After a hiatus of just about a year, Unknown Hinson returned to the road last fall, taking his signature aging-Eddie-Munster-meets-Elvis look and blazing guitar virtuosity back out for his small but fiercely loyal legion of fans. Unknown (real name: Stuart D. Baker) had dispensed with his typically grueling road schedule to care for his wife and manager, Margo, as she fought - and ultimately lost - her battle with a terminal illness. His summer tour includes a June 7 return to Radio Radio; The Shelby County Sinners will open the show.
Hinson first gained notoriety for his guitar-pickin' creepshow act on public access TV in the Southeast. He began touring in the early 1990s, insisting that he'd been locked up for various crimes and wanted to reclaim his stature as the man who taught everybody from Elvis to the Beatles how to play. His set list couples classic covers featuring Unknown's impeccable fretwork with novelty original tunes that fall somewhere between demented rockabilly and '60s-era Chet-Atkins-produced tearjerkers. Hinson's fans include some pretty famous folks - Hank Williams III even has Hinson's mutton-chopped mug inked on one bicep, and Unknown's opened for alt-country and psychobilly acts like Reverend Horton Heat when he's not headlining smaller rooms.
Hinson's pompadour, fangs, pistol and jet-black suit make for a pretty campy comic presence onstage, but when Unknown starts soloing, the joke's over: this "hillbilly vampire" can keep pace with the best pickers in the business. He's also the voice of Early Cuyler in the animated show The Squidbillies on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and Reverend Guitars has issued a signature-model axe commissioned by Hinson, complete with vampire-bat fret markers and a silhouette of Hinson's hairdo on the headstock. (You can buy another version of the instrument without the graphics: it's called the "Stu D. Baker." Get it?)
We spoke to Hinson by phone just after sundown. Certain words are intentionally misspelled in an attempt to best convey Hinson's Carolina accent and to torture our copy editor.
NUVO: A lot of us had thought you'd quit touring for good after what you'd been through.
Unknown Hinson: No. I'm still out here doing it. I ain't really got no choice. It's my craft.
NUVO: For those who are unfamiliar with you, how'd you get that first name - "Unknown"?
Unknown: Well, I was born an only child ... I never know'd my daddy. And frankly, [my mother] never know'd him neither. My momma liked to drink and party and dance and everything and she met this feller one night and they made that whoopee and drank that party liquor and, you know, she woke up that next morning and he was gone and, well - nine months later here I come. And when she was having me, when she was in labor with me, the doctor who was helping her asked her, "What do you want to name the boy?" And she said, "Well, I'd like to name him after his daddy." But, you know, not having know'd who my daddy was, the doctor just filled out my birth certificate and said, "Mother: Miss Hinson." (Miss, not Mrs. She wasn't never married. I'm what you call a bastard, they reckon. Illegitimate.) But he just filled out, "Mother: Miss Hinson, Father: Unknown." I can't cash no checks with that name. Can't get no driver's license with that name.
NUVO: You've picked up a lot of fans over the years. I heard that Tom Petty once asked you how you got your sound.
Unknown: He did. Yeah, actually, he did and I told him, "Well all I do is just plug in and go." Ain't no rules. No recipe, no nothing. I just plug in and go. He a real nice feller, too.
NUVO: What was your reaction when you found out that Hank3 had your face tattooed on one of his arms?
Unknown: Hank's my buddy. Good friend of mine, and I was quite honored that he'd done that and I still am. Yeah he's a good boy. ... He's the real thing. He sings from his heart. And he don't conform to nothing. He just ... writes what he feels and plays what he feels and sings what he feels. Therefore I recognize him as a fellow country western troubadour. And I say "country western" because there is a difference between "country" and "country western," if that makes any sense.
NUVO: Well, why don't you define that for us?
Unknown: Well, country could be anything from what you call, your - new country? Is that it? New country, that ain't country western. And what you call Americana. And what you call bluegrass. No criticism toward ay of them. I'm just saying that country western is a brand; it is a term used to describe roaming minstrels that serenade the masses and lead a rather glitzy life. It comes through in the sound. Like the ol' singing cowboys; Gene Autry and Roy Rogers - there's some parallels with Unknown Hinson and them. It ain't that I ride horses, but I play the guitar and sing. They shot their guns and the womern loved them, right? They drove the womern wild. And that's kind of my thing. I can't help it.
NUVO: You're not afraid though to venture into playing Hendrix onstage or take on any of those other rock and roll covers, though.
Unknown: Well, Ed, I do it as a disclaimer. Just to show young folks it don't take no talent to play that mess. You can walk into a music store on a Saturday morning and hear young'ns in there doing that mess all day long. I ain't kidding, I'm serious.
NUVO: Are you working with a four-piece or is it a three-piece band on this tour - do you have the steel guitar player along?
Unknown: No. This time it's me and my original drummer and my original bass players; the boys that started with me, when I got out of the joint in '93. We got back together. It's the original lineup.
NUVO: You've played Radio Radio pretty often. I'd imagine it's pretty comfortable for you at this point.
Unknown: It is. It's one of my favorite live music halls I've ever played. It's not huge, but it's got this real cool vibe. And the folks that run it are very very nice, hospitable professionals. And I really enjoy working with them and the fans. Without the fans, I ain't got no job. Every artist, if you don't pay attention to your fans, you're done because if they think enough of you, they'll spend their hard-earned money for a ticket to come and see you. And if you don't stand there till the last person in line at the merchandise stand gets what they want, then you done. 'Cause without them, I ain't got no work. So I stay there till the last person leaves.
NUVO: That's something that's really unique about you. A lot of fans really appreciate that you're willing to put in that time at the end of the show.
Unknown: Well, if somebody drives six hours in their car, you know, and arranges a weekend and buys a hotel room just to come see my show, what kind of son of a bitch would I be if I wouldn't stand and wait to give them an autograph and a picture, right?