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By Nathan Smith
Unknown Hinson is a hard-driving, party-liquor-loving, possibly vampiric Country & Western troubadour in an ill-fitting rodeo suit with a penchant for raising hell and firing his guns into the air at shows. The alter ego of North Carolina's Stuart Daniel Baker, a former music teacher and studio musician who crafted the character in the early '90s as part of a Charlotte-area public-access show, Hinson is best known as the voice of Early Cuyler on Adult Swim's Squidbillies.
Baker has been performing live and releasing albums as Hinson for decades, coupling his impressive musicianship with a dogged dedication to staying in character that has drawn comparisons to Andy Kaufman's relationship with lounge singer (and alter ego) Tony Clifton. Through a thick Southern accent and taking innumerable grammatical liberties, Hinson spoke with us about music, growing up in a carnival and his love for firing his gun.
Daniel Hill: Tell me a little bit about how you came to be the "Undisputed King of Country Western Music."
Unknown Hinson: Well, I was born an only child, and my momma and daddy didn't know each other when they conceived me. They was both drunk, and they, you know, had the sexuals, and they didn't know each other's names. And then nine months later here I was. I was born, and my momma, when she was in the hospital, the doctors delivered the baby and had the birth certificate to fill it out, you know. It said that my momma's maiden name was "Hinson." They said, "What you wanna name the boy?" You know, and she said, "Well, I wanna name him after his daddy, but I don't know his daddy's name." So on my birth certificate it says "Mother: Miss Hinson, Father: Unknown," so technically that's how I got the name Unknown Hinson. It's an inconvenient thing from time to time as far as you can't...I mean, it's hard to get a check cashed made out to "Unknown," you know? You can imagine what it's like.
And then, uh, anyhow my momma disappeared when I was ten — she just vanished — and of course I was just a boy, and I flipped out and run away from home and wandered around, and I stumbled on a carnival, and the feller that owned the carnival seen me, and I looked a little different, you know? As a youngin' I didn't look very normal, or common, as they say. I had a full head of black hair and thick eyebrows and a lot of facial hair for a ten-year-old boy, and he thought it was kinda different so, you know, he took me in and more or less became my father figure and pretty much raised me. And he put me to work in a sideshow there. He had about a six-truck carny, and I done shows on the midway every night in a tent. And my momma had taught me a chord on the guitar, so he knowed I loved music...
Yeah, she taught me one chord and just said, "Look, if you wanna do this, you'll figure it out." So I stuck with it, and when I was in the carnival, of course I picked up a guitar from one of the fellow workers and practiced and practiced and started singin', so the owner of the carnival let me sing some songs in my sideshow. I kindly worked as, what you call, what you called back then a "geek," you know. Carnival geek...that ain't a very, what you call "politically correct" to say that nowadays, but that's what I was. Anyway I started singing my music there.
Can you describe for me some of your carnival acts?
Uh, well, it was my job in the carnival to, uh, well, I had to handle certain domestic fowls — chickens, turkeys, pigeons and whatnot. And certain reptiles, you know, snakes — and rats, occasional rats, you know, you gotta feed the snakes, so. My name as a boy was the "Wild Child From Hell" — that was how they billed me in my sideshow, you know. And then when I growed up, and I was no longer a boy, I was just billed, uh, you know, "Unknown Hinson: King of Country Western Troubadours — From the Congo." Now I don't look like I'm from the Congo, but you know, back then, I mean, you could get away with anything, right?
So how did your history growing up in the carnival influence you as a performer today?
That's a good question. The thing about show business on any level is that at the moment you doing it, you learn real fast you get locked into it — you get in that zone, and you stay there no matter what. I mean, if there's one person you are performing for, you give it everything you got. Whether it's one person or a hundred thousand, you've got to give it everything you got because performance art is a very, very temporary — it's like here one second, gone the next, and if it's gonna last at all, it'll be in somebody's memory, and if it don't last in their memory, then they go on to something else. You get one shot, whether it's with one person or a hundred thousand people. But I've always put all I got into it, like I said, whether I'm playing to a handful of people or a crowd, I give it everything I got no matter what.
Could you describe a typical Unknown Hinson show?
Yes, sir. It's me with my band singin' my songs from my heart. And my songs is all about real life experiences — things I have lived through — and if it's something I ain't lived through, it's at least something I have witnessed with my chart-toppin' eyes, because you know a writer has to write what he or she knows, and if you don't, your readers or your viewers will see right through it, you know? So, I try to keep my subject matter on things that I know about. For instance, "I Ain't Afraid of Your Husband." I mean, I know how that is, you know. I have been there. So yeah, it's me and my band — me up there singin' and playin' my guts out for the folks, and you will see some womans screamin' and swoonin' and, you know, cryin' at times.
Because they're so excited?
Well, yeah. And you will see people — you'll see mans, you know, the mans in the audience, the boys. The husbands and boyfriends, you know, some of them get jealous, and they wanna whoop my ass but you know, it ain't happened yet. I hope it don't never happen.
I saw an interview you did in which you said that art is supposed to create a reaction and that you aren't very concerned about what reaction that is. That reminded me of the late Andy Kaufman — I was wondering, are you a fan?
You know, I know of him, but I don't know much about him. All I know is that a lot of people herald him as being obviously ahead of his time, I think 'cause what he done was pretty out there, and he took a lot of risks — from what I've read about him, you know — and I've seen some clips. But with me it's a 24/7 thing. I mean, I just, I do what I do, and it's a little different maybe. It may go over some people's head, it may go under their legs — I don't know. I'm just gonna do what I do, because that's what I am.
But no, I mean, as far as me challenging wrasslers and stuff like that, I would never do that because, you know — ex con. I try to stay away from violence and any kind of contact sports or whatnot, you know, it's...that just ain't me. My parole officer said it's OK for me to fire my pistol at my shows, but I don't never fire it at nobody. I don't point it at nobody ever; I would never do that. It's a stress reliever for me. You know, some people squeeze a tennis ball to relieve stress, or they do sit-ups or jog or whatnot. I like to fire my gun, and it relaxes me. I like the sound of it and the feel of it. But I mean, hell, I'm a peace lover; I don't never shoot at no human being or no animal or nothing. Nobody's property. I wouldn't never do that.