The story of guitarist and performer Unknown Hinson is closer to rockabilly myth than biography. His wild, womanizing, honky-tonk persona has been carefully crafted by Stuart Daniel Baker of Local 342 (Charlotte, NC), a music teacher and studio musician.
Unknown Hinson was first conceived by Baker as a character for the Charlotte, Virginia, public access TV show, The Wild, Wild South. With his creative partner Don Swan, Baker would perform politically incorrect songs and skits and feature Hinson’s music videos. Wild, Wild South came to an abrupt end in 1995 when Swan, who played Rebel Helms on the show, passed away. Baker then spun off Wild, Wild South into the Unknown Hinson Show, which found success, winning Creative Loafing’s “Best Of” poll for Best Public-Access Television Show four years in a row.
Baker’s Hinson persona is a legendary oddball outlaw. The story goes, Hinson learned one chord on the guitar from his mother who mysteriously disappeared when he was 10, leaving him orphaned. His father—and namesake—was “unknown.” Hinson went to work for a traveling carnival, playing the guitar and working as a sideshow act biting the heads off live chickens.
In another chapter in Unknown Hinson’s legend, in 1963, at age 21, he was framed for the murder of his boss at the carnival. Sentenced to 30 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary, he spent most of his time “pickin’” guitar and growing his knowledge on the instrument by listening to the radio in prison. Rumors also persist that he is a 400-year-old vampire.
“If people believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, or call me a vampire, I’m going to let ’em. It doesn’t bother me none. I’m just going to go out and put on a good show for ’em,” says Baker, in character, as Hinson.
Rarely does Baker appear out of character. Baker grew up in a musical family in North Carolina. His father was a musician who taught him to hold a guitar right-handed, even though Baker is left-handed. He also played the drums in a local band he started with his brothers.
Baker decided to move to New York City in 1979. He found the “studio racket” as he put it to be a “dog eat dog” world. “I learned a lot but everything I was making was going to rent and food,” says Baker. After two years of session work, subbing on guitar for bands, and even putting together his own group, Baker returned south. During the day, he would do more session work on the guitar and bass. He began moonlighting in the house band of a honky-tonk bar in Darlington, South Carolina. This is where Unknown Hinson began to materialize.
“I didn’t realize what I was doing in a honky-tonk full of drunks six nights a week. I told myself ‘well, what you were doing then was R&D for Unknown Hinson,’” Baker explains.
Baker also found inspiration for Hinson from his childhood. “Any small southern town is going to have interesting, funny characters,” he says.
In 1999, Baker moved away from the Unknown Hinson Show, taking his act on the road. He started recording albums of the songs he performed on the show. He soon built a cult fan base performing as Hinson with songs like “Unlock This Bathroom Door” and his signature appearance characterized by a tuxedo, silk bow tie, and jet black hair slicked into a high widow’s peak. Baker based this look on a combination of the redneck persona and his fondness for old horror film icons like Frankenstein and Dracula.
Baker’s break from television didn’t last long. He has been the voice of Squidbillies—a cartoon that pokes fun at southern hillbilly stereotypes—as backwoods patriarch Early Cuyler for the past 10 seasons and he is currently working the 11th.
Not surprisingly, admiration for the actor and musician in the industry is expressed in unconventional ways. The grandson of Hank Williams Sr., Hank III, has a tattoo of Hinson on his bicep, which Baker considers “an honor.”
While he’s known for his comedic and outrageous character performances, Baker proves he has chops and has been a frequent touring partner of Reverend Horton Heat and also as a bassist with Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters. Baker has earned accolades and professional recognition, including the Independent Music Awards and Vox Pop vote for Best Alternative Country Song for “Torture Town” in 2009, and the Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Male Outlaw in 2014.
After more than a decade of performing, Baker announced his retirement from touring in late 2012. Shortly thereafter, his wife and manager, Margo Baker, lost her battle with cancer. That fall, he began touring again. “It’s what I do. You’ve got to do something to justify your life,” Baker says. “I didn’t want to sit on the couch all day, watch television. I’m about making music and playing for people.”
Because of his larger-than-life appearance and colorful lyrics, Baker’s character is often pegged as a comedy act, a designation he thinks shortchanges his talent.
“A lot of people pin me as just a ‘hee-haw act,’ but I try to have quality music,” he says. “I’m known as much, if not more, for my guitar playing than my songwriting.” In the end, Baker seems indifferent to all labels, vampire or comedian, concentrating instead on what he does best: pleasing the crowd.
“They can make of it what they will, I’m still going to play the same for a crowd of 300 or a crowd of 3,000,” he says.