Ask the average West Virginian to name the state’s most notorious outlaw of the 20th century and you will most likely hear Jesco White’s name. Dubbed the “Dancin’ Outlaw” by filmmaker Jacob Young, Jesco is neither an outlaw nor is his crazed personality and adopted Elvis persona the real deal. As anyone from Boone County will tell you, Jesco stole his Elvis shtick and wild ways from his neighbor, one of the greatest outlaws in the state’s history: HasilAdkins.
Adkins had three loves in life — “girls, guitars and cars” — and in a 1995 interview he told me that “all three of them done got me in trouble over the years.” Trouble for Hasil meant spending his fair share of time in jail, having his license taken away permanently, getting involved in lurid relationships with younger girls, trading gunshots in hostile shootouts, and hot-rodding in cars, often crashing them (both intentionally and unintentionally). On the flipside, his “loves” in life also led him to make dozens of amazing records, to become identified as the originator of “psychobilly music,” to tour and perform all over the United States and Canada, and to gain a huge following in Europe among record collectors. And although he passed away tragically in April of 2005, his DIY music and the legacy of his outlaw spirit will live on in West Virginia’s history.
Early Daze With the Haze
From the beginning, Hasil Adkins faced a hard life due to poverty and growing up the youngest of ten children. Born in Jack’s Branch, W.Va., on April 29, 1937, his parents came from the Badlands of South Dakota in order to work the mines. The Adkins made their home in a rented tarpaper shack nine miles south of Madison; this is where Hasil lived on for his entire life up until his death in 2005.
Hasil’s first brushes with the law were with truant officers when he was a schoolboy. Preferring music to attending classes, Hasil dropped out of school at an early age; some reports claim that he only “attended two days of first grade” while others suggest he only lasted a few days in middle/high school. Whatever the case may be, Hasil was focused on the guitar by the age of 16 and began in earnest to launch his music career. Enamored by the style and sounds of Elvis Presley, Hasil (dubbed “the Haze”) began recording at home in 1955. The track “I’m Happy” was his first; in Hasil’s words “I couldn’t afford no drums so I just stomped my feet.” Subsequent recordings included Hasil accompanying himself on guitar with a kick drum and a ringing hi-hat.
From this early period of his life, Hasil’s first documented moment in the spotlight occurred in 1957, when, according to an article in Coal Valley Newspaper, Hasil and three friends drove their car off the road and ended up 70 feet below in Pond Fork. The driver of the car, Jackie Lee, died at the scene. The other occupants who were injured but survived included one “Elvis Hassle [sic] Adkins.”
The One Man Band
Unlike Elvis, Hasil had his hands in every aspect of the music and accompanied himself on every instrument. One essential element of the Haze’s mythology involves his supposed misunderstanding of the songs he was hearing on the radio when he was growing up. As sister Irene explains “he heard Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams on the radio and he thought they was playing all those instruments themselves.”
As a result, his musical act as a “one man band” took off in the 1960s; one of his earliest gigs included sharing the bill with The Collins Kids and Patsy Cline. With dreams of scoring a record contract and making a name for himself, Hasil drove to California in 1961 and auditioned for several talent scouts in Los Angeles. According to Hasil, he missed a callback by one day, as he’d already left to drive back to West Virginia. It was at this time that his first legitimate 45 record was released on the Air label: “Chicken Walk / She’s Mine.” Sister Irene still laments the fact that “Daddy never lived to see Hasil’s first record come out.”
Lyrically, his music in the late 1960s became increasingly more bizarre, with tracks like “She Said” recounting a one-night stand where he wakes up hung over next to a girl who looked “like a dyin’ can of that commodity meat.” In that song, he shares parts of his personal life which, from his account and from the accounts of others, was true to life. By 1970, Hasil was self-medicating with alcohol, pills, marijuana. And he continued writing outrageous songs, like “No More Hot Dogs” — which talks about decapitating a girlfriend — and “The Hunch,” a song about sex or, as Hasil put it, simply a dance.
Arrests for driving under the influence began in the 1970s, with at least two DUIs and one arrest for possession of a controlled substance. Perhaps because he was well-known or simply because he was a good guy, Hasil always seemed to get off lightly and never spent any significant time in jail. That all changed in the 1980s.
The Demented Years
By 1980, Hasil had become the primary caregiver of his aging mother as she could no longer handle the shopping, cooking and cleaning. As a result Hasil often called on his girlfriends to help around the house.
In 1983, he fell in love with a girl, Melinda Winn, who was not yet 16 years old. Winn soon found herself living with Hasil and caring for his mother. After several months of living together, Winn’s mother called the sheriff and Hasil was shortly thereafter arrested on charges of statutory rape. He spent six months in jail before the trial even though Winn insisted that “he didn’t force anything on me…it was consensual.”
Once his case went to court in 1984, the judge ended up not giving him any subsequent jail time. A year or so after his trial, Hasil had moved on to another relationship that also got him into serious trouble, ending with a vicious shootout between Hasil and a jealous husband. In the exchange over 90 shots were fired, yet no one sustained any serious injuries. Hasil, however, was arrested andcharged with Felon in Possession. It was exactly at this low point in Hasil’s life that things were beginning to look up.
Near the end of 1985, New York musician Billy Miller and his wife, Miriam, became so enthused by Hasil Adkins that they founded Norton Records to showcase his music. The first album entitled “Out to Hunch” was released in 1986, shortly before the shootout. Over time this record — which started out as only 500 LP copies but soon swelled to the thousands — would generate a whole new audience for Hasil.
By the fall of the 1986, Hasil Adkins was making a name for himself amongst the music intelligentsia while, at the same time, his future hung in the balance in Boone County. Hasil was facing “some serious charges” when he returned to the Boone County courthouse in the fall of 1986. The Honorable Judge Copenhaver asked Hasil how he was going to be a contributing member of society. His attorney Tom Smith remembers, “I told the judge about his recent record deal with Norton and that if he lost six months of time in jail, he’d miss his window of opportunity.” For some reason the judge bought it and he allowed Hasil to complete a seven-day tour to demonstrate that Hasil had the means to cover restitution.
With shows in Philly, Boston, New York, Montreal and Toronto, Hasil played for large audiences. According to Miller, Hasil truly was an outlaw on that tour: “With no passport, we snuck Hasil into Canada cause it was Father’s Day. So we played this big show in Toronto, with Public Image Limited, and we were all backstage when somebody came in shouting ‘The authorities are here! They wanna see working papers!’ We panicked and so Hasil and I went through this window and climbed this metal ladder several floors up to the roof. And we just sat on the roof for about an hour or so. They never found us. It was kinda weird, because it seemed totally normal to Hasil.…that’s what you do when the authorities show up and try to bust you.” After a successful tour, Hasil returned to the Madison County Courthouse, paid the court fees and medical bills from the shootout, and the judge ended up giving him community service which consisted of working in a park in Madison.
The Later Years
With the death of his mom in 1987, Hasil found himself living alone for the first time in his life. His troubles with the law subsided until June 1990, when he was arrested again for driving under the influence — this time his license was taken away permanently. But by the 1990s, with a huge following around the world, Hasil was a bona fide celebrity. Fans like me would visit him at his home where he’d ask for rides to the post office, liquor store, etc., and he would always entertain with stories and music. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to interview him during my visits to his compound.
In 1990, filmmaker Julien Nitzberg began a documentary about the Haze. It was during the filming of “The Wild World of Hasil Adkins” that Nitzberg met Mamie White, Jesco’s older sister. There’s one scene in the documentary which features Hasil playing before a live audience at the Corner Pocket bar in Van; in that scene Mamie White viciously breaks-up a cat fight that takes place between some of Hasil’s girlfriends.
Nitzberg shared the story and information about “the Whites” with filmmaker Jacob Young who then came to Boone County in 1991 to film “Dancin’ Outlaw” (Nitzbergis the associate producer of the documentary). Considering this turn of events, it’s fair to say that Hasil is not only responsible for the discovery of Jesco but was also the primary role model that Jesco emulates with his Elvis shtick. When I asked Hasil specifically about Jesco and the Whites, his response was telling: “Jesco’s daddy was a great man and I played with him many times. Jesco? He got all that Elvis stuff from me.”
Considering his hard living and unhealthy diet, Hasil did surprisingly well performing and touring well into his 60s. Hank Williams III become fond of Hasil’s music and even invited Hasil to record with him in Nashville. Fat Possum Records out of Oxford, Miss., released several new Hasil recordings. But, unfortunately for the Haze, all of his future plans were cut short on April 16, 2005, when he was run over by a teenager he’d “never seen before” who was trespassing and who thought it would be fun to run over an old man standing on his property. As recounted by Jim Tucci, Hasil’s tour manager near the end of his life, “Hasil said he hoped the kid would only do five years or so” and that he hoped he “learned his lesson and still have a chance to do right in the world.” Hasil died shortly after the incident.
West Virginia has produced some great men and women and has also had its share of lunatics and outlaws. Hasil Adkins falls under all of these categories. For all of his misdeeds and outrageous behavior, he was a great man with a kind heart and real talent. Anyone who spent any time with him can tell that he also had a good sense of humor and a sincere interest in other people. For a kid from a coal town with little education and few breaks in life, Hasil carved out a niche for himself and worked hard to make his dreams come true. He will be missed.
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