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Comik Debris

Interviewed by DJ Johnson

The country music charts depress the hell out of Wayne "The Train" Hancock. They tell him what he's known all along, that Nashville's still got the public confused as to what is and what isn't country music. The pretty boy circuit continues to crank out pop tunes decorated with stereotypical country images and the public continues to buy into the lie. Ol' Hank Williams would not have been impressed, and neither is Hancock.

Nashville had their chance with The Train, and they blew it. Hancock now lives in Austin, Texas, a musical melting pot that has produced artists as diverse as The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Joe Ely, and Teisco Del Rey. Born and raised in Northeast Texas, Hancock's heart never strays far from the great state, even when his tours send him far afield. Not one to stuff a feeling or mince a word, he's drawn a deep line in the sand between Texas and Nashville. The very subject of Nashville is distasteful to him. The flip-side of the Nashville hat-band coin is the movement, which features talented, roots-country artists like Kelly Willis, Robbie Fulks, and, of course, Wayne "The Train" Hancock.

Where ever the movement leads, one could expect to find Hancock at the front of the train. The success of his first album, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, can be accredited to three factors: outstanding songwriting chops, a band that would make ol' Hank smile, and pure, simple, country honesty. After all, Hancock has walked the walk, having travelled extensively in Texas by flashing the thumb, hopping the freight or simply wearing out his boots.

The Train's second release, That's What Daddy Wants, marks a personal turning point. Newly sober and determined to stay that way, Hancock has seen immediate improvement in both his love life and his musical career. Now recording for Miles Copeland's Ark 21 label, Hancock enjoys the benefits of major label distribution and promotion and finds himself on stages in places he never even heard of before. Seems they've heard of him, however. As the search for the real country music intensifies, more and more people are catching The Train.

Cosmik: How can such an honest, wheat fields and honky-tonks, train-hoppin', heartfelt country sound that has a little New Orleans for flavor come from a college town in Texas?

Hancock: Well, I don't know. Actually, I'm not from Austin, originally. I'm from the oil fields of Northeast Texas, around Kilgore [pictured]. That's where I spent life from 12 on up to 25 or so. That's where I got introduced to Hank Williams and the blues and everything else.

Cosmik: How did you end up in Austin?

Hancock: After years of drifting around aimlessly, I did a six-year hitch in the Marines. I got out and did the traditional pilgrimage to Nashville, and I found out real fast that wasn't it, you know? I drifted all over the place for another two years, and then by a stroke of fate I hitched a ride to Austin, and I never went back. I'd been in Dallas working in burned-out apartment units, on the Southwest side of Dallas, which is possibly the worst place you can be if you're a white man. There was a lot of tension. They're really nice folks there, but you've got to get past all that stuff.

Cosmik: You probably know your way around Texas pretty well by now.

Hancock: Pretty well. I worked down around Victoria as a grease monkey for a while. Started drinking a lot there, long before I ever made it to Austin. I don't know if there are too many places in Texas that I've never lived. Well... I've never lived in El Paso.

Cosmik: Is your entire band from the Austin talent pool?

Hancock: No... Some of 'em are, but it really depends on availability, the way I've got my band set up. It's really hard to find guys that can commit, you see. Everybody wants to be free and open. I've tried to have just the same set guys, and I've had probably over 25 people through this band.

Cosmik: How hard does that make it to keep your sound?

Hancock: Sound's easy. It's just finding the guys that can play it. I'll tell ya, it's gettin' a lot easier now because of this big swing resurgence.

Cosmik: Swing's doing it without a lot of outside help, too, just like you. Are you surprised to find your audience and reputation growing so much without a lot of industry help?

Hancock: Yeah, I am. You know, I consider myself a good songwriter and singer, but I really always just sorta figured I would probably make a good living as a songwriter. But any notoriety I get through singin' is gonna have to strictly be on me, because they ain't gonna play it on the top 40. But you never know. That may change.

Cosmik: Especially if the public taste continues to improve, at least regarding country.

Hancock: Yeah, you know... no offense to country music, but it ain't been country in YEARS. I'll give you an example of how bad it is. It's so bad in Nashville that Hank Williams' grandson has been hangin' out with ME and getting into this kind of music, because that's the kind of band he wants to have.

Cosmik: How old is he?

Hancock: 25. He's been in Nashville, and he told me "you know, they have these players that they use on everybody's records." And they said they wanted to use the same people on his, you know? So this guy has dumped 90,000 dollars of Curb Records' money and he hasn't got anything done yet. He's just a number.

Cosmik: They're too busy putting together string sections for Leann Rimes?

Hancock: That's right, you hit that right on the head. Hey, nothin' against her. She's got a great voice, she's a wonderful singer, and when she gets to be about 25 and knows what the fuck she's talkin' about, then I'll listen to her.

Cosmik: You question the authenticity? (Laughs). Does it make you kind of mad to hear the hair and hat boys singing about country life when half of them come from LA?

Hancock: Well, it ain't where you are when you write a song that makes it special; it's what's in your heart when you write it. If somebody is truly writing from the heart, I guess it doesn't matter. But some of those guys, and perhaps a lot of them, are definitely bullshit. If the guy does a good job, then I don't complain.

Cosmik: I want to read you a quote by a writer named Buddy Siegal. You may have already heard it. He said, and I quote, "Wayne Hancock is a malevolent phantom in country music, an avenging warrior out to right the wrongs done to the music. Armed with his songs and his words, he's a bonafide HWA: Hillbilly With Attitude. His music is hard, uncompromising, country Americana and his stance is like a huge accusatory middle finger extended in the direction of Nashville."

Hancock: (Laughs) That's pretty funny. Yeah, that's about damned near on the mark. I gave up on Nashville years ago. Now here I am and I've got Hank Williams III playin' with me, playing my music my way, not Nashville music. This guy's real good, too. Right now he's in my band, but you watch out. In 10 years or so he's gonna be huge doin' it HIS way. I told him when he was stuck in Nashville with those guys telling him how his songs were gonna sound that he could move down here to Texas and I'd help him put his own band together so he can do his music the way HE wants to do it. And he will.

Cosmik: Considering what Hank Sr. meant to you, is there a little bit of reverence for the name? For the gene?

Hancock: Yeah, definitely. And besides that, I really like the guy. He can sing my songs any day. And that IS saying somethin' because I don't let just anybody sing my songs. I don't let anybody do my songs that is just doing it to make money. Kiss my ass, I'LL go make some money. If somebody does one for money, then they're not going to put any feeling into it, and it's just not going to sound right.

Cosmik: Do you think Nashville can ever come back, or is there nothing to come back to, considering there's always been a coat of gloss.

Hancock: They can come back. They're going to have to accept some facts first, and one of them is that there are people out here that do know what they're doin'. Lots of us, you know?

Cosmik: Do you think they can ever get past following the buck?

Hancock: No, I don't. But I'll tell ya one thing, we don't have to let it keep fuckin' the music up.

Cosmik: Have you noticed that the crowds of line dancers surrounding those bands are filled with designer cowboy hats, touristy belt buckles and boots that look like they were bought at the Nashville airport? "Be a real cowboy!"

Hancock: Yeah, but they're a dying breed, thank goodness.

Cosmik: What's your typical fan like? Do you get to talk to them at the shows?

Hancock: The people that go to my shows are different. We get a lot of rockabillies, a lot of the leather jacket crowd. But then we get a lot of what I guess you'd call the normal people. They're not doing the swing thing, not slickin' back their hair, they're just there to hear your music. They can't turn on the radio and hear a band that sounds different from the next one, let alone name off the lead players, you know? But usually when I'm playin', people wanna know who's playing lead guitar. Always.

Cosmik: Oh yeah, one of the first things I want to know is who is playing that incredible steel guitar. I know it's Chris Miller on the album.

Hancock: Chris Miller's not playing with me anymore, Jeremy Wakefield is.

Cosmik: How does he stack up to Chris, if I can ask such an unfair question?

Hancock: Chris is a wonderful player. Jeremy is a genius. He's incorporated the Hawaiian sound, very much like Jerry Byrd, but he's younger. Jerry Byrd was really cool, but he was more laid back. Jeremy Wakefield is more like Speedy West fused with Jerry Byrd. And a little bit of Noel Boggs. Chris was one of the first real good steel players I'd ever played with, and he toured with me for two or three years. Then he and his wife decided he should stay home for awhile. I miss Chris. He's a hell of a player. Jeremy Wakefield came in, and after having Chris in the band all that time, I knew the next guy was going to have to be good. We just got lucky. He's one of those guys that makes the hair on the back of your neck and your arms stand up when he plays. He's a real guy, too, he's not plastic. Great guy for getting along with. When he's not on the road with us he paints sets for Disney and does cartoons. The reason he's not on this tour is because he bought a new house and he needed to fix it up, so I gave him a month off.

Cosmik: So what do you do in your live shows now?

Hancock: Anything and everything I can get away with.

Cosmik: Ah, you're doing damage control.

Hancock: Yeah, man. Well, I do a broad range of stuff. We usually start out with a little Ernest Tubb, then we go into a whole thing of jump blues. We've started going to hard core Memphis rock and roll and big band, and a lot of swing. I don't know what to call my music, though. For now I'm just calling it "juke joint swing." Nobody can seem to categorize it for me.

Cosmik: I read a great description of it just the other day, and now it totally escapes me...

Hancock: It wasn't "hyperkinetic swing," was it?

Cosmik: .... No.

Hancock: THANK you. I didn't like that one. You know, we just play. We do put a lot into it, though. Whatever it is, while you're listenin' to that music, I'm makin' all my guys play. Here's what I do... I grew up diggin' Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, everybody. Glenn Miller, too. You name it, I dug it, with the exception of KISS. But all my life I've been tryin' to find that "chunk" sound, you know? The one that makes the guitar go "chunk chunk chunk." The way I found it, finally, was I was watchin' this band called High Noon play, and the guy was slappin' the hell out of his bass. And they didn't have drums. That's where it came from, that stand-up bass. Then I was playin' one time in Austin, doin' honky-tonk, and I was playin' with a gentleman named Paul Skelton, who is my musical guru. Paul did some really weird thing on the guitar and I said "man, why did you do that?" He said "'cos it's silly, and when it's silly, people look, and when they look it means you've got their attention."

Cosmik: And they're already looking because you're putting so much into it.

Hancock: But I do everthing like it's all or nothin', you know? Might as well do it like that with music, too. You turn on the radio and you hear one good song, and you wish ALL of 'em could be like that, because if they were, you wouldn't be jumpin' stations. So I try to make every song as good as the last one, even when it's a cover, like "Stormy Weather." I'll flat out guarantee you you ain't never heard anybody do that like we do it.

Cosmik: You got THAT right. I also love that you closed the album with a song by The Clash, "Brand New Cadillac".

Hancock: I'd never heard the song before. Miles Copeland suggested it. I'd only heard Brian Setzer do it. So I listened to the song a couple times, and then we went into the studio the next day and just cut the damned thing. In fact, we cut most of the songs in the first two days.

Cosmik: What amazed me wasn't just that it set well in country surroundings, but also the fact that you and the band totally nailed the energy and spirit of the song.

Hancock: Well, you know how we do that, right? The only way to record is live. Not necessarily meaning there's always an audience there, but we just plug in all at once and everybody goes. That way, the energy's there, the grooves are there.

Cosmik: But you do the vocals later?

Hancock: No, we do it all at the same time. You know "Johnson City?" One take.

Cosmik: No way! For everything?

Hancock: One take. I did this whole thing in three days, not because I wanted to set some kind of a crazy ass record or be a smart ass or anything. I did it in three days because that was all that we had. Besides, everybody said I couldn't do it, and I hate it when people tell me I can't do nothin', you know?

Cosmik: With Thunderstorms and Neon Signs [to hear title track click here], you could pick out different genres and elements along the way from song to song. I think that the music on the new album is, if anything, harder to peg down and categorize. Are the influences and elements melting down into one composite thing now, or is it more about a band having been together longer and being able to do more?

Hancock: It's partly that, but everybody in my band is just fuckin' crazy. I mean, look at all of us, man! I've got Sean Mencher from Maine, I've got Jeremy Wakefield from LA... We're all greasers, except for one guy, or I guess "hepcat" is a better word for it, but we're all musicians. The guys that I have play with me on my stage, they always play under the condition that there are no arrangement. "Thunderstorms" has a certain set arrangement, a few others have strong arrangements, but NONE of them have to be played exactly that way on stage. Ever. What you're hearing on the album, with the exception of a couple trumpet blasts in a few songs, everything else was off the sleeve.

Cosmik: Are you saying you just showed them the basic structure of the song and everybody just played? Studio AND live?

Hancock: Yeah. We just walked in and started playin'. Live, I'm a band leader, see, and I've got the same set of rules that Bob Wills had with his guys. When we play, everybody looks at me. Never take your eyes off the bandleader when it comes around to solo time. When it's time for solos, you'll see 'em look up. Even the bass player, because I call bass leads, too. If ya ain't lookin' when I call you, you're in a world of shit, because I may not let you play for another two or three songs. I may give your lead to someone else. So it's not about who can be the coolest, or the baddest-ass guitar player. These guys are all pros, but they're playin' from the heart. That's the only way to do it. But you know, if I had to stand there and play the same shit night after night, I'd get bored after a while.

Cosmik: I'm always fascinated by music that FEELS good and happy, but is really about sad things. "87 Southbound" seems like that to me. The music is bouncy and happy, but the story is frustrating.

Hancock: That was a true summary. I guess everybody is different, but in all my relationships that didn't work out, I just wound up gettin' my shit together and leavin', you know? Most of the time, I didn't have a car, because I hadn't had much money since I'd been on my own, so a lot of times I was hitchhiking or takin' buses. When I write a song like "87 Southbound" or "Johnson City," I write 'em so if you're walking, you can walk in step to 'em. Walkin' music. Step it out. I always go for walks when things get down on my mind.

Cosmik: The Forrest Gump ethic of just keep going?

Hancock: Yeah, keep going. All my songs have to be upbeat to a certain degree. Even the sad ones have to have some kind of an upbeat side to them. Somebody once told me "if you're gonna write a song about something, you might as well try to help somebody out." Life goes on, you know? If you can get through this, everything's gonna be okay.

Cosmik: Then "Johnson City" is a different kind of song. It's breezy and visual, and it's like blues on the surface, but kind of assured. Was that a different frame of mind for you?

Hancock: Well, no. I was actually going through Johnson City on my way back from Terra Lingua, this ghost town in Texas. We were comin' back from there, and I was dating this blues singer named Sue Foley, and we were quite together at that time. We were drivin' through Johnson City and I wrote that song for her. It was one of those songs where... Well, how many times you been sittin' around your house on a Saturday and said to yourself "hell, I just wanna GO somewhere"? You get up, put 15 or 20 bucks worth of gas in your cruiser, get on the road and drive for hours. And you crank your music on, the woman you love beside you, the wind in your hair, and things are goin' your way. It's happenin'. I love driving. To me, there's a lot of romanticism in being on the road. There's a lot to be said for the people who are out there doing the road warrior thing.

Cosmik: Does that romanticism, for you, extend to the cars themselves?

Hancock: Yeah, I really like anything from 1968 on back. All the new cars, I can't stand 'em.

Cosmik: Isn't that a Continental on the cover of That's What Daddy Wants?

Hancock: Yeah, a newer one. Like 60s.

Cosmik: (Laughs) See, to me, that's not new. To me that's cause for a woody.

Hancock: (Laughs) My father was in the big war, World War II. My parents are out of the 40s. I'm the last of the kids to be born. My dad always told me about the 1940s, and [about cars], so yeah, I love old cars. For one reason, they look different, and for two, if you get in a wreck they'll save your life.

Cosmik: When I first heard your Thunderstorms and Neon Signs album, I was struck by the imagery. To me, the album as a whole was like a beautiful painting of country life as it used to be. Does that life still exist outside of your songs?

Hancock: Yeah, it does. I pretty much spend my life in motels in little towns, sittin' inside while it storms outside, like (in the title song). On this tour, when we head home, we're gonna make it a point to go down (highway) 66.

Cosmik: Really? Back to the roots, huh?

Hancock: They have some of those really cool big old hotels and all that. You know, money's great, and I'm beginning to make a little bit now, but it really doesn't matter because it's just so much fun.

Cosmik: We all grew up hearing Hank and Lefty singing about honky-tonks in tiny towns that aren't even on the map, where the honky-tonk is barely the size of a small house, all dilapidated and rotting from the inside out.

Hancock: And they're still out there.

Cosmik: Really? Nashville wants us to think a honky-tonk is a big palace with line dancers and 70 imported beers on tap.

Hancock: And Nashville wants you to think that Garth Brooks is really the great Hank Williams. (Laughs).

Cosmik: True. So Lefty's juke joints and honky-tonks are still out there.

Hancock: Yes they are. I'll give you an example. There's a press picture of me sittin' on a bench, and it's the one at Leon's Country Store. It's two halves: the right half is a grocery store, and the left half is a juke joint. We played the joint, and it was about the size of a living room, maybe about five feet longer. And there's a bar in the store.

Cosmik: That place is probably packed shoulder to shoulder, too.

Hancock: Oh God yeah. First time we played there we pulled about 200, maybe, and about that many this time, too, and in that place, that IS shoulder to shoulder.

Cosmik: What's the energy like in a place like that?

Hancock: Crazy, man. You ever seen that hillbilly guy, Hasil Adkins? It's like that. It's not to the point where it's all white trash, you know. A lot of people think of hillbillies, and they think of 'em shootin' and [fighting]. Fights DO break out, but I ain't ever seen one. These people are cattle ranchers and mechanics, and they come in here after work. The whole damn town ain't but a block long. What can you say about a town that has one church, two liquor stores and a graveyard all in the same block?

Cosmik: So these people are probably the most grateful audience in the world because it's a rare chance to let their hair down.

Hancock: Yeah, and these cats don't ever go to Austin, man. It's only 38 miles to Austin, but they don't go there because they can't afford it. They'd rather buy beer. Why pay ten dollars [to see a concert] when you can just put it on a jukebox? So then I wonder why they'd want to bring a band in there, but they do it because they really don't pay anything. We don't do it for the money. If I did it for the money, I'd be in Nashville, man, which is my whole point. We all do this because we all believe in it, and I'll be doing it until I'm fuckin' dead.

Cosmik: That's something I think has been lost in a lot of music scenes, for the sake of money. Very few people will go out of their way to play just for the pure joy of playing.

Hancock: As long as I can support my (soon-to-be) wife and pay my band without ever having to compromise anything. Which means I can just kiss anything that has to do with Nashville goodbye, which is fine. I don't give a shit. Somebody asked me the other day why I'd said I'd never let Garth Brooks sing one of my songs. They said "WHY? He sells a quarter of a billion dollars," or whatever. I said "well, that's exactly it. You just told me how much money he makes, but you didn't tell me nothin' about how he sounds. Nobody ever says anything about how he sounds. They just talk about how he drives around in his Rolls, so I gather from what ya'all are tellin' me he ain't worth a shit. I don't want him to do my song, because what I got then is a hundred thousand dollars, maybe, and a whole lot of people who don't like me anymore because I let 'em down." I don't need it. I'm just starting to make good money, I'm comfortable... I don't [live in] no mansion, but my girlfriend owns the house I live in and we make our bills and live like we want to live. I'm havin' fun and doin' what I like to do. And hell, man, ain't that what it's all about? If this is as bad as it gets, well, I'm set.

(C) - DJ Johnson 1998

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