The amazing West Virginian Hasil Adkins (1937-2005) was a one-man band (guitar, drums) who took rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country and country blues right to the edge of madness. His prodigious supply of self-penned tunes was fueled by alcohol and a sort of outsider artist sensibility. Bob Pomeroy was lucky enough to catch Hasil Adkins performing on his home turf, at a Charleston, W.Va., club in 1994. He describes the life-changing experience and offers an overview of Hasil Adkins’ career.
Where the highway threads through the mountains of West Virginia, the grade occasionally gets steep enough to require the installation of the dreaded runaway truck ramp. A sort of off-ramp filled with loose gravel, pitched somewhat uphill, the runaway ramp will safely stop a big rig with blown brakes by swallowing its wheels. One sees them in Appalachia, and along I-70 in the Colorado Rockies, and other mountainous places. Almost always they’re empty, and that’s a good thing. The only time I ever saw one in use was circa 1994 during a trip south on I-79, en route from Pittsburgh to Charleston, WV, to catch a show by Hasil Adkins. Our car full of slackers rounded a bend and saw the scene: a semi truck on the side of the highway, all eighteen wheels sunk in the gravel, like “Nitro Express” but with a better ending. I liked to imagine that we passed the scene mere moments after that truck ate it. But who knows? A short while later we landed in Charleston, and pulled up to a bar called the Empty Glass and witnessed another runaway truck of sorts, a live set by the Boone County wildman himself.
Somehow, from my perch at the time in Pittsburgh, I’d gotten wind of this show in Charleston via some pre-internet source, possibly a flyer in a record store, or fleeting mention of it on the college radio station. Excited by the chance to hear Hasil “The Haze” Adkins live, I organized an excursion south to catch him. Atlanta rockers Subsonics were also on the bill that night, to add to the allure, plus a mysterious performer called simply “The Amazing Dolores,” who turned out to be a heavily hairsprayed, middle-aged local whose entire act consisted of her extended version of “Stand By Me”.
We hit the Empty Glass as Subsonics were strumming and throbbing through their set of VU/Modern Lovers/T-Rex influenced songs. They played well and, with two LPs (a S/T album, from 1992, and Good Violence, from 1993) and plenty of touring under their belt, they were pretty much the only band in the room that night that functioned like pros. They were certainly the only ones to play all the way through a complete set list.
By contrast, Hasil Adkins, the one man band, i.e., he simultaneously played drums, guitar, and sang, delivered his set in pieces, playing maybe three or four tunes in a row before he’d take a break. These breaks involved stopping after a song, bashing his way out from behind the drumkit he borrowed from Subsonics, and then heading for the bar for another glass of wine. Hasil repeated this pattern two or three times that night, and each time would leave the openers scrambling back to the stage to plug in and provide some music during these impromptu intermissions.
Decades later now it’s hard to fully recall what all Hasil Adkins played that night or in what order. I do remember for certain that he played “Boo-Boo the Cat,” his hot new single at the time.
He also played such commodity meat classics as “No More Hot Dogs,” “The Hunch,” “Chicken Walk,” and “She Said”. Whatever he played bore the Haze’s distinct “Happy Guitar” sound, a churning, percussive beast, strings chopped and box beaten in backwoods time, with occasional riffs and boogie lines flying out like sparks as his feet worked the high-hat and kick drum and he sang, screeched, yowled and cackled into the microphone, all of it together achieving a panting, transcendant mayhem.
Regarding Hasil Adkins’ preference for playing all instruments himself, perhaps an excerpt from the grammatically challenged liner notes to his 1985 LP Chicken Walk on the German Dee-Jay Jamboree label, most likely penned by the label operator Hans Peter Zdrenka, can explain: “Hasil tried to make several attempts to organize a band together, but bands don’t usually stay together very long, so he taught his ownself how to play the drums, high hats, guitar, harmonica and sing all at the same time. People come from everywhere to watch and hear him sing and play and dance to his great music….He sounds better than most of the full bands.”
Indeed, they tell not the lies. Take it from one who has traveled far through mountains and past runaway truck ramps just to hear the Haze hunch. And, if you didn’t mind the chaos, which he played like another instrument in his one-man band, then his performance that night at the Empty Glass did not disappoint.
It was during one of Hasil Adkins’ impromptu breaks that The Amazing Dolores had her time onstage, with Subsonics enlisted to back her on her signature number.
“She asked ‘Do you know ‘Stand By Me’?’,” Subsonics frontman and guitarist Clay Reed recalled. “‘Yeah, sure… four chords… We sorted it out in thirty seconds. We all held hands in a circle: Subsonics and The Amazing Dolores… while she delivered an invocation and prayer… and then we played ‘Stand By Me’ for twenty minutes while she did a sort of stream-of-consciousness monologue. She flung her shoes into the audience at some point. It was a unique experience.”
I didn’t last through the full twenty minutes of “Stand by Me,” and I headed outside to smoke a cigarette and sit at the curb. It was a warm, summer night, and the lights and traffic of Charleston, WV, breezed past the Empty Glass, drivers no doubt oblivious to scene inside. To my one side sat my Pittsburgh homeboys, and then, suddenly beside me at my other side at the curb sat none other than Hasil Adkins, his tattered cowboy hat cinched up to his chin with a string, wearing wrap-around shades, with a cig in his mouth and a pint glass full of cheap wine in his hand.
“I ain’t drinkin no more,” he said, his statement leaping out from other unintelligible mutterings. I had to wonder how his statement jibed with the Mogen David he presently slugged down. For some, simply abstaining from liquor (whiskey, vodka, and so on) equals “not drinkin’”. Maybe Hasil held such a world view.
“He was, of course, at that time, a guy who had a pretty severe diet of alcohol,” Reed recalled. “The guys putting on the show supplied him with a heavily watered down fifth of vodka and an unending supply of O’Doul’s with the labels peeled off. The idea being it would get him straight, but keep him from getting too drunk to perform. Hasil, in my recollection, was quite good at the show… maybe they were successful.”
Whatever his relationship to the hooch, it was his manner of speaking that mystified me. A sort of amiable drawl born of the hills and hollers, I assumed, with discernible utterances wrapped in plenty of mumbling.
“I just recorded a new song,” Hasil then announced. “A trucker tune. I call it ‘Break the Lever Off, Put the Hammer Down’!”
With that I flashed on the vision of that big rig ditched in the runaway truck ramp back there on I-79, about an hour or so north of where we sat. Since he’d brought up the subject of truckin’, I told him about it.
“Sounds like he broke the lever off!” Hasil commented.
These many years later, I’ve still never heard this Hasil Adkins song “Break the Lever Off, Put the Hammer Down”, should it actually exist. I’ve heard no mention of it again since that night. Hasil didn’t play it at the show, that I recall, and to my knowledge no single or LP track of it was ever released, and no one else seems to have heard of it. Such is no surprise for Hasil Adkins, whose entire catalog, not to mention possibly many hours more of unreleased material, was recorded by himself at his shack in Boone County, West Virginia. And the guy is said to have recorded almost daily from 1956 until his passing in 2005. So we’re talking 50 years’ worth of material. It would be easy for one trucker tune to get lost amid all of that output.
Prior to his heyday on the Norton Records label—Norton, in fact, was launched with the 1986 releases of Hasil Adkins’ EP Haze’s House Party and his LP Out to Hunch—Adkins’ managed to land a handful of his home recordings on a few small labels, starting in the early 1960s. Far from being an inept outsider artist, Adkins proved quite able to make the rounds of labels and song publishers to plug his material, reaching the likes of Johnny Cash, Sam Phillips, Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson, even Richard Nixon, with samples. Success came hard though, and only a few small labels took interest. Original pressings of his early records, some of which came out in small runs of just a few hundred, are now exceedingly rare, and a discography of them is brief. See back issues of Kicks Magazine (Kicks #5) or the Rockin’ Country Style website for said discography of these early releases. Suffice it to say that it’s all killer, but some stand-outs include his first release, “She’s Mine” b/w “Chicken Walk” on the Air label, and “The Hunch” b/w “She’s Gone” on the Roxie label, both from 1962, and “She Said” (made famous by The Cramps) b/w “Is This The End” on the Jody label, from 1966.
By the 1980s, several labels, such as the UK label Ace Records and their subsidiary Big Beat, the aforementioned German reissue label Dee-Jay Jamboree, and of course Norton Records began to compile those early records along with Adkins’ previously unreleased home recordings. As for the latter, some dated back to the 1950s, others Adkins may have recorded at any point in subsequent decades. Norton released nearly ten LPs and as many singles over Hasil Adkins roughly 20-year association with them, allowing an impressive body of those remaining home recordings to see the light of day. Some of those, like “I Need Your Head”, “No More Hot Dogs”, “Do the Slop”, and others, became Hasil Adkins classics. But all of that output is still believed to represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of his home recordings.
A decade ago a tape of roughly an album’s worth of unreleased material appeared via former WFMU DJ James “The Hound” Marshall, and it can still be heard at the WFMU website. Regarding what remains of unreleased Hasil Adkins recordings, Miriam Linna, of Norton Records, declined to discuss the matter, except to say there is “tons more.” Will a massive collection of excavated Hasil Adkins recordings appear someday? Say something along the lines of one of those exhaustive Bear Family box sets? Who knows? I can’t tell you. But it seems that “Break the Lever Off, Put the Hammer Down” seems to have sped off into the fog like a runaway truck.
Meanwhile, outside the Empty Glass, other people spotted Hasil sitting there at the curb and approached to chat, pay respects, and clown around. I overheard him repeat that hook a few times –“Break the lever off!—seemingly trying to find opportunities to insert it into conversations.
“Hasil you sound great tonight!”
“Break the lever off!”
“Hasil get back in there and play a few more songs.”
“Break the lever off!”
At one point a young guy began talking with Hasil about some record or other. The guy was of a type fairly common at that time, one saw ‘em at garage rock shows and in record stores, clad in vintage gas station jackets and horn-rimmed glasses, which, among Pittsburgh scenesters had earned the nickname “Shemp glasses.” I didn’t catch the name of whatever record or band he had mentioned to Hasil Adkins, but I figured it to be something that probably came from the Norton or Estrus record catalogs, or the like. I did, however, distinctly hear Hasil tell the guy “Yeah, I have that on CD.”
A sort of stunned look came over the guy’s face. An awkward pause interrupted their conversation. I may have never heard Hasil’s truckin song, but the hook from it was nevertheless about to make a lasting impact, to provide me with a moment of enlightenment, a sort of record geek’s satori, if you will…
As I said, this was 1994. The compact disc was the dominant format for all music. And yet, probably just like this guy in the Shemp glasses, I still held out against them. As a music fan and collector, I’d taken the Mummies’ credo, “Fuck CDs”, to heart and was still clinging to a weird “vinyl only” purism that was meaningless to others. At the time I also bought mostly from the Estrus, Crypt, and Norton Records catalogs, and from stores around Pittsburgh, like Jim’s, Stedefords, and Fred Bohn’s legendary Attic Records. I steered clear of all digitized plastic. But such ascetic austerity and fetishistic purism was getting harder and harder to maintain with all of those fine reissues, box-sets, and CD-only releases then hitting the record stores.
“YOU have CD’s??” the guy asked Hasil in obvious disbelief.
“Well, yeah,” Hasil answered flatly.
“I would have taken you to be a ‘vinyl only’ man,” the guy said.
There came another brief, awkward pause.
Then the Haze just told the guy to “Break the lever off!” and walked back inside the Empty Glass to play another set.
I don’t know what effect it had on the man in the horn-rimmed glasses, but for me, Hasil’s reply worked like a whack from the proverbial master’s stick, a double-clutchin’, gear jammin’ CD satori. I decided then and there that I would go home from the mountain, or rather from the West Virginia hills, and straightaway buy a Bear Family CD box set, or something like that. There’d be no more “vinyl only” purism for me.
The rest of us sidewalk vultures then followed Hasil Adkins into the bar. He took the stage and played his final set for the night, seated once more behind The Subsonics’ drumkit. He grabbed his guitar, thumped the kick drum, then he lit into an extended version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” hunchin’ it through Haze’s own happy guitar rendition, the length of which rivaled The Amazing Dolores’ version of “Stand by Me”, but the rockin intensity liked to blow the windows out of the Empty Glass. “We ain’t fakin’… Whole lotta shakin…”
To one side of the stage stood a large industrial fan, of the kind used in factories, and in the lobby of the Manhattan Criminal Court during heatwaves, placed there by the Empty Glass staff to help cool the joint down on this warm summer night. The hum of the thing was drowned out by the volume of the PA system, but the stale, gritty wind it kicked up blew hotly over the dance floor. As Hasil Adkins ground a pound of commodity meat from that Jerry Lee Lewis standard, I had the odd sensation that that hot wind came not from the fan, but from the Haze himself, a manifestation of the primal force of hunch.
Caught in that current, I realized that whatever Hasil Adkins had had to drink that night didn’t matter. And whatever format a person used to listen to music also didn’t matter. In fact, nothin’ much at all mattered, at least for a few sublime minutes there when the music of Hasil Adkins seemed to propel the Empty Glass and all of its patrons up out of the Earth’s atmosphere, into another realm.
If you were there that night, consider yourself lucky.