Wayne Hancock expects to enjoy his return visit to Nashville much more than the time he spent here in the late 1980s. Then, just out of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Texas resident moved to Nashville “believing in a fantasy,” he says. “I’d never been [to Nashville], and I had a different picture of what it really was. I was expecting it to be a big, happy jamfest, with everyone focused on the music. And it’s not that.”
At the time, Hancock was a hard-drinking Hank Williams acolyte who didn’t care for most of the country music created during the 20-odd years of his life. Instead, he emulated pre-rock-era honky-tonk, a raw, keening style of country music free of modern polish. The Nashville business insiders he met told him he was too old-fashioned and too derivative, and that he sang through his nose with too strong of a twang. “I met all the wrong people,” he says, including “a Music Row shark who immediately told me my stuff was no good. I was basically run out of town, and I went away with an attitude.”
This time will be different. When Hancock makes his Nashville debut this Saturday at the Sutler, he comes as one of the leaders of a national hillbilly music movement that takes classic country of the ’40s and ’50s and gives it a hard-edged, driving energy and a modern wit and sensibility. Hancock’s album, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, earned a spot on many year-end Top 10 lists for its engaging, upbeat update of the roadhouse honky-tonk of Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow and Webb Pierce. Like Nashville’s BR5-49, L.A.’s Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys or Texas’ Don Walser and the Pure Texas Band, Hancock is unapologetically devoted to pre-Nashville Sound country.
“Our music sounds like country music did in the ’40s, before everything had to be so perfect, and we give it a real hard slap-bass sound that makes it jump like a rockabilly band,” Hancock says. “We don’t dress like we’re from another time; we don’t want to get tagged as retro. Lyrically, we’re dealing with today’s problems. What we’re trying to do is tie in then and now and the future. Everyone is so separated these days. Doing music like this seems to bring people together.”
Nonetheless, Hancock has faced criticism for being anachronistic in sound and in subject matterhis songs are packed with references to locomotives, juke joints, soda pop, hep cats, poor boys, hot mamas and good-time gals. A scathing L.A. Weekly review condemned Hancock for slavishly mimicking a classic sound and wielding it in cliché-ridden verse bereft of the yearning soulfulness and emotional pain of the original style he emulates.
Hancock sees it differently. “People who say juke joints and riding the rails don’t exist haven’t been in the places I’ve been,” he says. “Any neighborhood pub with a jukebox can be a juke joint, or any rundown place where a band sets up and plays for dancers. And I guarantee you there are still men out there riding the rails, piggybacking on trains to get from one place to another. It’s dangerous, but they do it. It’s the cheapest way of transportation.”
Past that, songs like “Double A Daddy” and “Big City Good Time Gal” tackle modern subjects with earthy gusto. In the former, certainly one of the few honky-tonk songs from the point of view of a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Hancock cheekily encourages his lover to fully indulge herself on their night out while he stays sober. “That’s it baby, go ahead and tie one on,” he sings. “Yeah, tilt it back momma ’til the last drops are gone. When your daddy’s at the wheel ain’t nothing ever gonna go wrong.” “Big City Good Time Gal” tells of a country boy hooking up with an urbanite who lives in a two-room flat in the 14th floor of a high-rise. “This scene ain’t nothing like the rural route,” he sings of city life. “You ain’t got to travel to go stepping out.”
As it turns out, Hancock gave up drinking a few years back. Some people can handle it, he says. Some, like himself, can’t. He wrote “Good Time Gal” in Philadelphia while playing a role in Chippy, a musical production put on by Texas tunesmiths Joe Ely and Terry Allen. Another song written during the play’s Philly run is “Ain’t Nobody’s Blues But My Own,” a swing tune complete with a joyfully dancing clarinet. In it, he tells of watching his buddies burn the town each night while he stayed in. “You can have your cheap motels and running around ’til late,” he sings, “that kind of loving is second rate.” In “Why Don’t You Leave Me Alone,” he aggressively tells his woman that while he may be a gentleman, he’s no “sensitive sissy,” and he’s not going to let her cavalierly manipulate his emotions.
There’s also a side of Hancock that doesn’t bother with defensiveness. He does what he wants to do, it’s as plain as that. To him, there’s a difference between classic, home-baked apple pie and a fried fruit pocket picked up at a drive-through window. There’s a difference between a ’56 Chevy and a ’96 Nova. To him, it’s the same difference between the music he loves and the country currently dominating the commercial airwaves.
His music evokes a classic strain of Americana, one that captures the lustiness of a hard-working couple going juke joint jumping on a weekend night, the romance of travel, the weariness of long days on the road, and the joy of seeing a neon sign blinking “vacancy.” Similarly, there’s an old-style feistiness in his lyrics rarely found today. He doesn’t worry about a man charming away his woman, as most modern country singers might. Instead, he’ll get in the guy’s face, as he does in one of the best cuts on Thunderstorms and Neon Signs: “She’s my baby, and I’ll tell you this much, you can look at my candy, but you better not touch.”
Hancock, who stopped listening to modern music when he entered the Marines, comes by his tastes honestly. When he was born, his father was 44 years old and listened almost exclusively to old country and big band swing. “Poor Boy Blues,” the oldest original song on Thunderstorms, was written when Hancock was 11 or 12. The song’s chorus is obviously derived from Hank Williams’ version of “Lovesick Blues.”
In a phone interview, Hancock spoke with the zeal of an obsessed man. He talked of the difficulty of finding a stand-up acoustic bass player with the stamina to play all night. Hancock hopes someday to alternate two members of the band on bass, so that the rhythm stays vigorous without tiring the instrumentalist. That’s an important clue to Hancock’s sound: His band is an all-string affair, without support from a drummer. Still, there’s plenty of dynamic movement and rhythm, thanks to the bass and two fiercely strummed acoustic guitars. They’re augmented by the sweet, stinging tones of a steel guitar and a vintage electric guitar.
It’s a sound Hancock has honed since returning to Texas. For a while, Nashville left such a bad taste in his mouth that he gave up music and submerged himself in drink. The Marines turned down his request to return to the corps. He worked as an auto mechanic, a city garbage collector, and a dishwasher. When a shooting occurred next door in the tenement where he resided, he accepted a ride to Austin, planning only a short visit. On his first night in town, he took a $10 job opening for veteran Texas country singer Rusty Weir. He proved good enough to gain an invitation to perform nightly.
That’s when Hancock’s turnaround began. Newly sober, he altered his traditional take on hillbilly music by adding a slap bass to give the music an energy it had previously lacked. Before long, such Austin luminaries as Joe Ely, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, blues guitarist Sue Foley and artist manager and record producer T.J. McFarland offered support.
Not everything went well, however. Hancock signed a contract with Benson and McFarland. On tour as the opening act for Asleep at the Wheel not long afterward, Hancock found himself receiving $50 a night with no extra expenses provided; he was forced to sleep on the band’s bus nightly because he couldn’t afford a room. During this time, he met young blues guitarist Sue Foley, who had more business savvy. She helped free him from the contract with one letter from a lawyer.
Meanwhile, Hancock recorded demos for Elektra and drew interest from Warner Bros. in Nashville. Both deals fell through, because of Hancock’s refusal to change his sound. Joe Ely, whom Hancock had never heard of when the two met one night after a show, invited Hancock to take part in the Chippy production. He accepted a role originally written for Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
Then came Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, released on DejaDisc, an independent label in Texas. Nowadays, Hancock deals more with wild acceptance than with dismissive rejection. “It seems to be working,” he says. “I think a lot of it has to do with the sound and the upbeat songs. Me being an ex-alcoholic, I used to get very depressed. To get out of that depression I’d write upbeat songs. Bob Wills told his band members to never let him hear them singing a sad song. Even if the subject is sad, sing it with a smile on your face. I love that. I may have just lost everything, but I’ve got a smile. That’s the kind of spirit I want my songs to have.”
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