Awesome Men in History: Hasil Adkins
When most people think of music in the 1950s, they think of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Chuck Berry. And why shouldn’t they? Those guys were awesome. But they weren’t the only games in town by a long shot – rock music’s infancy was host to an impressive array of talented performers, most of whom either died, went to prison, got drafted, or found religion by 1959.
One recording artist from that time stayed as wild and crazy as ever, though. And as you may have guessed, he’s this week’s installment of Awesome Men Throughout History. His name was Hasil Adkins, and he was undeniably, fantastically insane. He was also, as you’ll soon see, a musical pioneer.
Hasil was born in Boone County, West Virginia (also home to Jesco White and his family) and is alleged to have been born in 1937, although the birth date recorded in his family’s Bible is unclear. He literally grew up in coal country – the Adkins house was a shack owned by the local coal company – where opportunities for anything beyond hard labor and black lung were scarce, especially for a bipolar child like Hasil. He devoted much of his time to becoming a musician, learning guitar from his neighbors and recording his own songs in a shed on the family property.
Because he thought that his favorite artists played every instrument on their recordings, Hasil learned how to play guitar, sing, and drum (meaning he worked the hi-hat with one foot and a kick drum with the other) simultaneously. He also repaired washing machines for extra income, putting him one order of “french fried per-taters” short of being Billy Bob Thornton’s character from Sling Blade.
Despite being turned down by numerous record labels, including the legendary Sun Records (who claimed that his music was too wild for them), Hasil went on to build a huge repertoire of songs and record maybe three bajillion 45 rpm singles in near-total obscurity. He also toured the country many times over, and was rumored to consist on a diet of raw meat, liquor, coffee, and little to no sleep in his prime.
As you might imagine, he was prone to outlandish behavior. He accidentally ate Miriam Linna’s souvenir can of Andy Warhol soup, and any waitress who asked what he wanted got “meat” in response. They also, I’m told, ending up sleeping with him more often than not. If Hasil consumed anything more than coffee or cholesterol, it was women. Mental illness caused by childhood malnutrition brings with it a certain charm, I suppose.
As for his music, it’s primitive and manic, but very clever in its own way. Hasil could play rhythm and lead guitar parts at the same time, giving even his goofiest efforts a unique depth, and his songs range from funny to sad to weird. Commodity meat (think Spam) appears regularly in his lyrics, alongside chickens, aliens, random violence, and traditional rockabilly/country themes like love and heartbreak.
He’s also the main reason Norton Records, a NYC-based label specializing in outsider music, obscure rockabilly, and garage rock, exists. The label’s founders were such huge fans of his that they decided to re-release his early albums themselves.
Hasil influenced countless modern rockabilly and garage rock bands, including the Cramps, Southern Culture On the Skids, and Flat Duo Jets (who, in turn, inspired Jack White to form the White Stripes). Hank Williams III is also a fan, crediting Hasil with planting the seeds for punk rock, because “no other [expletive] was talking about cutting off heads and putting them on their walls back in the fifties.”
Hasil Adkins passed away in 2005, ten days after being hit by an ATV on his property. I had the privilege of seeing him perform before he died, and my signed copy of Out to Hunch, his first album, is one of my most prized possessions. In fact, as soon as I’m done writing this, I’m going downtown for a slice of Spam pizza in his honor.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.