Don’t waste your time asking Unknown Hinson about Stuart Daniel Baker because he won’t talk about him. It’s an ironic situation because Hinson—the self-proclaimed “King of Country- Western Troubadours”—is Stuart Daniel Baker. A music teacher and studio musician, Baker modeled his Hinson alter-ego after country music’s nattily attired trailblazers (think of a darker version of Porter Wagoner and you get the idea). Drawing numerous comparisons to comedian Andy Kaufman and his surly character Tony Clifton, Hinson never gets out of character in public.
But beyond his campy persona and exaggerated Southern drawl, Hinson’s music has drawn praise from The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Hank Williams III and Marty Stuart, to name but a few. In fact, Williams went so far as to have an image of Hinson’s face tattooed on his bicep.
“It never gets old,” Hinson says of his admiring peers, speaking by phone from his home in North Carolina. “For some reason, they got snagged on it and enjoy it and that’s good and I appreciate it. I’ve got a lot of people and a lot of bands I like and I try to mention their names. It ain’t cookie-cutter, and it’s original. I think they’re serious about it, so I appreciate it when they mention my name. It’s good to be remembered.”
On Friday, August 6, Hinson will perform at Zydeco. When he’s not recording and performing his self-described “country & western-tinged Psychobilly” music, Hinson provides the voice of Early Cuyler for the Cartoon Network TV show Squidbillies. Currently, Hinson is writing and recording for his next album, the follow-up to his 2006 release, Target Practice.
“I’m working on another record, and I’m hoping to have it out by Christmas season,” Hinson says. “As far as writing, if I have an idea for a song and it stays in my head for a couple of days, then I know it’s worth fooling with because it keeps coming back. If I get an idea and I forget about it the next day, then nine out of ten times it’s not worth messing with. In other words, if you’ve got something good, you’ll remember it. If it ain’t, chances are you’ll forget about it and you’ll go on to something else. A lot of hit records—even the ones we don’t like—are like that. We can’t help but hear them in our heads because they are catchy.”
Inspired by the traditional sounds of country & western music, Hinson is decidedly old-school in his views of the music industry and the prerequisites for success and longevity in the business.
“The way I see it is if you’ve got something special and you’re really serious about it and keep hammering that nail—I don’t mean to sound trite about it—sooner or later it’s going to pop and people will notice you and people will listen if you persevere,” Hinson says. “I’ve been doing this 17 years and that ain’t exactly overnight. It all depends on how determined you are and if you can hang however long takes, then it’ll happen. I think the Internet and the media are great, but I do miss records. I miss record stores and I miss anticipating an artist’s new record coming out with a big picture on the front of it. You didn’t need a magnifying glass to read the liner notes. The quality of the music is good, but it still ain’t that big, tangible thing like a record album that you can hold in your hands.”
Regardless of the possibilities for exposure that iTunes, Youtube and MySpace offer musicians, Hinson is adamant that performing live is still the center of an artist’s existence. “If people don’t get out and play, even if it’s locally, ain’t nobody gonna hear ‘em and the band ain’t gonna grow,” he says. “You’ve got to get in front of your audience because the audience is the final judge. You can stay in the house and practice all the time, but until you get in front of an audience it ain’t really started yet. I love playing live because it puts me in another zone completely. When I’m on stage, I’m locked in this area where I forget about everything except the audience and the music. It’s a legal
intoxication to me. It’s an escape and an addiction, but it’s a harmless and positive thing. Bands need to get out and push their stuff. I don’t think bands need record labels. That’s the last thing in the world I’m looking for. I’ve had them and the way the Internet is now, it’s just a matter of time before word-of-mouth says to check this person out.”
The live setting and audience interaction allow Hinson to keep his older material fresh, though some of his songs are well-worn by now. “The Rolling Stones have been playing five or six songs in their repertoire for 45 years,” Hinson says. “They’re anthems that they own that define them. When they get in front of thousands of people, it’s fresh because you get that adrenaline going. I don’t look at it as, ‘I’m tired of playing this song.’ I look at it like a brand-new experience because you’ve got a brand-new audience. As long as they care about coming to see me, I’ll play my guts out for ‘em. It doesn’t matter if I’ve played a song a million times. I’ll give it my best shot.”
I close the interview by addressing Hinson’s ability to expand on traditional sounds and blur genre lines. Like Psychobilly counterparts Hank Williams III and Reverend Horton Heat, Hinson knows his strengths and remains loyal to his roots. “My first love is country & western music handsdown,” Hinson says. “It’s the music that inspired me to play and that’s why I keep doing it. I do have to bend a little bit, or ‘blur the lines’ as you say, and play some rock because I know the young ‘uns like rock and I incorporate that into my shows. I don’t go in and play hard country & western for two hours. I throw some rock in there for the young ‘uns and the women because they like to dance. I don’t do no hip-hop. Hell no, I don’t do that mess. The line won’t never get that blurred.”
Unknown Hinson will appear at Zydeco on Friday, August 6, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 day of show. They can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com or by calling (205) 933-1032.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.