; old recordings discovered and reissued by German label Dee Jay Jamboree, 1980-86; collectors Miriam Linna and Billy Miller signed Adkins to their Norton label, released series of old and new masters, 1987-99; starred in film documentary The Wild and Wacky World of Hasil Adkins, Appalshop, 1993; recorded other albums for a variety of labels, 1993-98; appeared in films including R.I.P.: Rest in Pieces, 1997; Red's Breakfast Experience, 2001; Die You Zombie Bastards!, 2003; Let Me Be Your Band, 2003; and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, 2004.
Addresses: Record companies—Fat Possum Records, P.O. Box 1923, Oxford, MS 38655-1923, phone: (662) 473-9994, fax: (662) 473-9090, website: http://www.fatpossum.com. Norton Records, Box 46, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10003, phone: (718) 789-4438, fax: (718) 398-9215, website: http://www.nortonrecords.com. Booking—Hasil Adkins, P.O. Box 668, Madison, WV 25130, e-mail: [email protected] Website—Hasil Adkins Official Website: http://www.hasiladkins.com.
Miller and Linna formed their own label, Norton Records, and in 1986 issued the ultimate Hasil Adkins primer Out to Hunch, a 16-track collection of his most distinctive one-man band recordings from the mid 1950s and 1960s. Featuring such ditties as "She Said," "No More Hot Dogs," "I Need Your Head (This Ain't No Rock 'n' Roll Show)," "Chicken Walk," and "I'm Happy," the LP drew rave reviews. Most afficionados of traditional rockabilly dismissed Adkins's undisciplined work, but that only made the punk and performance art crowd take up his cause with greater vigor.
At Norton, Adkins proved that he could still summon the bizarre spirit of his early work in a variety of recording situations. Look at That Caveman Go! is a surprisingly entertaining compilation featuring such danceable rockers as "Mean Mean Woman," "Devonna Rock," "She Goes Like This," and the comically incoherent blues strut "Boo Boo the Cat." And the mournful Appalachian tone of "Leaves in Autumn," "Gonna Have Me a Garage Sale," "Song of Death," and "Twenty Eight Years" produced a bizarre, other-universe feeling.
Appeared in Independent Films
During the 1990s the now-in-demand singer song writer moved from Norton to the Bughouse label, back to Norton, and then to the Epitaph blues affiliate Fat Possum, whose slogan "Not The Same Old Blues Crap," seemed tailor-made for Adkins. Boasting an enviable discography for a cult act, his recordings have reached the ears of appreciative and critical ears far and wide.
Still wild and lacking any sense of self-restraint, Adkins has inspired a sense of awe in his fervently loyal fan base. The fascination with "The Haze" extended to independent film-makers, who have attempted to chronicle the chaotic, disoriented, redneck chaos that is his milieu. Adkins has been delighted by the attention, but despite an admiring press, his recordings and films are an acquired taste that create relatively small profits. As a result, most of his income is derived from live shows. These on-stage outings appear to be absolutely essential to his emotional well-being. "Music makes you happy," he told Jeff Nail in Blue Suede News. "When I get to playing, I don't have no worries. It takes all the worries away…. It's just something that I love. I just love to keep doing it. I don't want to stop." Then, off-handedly, Adkins added, "I would like to die performing."
"Chicken Walk," Air, 1962.
"She Said," Jody, 1964.
"The Hunch," Roxie, 1965.
Shake With Me, Dee Jay Jamboree, 1984.
Rock 'n' Roll Tonight, Dee Jay Jamboree, 1985.
He Said, Big Beat, 1985.
Chicken Walk, Dee Jay Jamboree, 1986; rereleased, 1995.
Out to Hunch, Norton, 1987; rereleased, 2002.
Wild Man, Norton, 1987.
Peanut Butter Rock 'n' Roll, Norton, 1990.
Moon Over Madison, Norton, 1990.
Live in Chicago, Bughouse, 1993; reissued, Pravada, 1995.
Look at That Caveman Go!, Norton, 1993.
Achy Breaky Ha Ha Ha, Norton, 1994.
What the Hell was I Thinking?, Fat Possum, 1999.
Drinkin' My Life Away, Shake It Records, 1998; rereleased, 2003.
Poultry in Motion: The Hasil Adkins Collection 1955-1999, Norton, 2000.
Graff, Gary, editor, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1999.
Vale, V., and Andrea Juno, Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. 1, RE/Search Publications, 1993.
Blue Suede News, #66, Spring 2004.
Kicks, #4, 1985; #5, 1987.
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