Monday, April 25, 2011

The Year of Hasil #1: 6 Years We Knew Him, 6 Years He Died

by J.T. Dockery

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Hasil Adkins. The one man band from Madison, Boone county, West Virginia. Architect of the Hunch, He Who Proclaimed There Shall Be No More Hot Dogs, the Sultan of Slop. To put it country simple, Hasil single handedly made of rock and roll a personal post modern horror side show brain damaged boogie before personal post modern horror side show brain damaged boogie was cool. All within the context of the original first wave of 1950s rockabilly, even. It's prounounced, "hassle."

I met Hasil for the first time in 1999 at the Empty Glass in Charleston, WV. Jeffrey Scott Holland was running a record store in Berea, KY at the time, and he discovered in those heady days of the late nineties internet, when the big geographic divide of news betwixt Kentucky and West Virginia was falling away, that Hasil was to play this gig. We idolized the man, a figure prominent on our respective totems of influence and our hillbilly bred cargo cult sense of rock and roll. JSH laid some scratch on me to fund my field trip as Kentucky ambassador.

When I first saw him at the Empty Glass, what sticks out first was his dress code; a coon skin cap and white frame sunglasses. What I also noticed off the bat: Hasil was sitting off by himself to the side of the stage, although he was seemingly glad to chat with people walking by him. He seemed restless, completely comfortable with himself while somehow at once also seeming uncomfortable in his own skin. A peculiar energy.

I worked up my nerve and introduced myself to the man. We chatted about his records. I told him I played him regularly on my radio show at WRFL. He asked me to send him tapes of the radio program. I gave him JSH's business card. Told him we'd like to get him to play Lexington. On the following Christmas, he called Jeff thinking it was me to say merry Christmas. The rockabilly myth was becoming a three dimensional figure. The wheels were in motion for him to play his first Lexington at the now defunct Yats (which would be followed by several more on a regular basis right up to the last year of his life). This sixth year anniversary of Hasil's death also marks the point at which he's been dead for as long as I actually knew him: the last six years of his life.

Hasil's parents were originally from Kentucky. We can claim him. This is something he told me on the various drives between Madison and Lexington (that was always a condition with Hasil for shows, he never travelled to them on his own, or made arrangments for himself, other than you had to come get him if you wanted him to play). I think he also told me he was born in Kentucky, but did he really say that (Holland and I have searched high and low for some definitive record of birth which has only led to more questions and various dead ends)?

The problem with travelling with Hasil and trying to recall his stories is that Hasil ALWAYS TALKED. He never stopped. Especially when travelling. His mind was a run on sentence, peppered with anecdotes spanning the decades mixed in with jokes and surreal observations from having taken the dirt road less travelled in life.

All of this in a deep backwoods West Virginia dialect with a twang all Hasil's own. Even with somebody as well versed in deep holler hillbilly slang (in fact becoming often Hasil's "translator" when working together) as myself (the county seat of my stomping grounds growing up was pop 500, with one stoplight in the whole territory), yet even I sometimes could find following Hasil's dialect to be a head scratcher.

Hasil never gave directions ahead of time. He always said, "Get to Madison and call me." When I rolled into Boone county for the first time, before the era in which I was burdened with a cell phone, I found myself at a pay phone by the main road, trucks whizzing by, trying to decipher what Hasil was saying. Something about take a right at the guardrail past the second big curve to the left. This was dramatized with Hasil playing himself in the film, "Die, You Zombie Bastards!"

Oddly, those directions panned out, and after steering my car down a dirt trail that looked like a logging road, I was only sure I was on the right track when I saw the "Hunching Bus," a New York city transit bus (go figure), that Hasil made a few special modifications to himself that had been immortalized for me in the Appalshop documentary on Hasil.

Hasil had three trailers. One was for storage. One he actually lived in, and the other was the nice trailer which he was perpetually preparing to be moved into but never seeming to get there. Also, there was the original family shack that had been there as long as the property had been in the family, which was the late 40s: the "Hazel Hotel," he at some point dubbed it. There was a bathtub in the "yard." A creek ran through the property. Hasil fished it, keeping a monster of a bottom feeder he'd snatched from the water in the freezer, not stuffed or mounted, just flopped in the freezer. He'd pull it out to show visitors to prove the magnitude of fish swimming through the heart of the Adkins plantation.

The trailer in which he actually resided was a space which respected no void, filled floor to ceiling with memorabilia from a life time spent just a little southeast of show business. A reproduction of Joe Coleman's portrait of Hasil hung a few feet from the original first fan letter the painter penned to Adkins. A photo of Hank Williams the third was inscribed to Hasil, "my hillbilly hero." Album and single covers along with flyers and posters from various gigs held up the walls (later flyers I made would occupy space on these same walls).

Hasil had the trailer rigged with his own version of "surround sound," and he would blast demos of his home recordings for visitors...a special room in the back (the only one he kept locked) comprised his home studio. Hasil, in those last years when I would visit him, alluded mysteriously to a "one man opera" upon which he said he was working.

Hasil often had a reputation for being crazy and/or violent with concert promoters. I never had issues with Hasil. Perhaps it was because when I knew him, although sipping beer like water and smoking more cigarettes than any one person I've ever witnessed, he never touched "that vodka" which he ascribed to having caused him lots of problems in the past. Perhaps it was simply because he was in his later years, an older, more sedate version of his previous self. Perhaps it was because I was a hillbilly myself and he felt comfortable with me, or perhaps because I gave him respect and never let him pay for his beer and smokes and meat when in my care.

Meat, you say? That was one lesson a body learned quick around Hasil. Whenever you asked him what he wanted to eat he'd just say, "Meat." What kind of meat Hasil? "Any kind of meat." If you brought him a cheeseburger, he'd remove the bread and toppings and just eat the hamburger meat. I finally settled into a routine with Hasil in which I'd buy "family size" packs of bacon and constantly be frying them up for him on his visits (he would go through one of these in about two days). When travelling from Lexington back to Madison, I'd often buy him a large order of bacon from Tolly-Ho, which he thought was the best notion ever.

I think Hasil enjoyed his time in Lexington with me and my gang of Hasil supporters. We had some wing ding after-parties in his honor, usually with Hasil retiring early to what we termed the "Hasil Adkins suite" in our home on Preston Ave. But he wouldn't go to sleep. He'd be calling some girlfriend long distance on our phone, with us keeping him supplied in bacon. I'd sometimes get tired and hand over the bacon frying duties over to someone else. I remember Joe Turner, a pal and sometimes bandmate, taking over the duties and going whole hog and making biscuits and gravy for Hasil, taking them upstairs to the room like an offer to royality. At that house I had a shrine to Hasil on the wall. He took it in after the first visit and said, "Thank you, Todd."

One of the times he didn't stay with us, he stayed with my cohort Brian Manley, and those boys stayed up all night making home recordings with Manley on mandolin. The home recordings survive in excerpt with a funny bit of dialogue between the two as a hidden track on the Smacks! "Ejaculations" CD.

Of course, speaking of recordings, the real testament to these "Hasil years" of ours, was the album which would come to be called "Night Life," eventually released on vinyl with a different track listing on the french label Hog Maw and in an expaned official version in a limited edition package on compact disc by Creeps Records.

Hasil bought a banjo the morning before the recording session, so two tunes ended up on the record with banjo. JSH was ostensibly steering the ship, but I think the notion of "producing" Hasil would be like unto herding the proverbial cats. That said, Hasil liked Jeff's ideas, felt comfortable with us, and listening back to those recordings today, I think one can hear the fun he was having.

I'm not the first to suggest that it was the strongest LP of all new material since 1987's "The Wild Man." While because of Hasil's unexpected death, we never quite pushed these recordings as far we would have liked with the mission statement of including lots of instrumentation not usually associated with Hasil's discography, between the banjos and the keyboards and the secret weapon of Brian Manley's various stringed accompaniment (and to some extent my own drumming and additional percussion, which actually sounds a lot like Hasil's being that, despite what ever plans I had, it become apparent that Hasil had for so long developed his own peculiar percussive timing, I had but one choice to try and mimic his approach), so that instead of an album that sounded nothing like Hasil's past, it now sounds to me like a summary and statement of all that came before, with a few previously unheard of flourishes, a master at the end of his life capturing a broad breath and flow of what made Hasil whom we call Hasil. How was that just two sentences?

(above: JSH's portrait of Hasil used for the Creeps Records edition of "Night Life")

We didn't know it was going to be Hasil's last. With all the endless cigarettes, beer, broads, bacon, and the wild life and the night life, it seemed if he hadn't died by his sixties, he'd go on living like an Appalachian Buddha for years to come. It wasn't meant to be. Reportedly run over by an ATV on his property by a teenager 10 days prior to his death, and despite having gotten a clean bill of health at the doctor, Hasil left this mortal coil.

This stunned us all. We had no choice but to focus on the last bit of work that needed to be done on the album. After getting it out there, it seems like we all stepped back from his legacy and our involvement in it. Readers will note he's barely been mentioned on this blog, but JSH and I now claim this to be the "Year of Hasil" in which we pay respect both to his legacy and how we played a part in it. Expect more yarns and memories and recountings of anecdotes in the year to come. I'm currently sorting my archives to locate and preserve photographs and memorabilia that I will be sharing at this location.

Six years in, and I personally miss him now more than ever; it's sinking in, truly (ruly). Hasil liked to randomly call me up on the phone and talk for hours. He'd take it upon himself to ring and give me notes on recordings and demos of my own that I'd handed him, always enthusiastic to share his musings about that, this, and other things. The long car rides and endless monologues in which I'd sometimes wedge in a word. Playing roadie for him at his shows. Frying up a steady stream of bacon for him. Having a beer and a smoke with the man on my porch or in the backyard in Kentucky or his trailer in West Virginia. These moments are not going to come back this way again, lost like coal dust down the holler washed away by the rain.

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