Sometimes it’s an absolute mystery why an artist doesn’t become famous. Maybe the timing is just wrong. Maybe the guy was cheated out of success by record company shenanigans. Maybe he was derailed by military service or a career in automotive repair or the call of God.
Or maybe, as is the case with Hasil Adkins, it’s because he’s a terrifying freak who may or may not be a serial decapitator. Indeed, Hasil Adkins sang about beheading people so often, it’s hard to believe he didn’t actually do it at some point.
The thing about Hasil Adkins though, is that he is the godfather of a genre.
The First Psycho of Psychobilly
Based on the couple hundred homemade singles he recorded in the ’50s and ‘60s, Adkins is the figure most responsible for innovating the subgenre known as psychobilly. Even still, it takes only a quick listen to figure out why he saw so little acclaim early outside (or inside) Boone County, West Virginia, where he spent his entire life.
Those extremely rare 7″ records are among the most primitive, off-the-wall and disturbing hillbilly sides you’ve ever heard. They also had no sonic precedent. In this sense, they are truly groundbreaking in their authenticity.
First-grade Dropout, Self-Styled Singer
Hasil’s story is almost too perfectly mythological. Hasil was the youngest of ten children, a coal miner’s son raised in a tarpaper shack. Legend has it he got his first pair of shoes when he was 5 years old and became an elementary school dropout a few days into the first grade.
Adkins fell in love with the radio at a young age. He revered Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom he assumed played in one-man-bands. Attempting to achieve the same effect, he began self-recording his untrained brand of lunatic rockabilly, marked by savagely percussive guitar playing, breathlessly snarled vocals and a perverse fixation on meat (especially chicken).
Adkins even managed to record a few singles in nearby studios, but these were scarcely known outside his local performing orbit. A trip to California in search of greater fame bore no fruit.
Anonymous and Out of His Mind
Hasil returned to West Virginia and proceeded to make a poverty-line career for himself as an uncompromisingly raw, backwoods proto-cowpunk with absolutely no pretension about his art. His career was marked by anonymity, manic depression, alcoholism and several stints in jail, one for a consensual but statutory sex offense and one for engaging in an old-fashioned shootout with a jealous husband.
Adkins reportedly drank two gallons of coffee a day, washed it down with whiskey and subsisted otherwise on red meat and cigarettes. These habits may account for the hypertensive quality of his songwriting and the fact that he was, by many first-hand accounts, batshit crazy.
Acquaintances report that in his later years, Adkins took particular pleasure in fishing while watching Wheel of Fortune on a television tethered to a mile of extension cords
Hot Dogs and Hunching
Adkins was noteworthy for two thematic trademarks. The first–human decapitation–you already know about. This is best displayed on “No More Hot Dogs.” However, the horror theme also rears its disembodied head on “We Got a Date,” a genuinely frightening Big Bopper-with-mercury-poisoning piece that might better be identified as a psychotic episode than a song.
The second of his trademarks was The Hunch, a “dance craze” imitated by exactly nobody but coined by Adkins nonetheless and related, somewhat vaguely, to the act of dry-humping. The name of The Hunch may have derived from Adkins’ posture, the result of the fact that he and three friends drove a car off the side of a mountain in 1957. One friend was killed and Adkins endured back problems for the rest of his life.
Without precedent for his musical approach, Adkins forged boldly ahead on a trail that provided almost no reasonable chance of leading to notoriety.
New York Gets the Cramps
And that might have been it were it not for the enthusiasm of rarities collectors and rockabilly revivalists in the mid-1970s and ‘80s. A growing exponent of punk musicians found themselves drawn to the primitivism at the core of rockabilly genre. At its best, rockabilly was simple, primal, and vital. Hasil Adkins embodied these traits with unhinged sincerity.
More than any other band, The Cramps are responsible for the fact that we know of Hasil Adkins today. Forming around 1972 in Akron, Ohio, the Cramps moved to New York in 1975 and joined an already thriving underground punk scene. The Cramps distinguished themselves from the scores of new bands showing up for CBGB gigs with a highly stylized monster movie image and a garage rock ethos.
Psychobilly Gets Committed
During those early day, the Cramps were credited with coining the name of a new subgenre, though they would go on to claim that the phrase “psychobilly” was merely meant as fodder for concert flyering.
They had co-opted the phrase from a 1976 Johnny Cash song called “One Piece at a Time.”
Though this song, written for Johnny Cash by Wayne Kemp, contains the first-known instance of the word, it is not at all representative of the genre.
Adkins, on the other hand…for the first time, the schlocky horror permeating his ecords had a broader context than his own madness.
Hasil Gets Heard
In 1984, the The Cramps released a cover of “She Said.”
The Cramps took it a step further in 1985, working with Adkins to curate a compilation for release on the independent Norton label. Out To Hunch came out the next year and quickly rocketed Adkins to cult status. His long-lost records burned with a raucous, disturbing abandon that has rarely been captured on wax.
There is so little else out that feels or sounds like Hasil Adkins that he must rightfully be acknowledged as the accidental inventor of the psychobilly genre. He also warrants consideration as one of the world’s first punk rockers. This guy was nutballs ten years before Iggy Pop even called himself Iggy Pop.
Hasil Gets His Due
Like Iggy, Hasil’s influence would loom large in his later years. Out to Hunch opened the door for a kind of appreciation that Adkins perhaps never thought possible. In 1987, at the age of 50, Adkins recorded his proper debut for Norton. Wild Man Blues was the first of ten official releases for an assortment of hip Indie labels like Fat Possum and Big Beat.
Adkins enjoyed a triumphant twilight, performing extensively as well as appearing in a handful of horror comedies.
Hasil Adkins was struck by an ATV while standing on his front lawn in April of 2005. His body was found inside of his home eleven days later, just 3 days before his 68th birthday.
Fortunately, by the time of his parting, Adkins could legitimately be called a legend. He was also the singular character behind a kind of music so primeval that the like may never be heard again.