Mark McDermott

The viper of melody

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Wayne “The Train” Hancock brings swing back to country

Wayne Hancock plays Brixton Saturday night on a bill that also features The Blasters. Photo by Jerry Lukas

It doesn’t happen very often, but a couple decades ago, a music executive in Nashville actually spoke some truth.

The man had just heard Wayne “The Train” Hancock sing. And he basically told the young singer to get the hell out of town. “You are too country for country,” the executive told Hancock.

He was right. Nashville was no place for Hancock.

There was, of course, some bitter irony in this, and it wasn’t lost on Hancock as he left town. Hancock probably sounds more like Hank Williams than anybody since the long tall stranger himself passed away in 1953. He also swings like the late great West Texas legend Bob Wills and yodels like the long gone lovesick ghost of Jimmy Rodgers. His songs come straight from the roots of country music itself – albeit with lyrics that speak to the present – but Nashville has become a foreign territory for such a sound.

“They had good music back then, and I don’t see what is wrong with good music,” Hancock said in an interview this week. “I mean, it is not retro. If good music is retro, then we are really up a creek here. I mean, really, think about it.”

Hancock came honestly by his country. He grew up in a rambling family. His father picked up stakes every couple of years, working mostly as an engineer in Texas, and he imparted on his son a wandering musical taste – everything from classic country to Cuban guitar music and Benny Goodman. He gave his kid a guitar at the age of 9.

“He gave me lessons but all I could make was the key of G, you know,” he recalled. “I couldn’t see over the top of the guitar, either. I picked it back up when I was 11 or 12 and started playing then.”

Age-old songs seemed to pour out of him from the beginning. He wrote “Poor Boy Blues” – which would appear on his first record many years later – almost immediately after picking up the guitar. By the age of 19, he won an early stage of the Wrangler County Showdown. If he hadn’t already enlisted in the Marines, this might have been the beginning of something.

“I won the first round of it but I got beat out by some big titties,” Hancock said. “You know, I shouldn’t say that –  she could sing pretty good, too – but I was going away for four years and everybody else wasn’t. I’m sure they didn’t want to mess with that, so I ended up not winning that contest. But that’s good because that probably would have set me up for that Nashville business and who knows where I’d be by now. I might be further along than I am, but I doubt it. Those Nashville boys, they mess with your head.”

After the Marines, Hancock bounced around for a couple of years, going from job to job, but he always found himself back in Texas juke joints, guitar in hand.

“You go to a bar and you ask if he don’t mind you playing,” Hancock said. “If he likes your playing, then he’ll let you play for the customers, and if the customers like it, they might give you a little tip money. But the bars, they got food in ‘em, so if you are starving, you can always go the buffet on Sunday and play that gig and get free drinks and food and have a good old time. I did that for years.”

Then he took a stab at Nashville. The town was rough on him. He found himself singing in the streets and sometimes sleeping under bridges. His brief encounters with the music industry itself convinced him to give it up.

“It’s not like going over to your friend’s house to play guitar on his porch for him and his buddies,” Hancock recalled in an interview a few years ago. “It’s more like going over to some rich guy’s house and the minute you get there he shoots you down in front of everybody, and kicks you out. That was Nashville, in a nutshell, for me.”

He lived for a while in housing projects in Dallas and eventually started playing again. He went to Austin, not with any large musical ambitions, but with at least some notion that he had no choice but to keep singing. Then one fateful day in 1992 he was doing his juke joint thing – playing for food – when in walked outlaw country legend Joe Ely.

“I was eating a hamburger and playing some songs and Joe Ely walked in, and he played me a couple of his, and that is how I got to know him,” Hancock said. “Kind of sounds like something out of a book, don’t it? I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Ely was helping put together one of the strangest, truest, and most unlikely Texas exports to ever come along – a musical called Chippy: Diaries of a West Texas Hooker. The musical was based on the real diaries of a dead prostitute and was written by and featured songs from what was then known as the “Lubbock Mob” – Ely and friend Terry Allen, Jo Harvey Allen, Robert Earl Keen, and Butch Hancock.

Wayne Hancock got the part of the jukebox. The show toured, with great success, all over the country, including a performance at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

“It was about this woman that kept this diary about all the men she’d been with, and they made a big old play out of it, where they brought in 30 inches of Lubbock dirt to the stage and it was just a big old production, you know,” Hancock said. “It was cool. My part was Mr. Jukebox. He’d show up in the window when things got a little bit too rough. Because there was some rape scenes and knife scenes and all kinds of stuff.”

Hancock’s song “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs” was featured in the play, and it caught the music world’s attention. The song had a throwback feel but it was also something brand new. It announced a new and big talent had arrived. “I got a real nice room with a radio and TV,” Hancock sang. “This here motel livin’ is the only life for me/And it looks like it’ll be rainin’ for quite some time/And mixed with the lightening is the glow from a neon sign…”

He cut a record for a little label that sold 22,000 copies by word-of-mouth alone, and then Ark-21 – the label founded by the Police’s Stewart Copeland – signed him to a full-fledged record deal. A few years later, he joined Bloodshot Records, and he’s been happily on the road ever since, producing a unique brand of country music that infuses hardscrabble road-going poetry with hillbilly jazz juke joint swing.

“Over the years because I got to meet so many good players, I developed kind of a taste for jazz, kind of hillbilly jazz guitar, and brought that back into the sound,” Hancock said. “It’s to where I am not trying to resurrect the past, I am trying to resurrect the future.”

It’s been classified as alternative country, whatever that means.

“I thought that was funny, because alternative country – I always thought, well, I’m country, and everybody else is alternative,” Hancock said. “But I quit calling my music country about 20 years ago because I know when people said country music they didn’t think of this kind. They think of that overproduced stuff on the radio…So I dropped the name country and started telling people we play swing. We do swing harder than anybody.”

His music sounds like a steady rolling train under Texas moonlight with a cast full of hard-living but life-loving characters aboard. There are no drums, and the lap steel guitar is featured prominently, always swinging. In addition to his own songs, long-forgotten pearls are often featured – such as “Midnight Stars and You” by the swing bandleader Ray Noble.

“That was in the movie The Shining when our hero is walking into the bar and he’s ordering a drink, that is what is playing in the background,” Hancock said. “I thought it was a beautiful song, so I went out and got the lyrics to it and recorded it. There are a lot of great songs written a long time ago and nobody is covering them, so they have been gone so long, they are brand new again.”

He does a lot of things in his own particular way. He likes to record his records in two days, if possible, and considers it a slight transgression if it takes part of a third day. He and the producer Lloyd Maines – known for his spare and perfect touch – have teamed on several records, including last year’s Viper of Melody.

His music is of the road. He has been known to play up to 275 dates a year. He and his outfit travel by van, and they tend to go the back roads.

“I drive my own miles, and I like driving my own miles,” Hancock said. “I like being able to get out of the car anyplace I want to. With a big old bus, everything is limited….best of all is I cannot afford a bus on my salary, so I drive these vans. I put 500,000 miles on my last one, no kidding.”

He has no complaint about the road. Don’t even get him started talking about his favorite roads.

“I do like Route 66 quite a bit, I guess the Lincoln Highway, whatever that road is…Also the coastal highway in California is a real pretty drive, then the Avenue of Giants in Northern California is very beautiful,” he said. “You just can’t imagine all the roads out there. I mean, it would be like putting everybody you ever loved in front of your face and telling you to pick one you really liked. There is that one drive, up 65 through Kentucky, you come to Mammoth Caves and they got the Wigwam Village No. 2, or No. 7 – it’s got teepees.”

His newest record is roads, trains, blues, and ever-present swing. “Working On Working” he wrote back during the first George Bush era, when he was out of work himself, and now it’s a perfect recession era antidote. The opening song, “Jump the Blues” properly announces itself with an opening exclamation: “I want to jump! Jump! I want to jump the blues and make the hard times swing….with the right kind of music you can do most anything.”

“You know, man, you gonna stand on stage for two or three hours, you got to be playing some good music,” Hancock said. “Music that is going to make you hit your feet every time….It’s not totally on accident I wrote those songs. The times we are living in right now are pretty hard times, and a lot of my friends are out of work. If you got good music to listen to, you can do a lot with your life. If you got good music, motivation to go out and live, then you are going to be alright. It’s a needed thing. You have to have music to get through this world.”

Wayne Hancock plays Brixton Saturday night on a bill that also features The Blasters. See brixtonsouthbay.com for ticket info, or waynehancock.com for more on his music. ER

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