By Brian Tucker
Unknown Hinson looks at home in 1950s science fiction movies. Sporting jet black hair, pale skin and fangs, he looks like Elvis turned into a vampire playing country and western music with tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
Songs like “Pregnant Again” and the post-divorce sex change “Man to Man” bridge comedic commentary with solid Country & Western playing. “I don’t take drugs, but I’ll take some of hippie girl’s free love,” he sings on “Hippie Girl.” Or, “He reads a lot of muscle magazines, he likes antiques and French cuisines,” on “Your Man is Gay.”
The cynical and politically correct beware.
It’s all in a day’s work for North Carolina native Stuart Baker who’s been bringing Hinson to life since 1993. Hinson claims to have no love for rock and roll. It’s the devil’s music, straight out of hell, he says, but that doesn’t stop him from playing it for fans. Outside tender, classic sounding country songs like the stalk-y “Foggy Windows” or “Polly Urethane” (“You’re adorable, you’re portable”) there’s blistering performances on YouTube of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” or Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.”
Baker’s a witty writer and a gentleman in conversation, even as the wily, friendly Hinson creeps into the interview to tell his side of the story and offer relationship advice.
“Make sure you bring your woman to the show and I’ll sign her breast,” Hinson says. “It don’t cost nothing. She’ll be in a good mood when you take her home, that’s right.”
Hinson’s been performing since leaving prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He learned to play guitar from his mother who had an affair with a man that ran off.
“She played guitar and sung a lot, taught me one chord,” Hinson says. “She said, if you want to do this you’ll figure out how.”
The oft-told story goes that Hinson’s mother didn’t know the father’s name so she told the hospital to write Unknown on the birth certificate (“You get what you get, that’s what I got”). As a kid she took him to movies – a steady diet of Universal monster movies and favorites like The Day the Earth Stood Still and I Married a Monster from Outer Space.
“I prefer black and white to color because they leave more to the imagination. I guess that’s why my motif is black and white.”
By the mid-90s he had a television show in Charlotte (Wild Wild South) that evolved into The Unknown Hinson Show, running two years and winning four awards. He wrote all the episodes, directed and edited them, and added incidental music.
“But the music took over,” he says of deciding on music and leaving the show behind. “I figured it was a good time to stop before it became old hat.”
A handful of albums and heavy touring followed. Hinson’s personality led to voicing Early Cuyler on Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies animated television show. The second career became important when, after years of touring as a rebel rousing vampire, Hinson needed to take time off for carpal tunnel syndrome.
“I knocked it off for about ten months. It’s better to do that than to do surgery. I ain’t real fond of hospitals. If I can come back without surgery and that mess that’s a lot better. I was able to play some, but Squidbillies kept me busy.”
Per the doctor’s order he only plays two or three nights a week, maybe four or five in time.
“I’m back full tilt now. It don’t bother me,” he says. “As long as I make music, that’s the most important thing.”
What is it enjoy most about UH or playing as that character?
Baker: Just meeting people, playing for them, playing and singing my guts out for them and hoping they get something out of it. Hope they go home smiling and the women’s go home in a good mood so they’re good to their man and vice versa.
Gene Simmons and Alice Cooper talk about becoming another person once the make-up goes on. Do you feel a transformation as you get dressed up?
Baker: I try to read the crowd, what mood they’re in, if they want something up or down, I don’t really have a set order I play my mess in. I got a set list to look at but I may look at the audience and see what they may be in the mood for. That plays a big part of it.
Doing the TV show, did you have free reign?
Baker: It was on the air in Charlotte for over two years. I began to play so many shows I had to give it up. I didn’t have enough time to shoot the shows and tour. The music took over. Some people in the show, supporting actors, have died since I don’t want to really exploit them.
The Unknown Hinson show ran for a little over two years and won four awards as best local produced TV access show by Creative Loafing reading audience and critics, I figured it was a good time to stop before it became old hat. I wrote all the episodes myself and kind of directed them and edited them and dropped in incidental music that I wrote. It was pretty much a mom and pop thing. We didn’t have any money but a lot of good people who wanted to help.
I can’t help but think you grew up on a steady diet of old monster movies.
Baker: Very much, especially the old Universal monster movies, all that stuff, science fiction movies 1950’s. The Day the Earth Stood Still and I Married a Monster from Outer Space. I like anything in black and white. I prefer black and white to color because they leave more to the imagination. I guess that’s why my motif is black and white.
When I was a boy my mother took me to the movie pictures but she disappeared and I joined up with the carnival. I was raised by the man who ran the carnival. They occasionally played pictures in the pen but it’s not the same. When you’re watching a Marilyn Monroe picture with two hundred men it ain’t the same.
Do you have theater or acting experience?
Baker: I’ve been in show business since I was a boy, on the stage. It first started in television with my buddy called The Wild Wild South and then he passed away. The producer said, ‘why don’t you do an Unknown Hinson television show?’ It was a very different format. My show was styled like that but a very different format. The Wild Wild South was all ad-libbed. I wrote a lot of short stories but they never came to fruition once I did my own show.
It would have to be a good script and budget. I don’t want to do another, sorry, it’s got to be quality. When they see my name or my picture for some reason they think I’m weird or different and I ain’t really. I try to give my music some integrity, not just a knock-off Hee Haw kind of comic thing, try to give it some substance so that hopefully will last throughout the years.