Danny Baker, the man behind the mysterious rockabilly icon called Unknown Hinson, is pleasant and professional during a quick phone call from The Daily Times.
Reaching out to set up an interview time, we talked briefly about his upcoming date in Blount County — Saturday night at “The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson — and locked in a time to talk at length a few days later. We wanted to discuss in-depth his decision in 2012 to retire from touring, the subsequent death of his wife and long-time manager, Margo Baker, and how he managed to crawl out of the dark hole of grief and sadness, resurrect the cult icon he’s become over the years and get back out on the road.
When the agreed-upon interview time rolls around, however, two become one, and Stuart Daniel Baker is nowhere to be found.
“Baker? There ain’t no Baker here. This is Unknown Hinson,” the voice on the other end of the phone says, that greasy drawl dripping with all the ichor of poor dental hygiene and a lifetime of playing the sort of down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll that makes for an ideal accompaniment to nights filled with alcohol and pretty women — or, in Unknown Hinson parlance, “party liquor” and “womerns.”
It’s difficult to approach such delicate subjects when talking to a man who’s rumored to be a vampire and who, according to legend, spent 30 years in jail, from 1963 to 1993. The lines between reality and fiction are a bit more blurred these days, however, and in between the one-liners and offhand remarks, it’s not difficult to get an idea of what life is like for a man who puts on the Unknown Hinson persona like he does his familiar black-ribbon necktie and rodeo tailor coat.
“I like to take up the hot rods and motorbikes, and I love dogs,” Hinson told The Daily Times. “I’ve got two big yellow labrador retrievers, and they go everywhere with me. I like wood-carving; I like to fool with that every now and then, even though I ain’t no count at it, because I messed my hands up with them sharp tools. I like to paint and draw sometimes; I can do anything that requires making a mess, which my housekeeper don’t like, but that’s my life.”
Unknown Hinson got his start on public access television more than two decades ago on a Charlotte, N.C. station. “The Unknown Hinson Show” won Creative Loafing’s “Best Of” poll for Best Public-Access Television Show four years in a row, and after it ended, he managed to parlay that into an outrageous, campy, white-trash persona with sleazy overtones and a penchant for playing mean, driving, rockabilly and crooning deranged country-Western songs of his own making.
At one time, Baker spoke openly of Hinson the character; those days are long gone. Hinson has steadily grown into his own past, a series of events that may only be real in his own mind but are nevertheless spoken of with a matter-of-factness that’s compelling in a can’t-look-away-from-a-car-crash kind of way: raised by a single mother (“Miss Hinson”) who gave him his first guitar, finding work with a circus sideshow, arrested and imprisoned for 30 years on charges of murder, 19 paternity suits, vampirism and random grave-robbing offenses.
Combined with his appearance — the widow’s peak, Elvis-style sideburns and oversized canines — and it’s easy to see why some conjecture that he might be one of the undead. Put a guitar in his hand and turn him loose to play the country-western psychobilly he does so well (and as he’ll do this weekend at “The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville), and it all comes together as a beautifully bizarre spectacle.
“That vampire thing, it pops up all the time,” he said. “To me, it’s up to them what they believe. People can convince themselves of pretty near anything — ‘The world’s gonna end tomorrow at 12:30 p.m.!’ If they believe it in their heads, that’s what they believe. How’re you gonna change that? If they want to believe I’m a vampire, I can’t change that. I don’t try to encourage or discourage it. Some people believe it, and some don’t, but I just let them wonder.”
For the uninitiated, Unknown Hinson might seem more like a novelty act than the professional guitar player he really is. It’s a cross he’s learned to bear, he said — “I don’t look at myself as a country-Western comedy act, and blue-collar humor — I ain’t that, neither,” he said. “I veer too much to the dark side to be that. I’m not your regular ‘Hee Haw’ act. I’m from the dark side, my friend.” And whether you buy into the myth that he perfected his guitar-playing skills behind bars or that Baker is just so respected that a few years back, he toured as a guitarist for Billy Bob Thornton and The Boxmasters and he teamed up with the Reverend Guitar Company to develop an Unknown Hinson signature model, his abilities on a six-string are undeniable.
“I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 5 year old, and it’s just like putting on a shirt to me,” he said. “It’s a part of my life every day, some days more than others — and some days not even at all. If I go two or three days and not pick guitar, I’ll pick it up and it’s like it don’t even know who I am. I don’t live with no guitar in my hand, because I’ve got too much else to do.”
One of his better-known side projects is his voice work as Early Cuyler, the cantankerous central character on “The Squidbillies,” the animated series on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block of programming for which he’s working on the 10th season. A season premiere date hasn’t been set yet, but as in previous seasons, the parallels between Early and Unknown will be familiar to those who appreciate both characters, he said.
“Early resembles me in certain ways — he likes to chase womerns, shoot his gun and raise hell; he likes his party liquor, and he likes to occasionally pick guitar and sing, even though that ain’t really his thing,” Hinson said. “Working with the people at ‘Adult Swim,’ they’re real creative and young and very smart people. They give me a lot of freedom to improvise my lines, and a lot of times they ask me, ‘How would Unknown Hinson say this?’ What’s wrote in the script itself might not be the Hinson-speak, more or less, but they like me to embellish the lines every now and then, and I like that freedom they give me.”
He’s also working on a new album — or perhaps more than one, he said. He’s got enough material for more than two, he said, and like his previous works, he promises nothing except that the new batch of material will be multi-dimensional “chart-topping hits,” as he likes to call them. His past tracks, songs like “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Husband,” “I Don’t Take Dope,” “Fish Camp Woman” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Straight From Hell,” all give listeners a glimpse into what goes on in the mind of the man who bills himself as the “King of Country-Western Troubadours.”
“I try to mix things up, but keep in the same vein what the composition is about and what the words are saying,” he said. “I might go off on a real honky-tonk binge with one, and the next one might be a James Bond-type thing or a jazz-type thing, like cocktail music or a torch song.”
Such variety is reflected in the folks who come to his shows, he pointed out. The Unknown Hinson appeal — something about which he’s keenly aware and for which he’s eternally grateful — reaches across socio-economic demographics, and when he’s up on stage, blazing through an original song and caressing the neck of his guitar like it’s the neck of a lover who did him wrong, he can’t help but smile, even if it does show off those oversized canines, at the diversity.
“You’ll see extremely different types at an Unknown Hinson show — white collar, blue collar, doctors, lawyers, nurses, firemen, police, bikers, greasers, rockabillies, pin-up kind of lady girls and everything else,” he said. “You ask, ‘What do they all have in common?’ Well, I reckon it’s me. I’m like a color, I guess. When you see somebody that’s tattooed from head to toe and pierced from ear to ear standing next to a fella in a three-piece suit with a necktie, you wonder what they have in common. Well, they like Unknown Hinson’s music, and they’re there at the same time.
“I’m very fortunate to have the fanbase that I do. You ain’t nothing without your fans, and I meet a lot of bands who, when they play a show, just take off and don’t stay and meet and greet the fans. I stay until the last person leaves, and if they want to take a picture and meet me, it’s always a pleasure, because without them, I wouldn’t have no job.”