James Hand – A long time coming
This is the stuff honky-tonk legends are made of.
For 25 years, James Hand, 45, has been playing at the Tokio Store, the honky-tonk owned by his brother Bimbo in their hometown of Tokio, Texas, a remote rural burg just north of Waco. Since the early ’70s he has been performing his songs to the Tokyo Store regulars, polishing the tunes to a bright shine, and along with them, he has cultivated a voice that is absolutely haunted by the souls of the great performers of the genre.
In performance, he is chilling. Tall, thin (his nickname since childhood is Slim) and perfectly at home in his cowboy hat, Hand is the very image of the classic honky-tonk artist; his earthen face and rich lyrics reveal a life lived hard. Sit a few feet back from the stage and he’s the very image of Hank Williams, whose pure, quavering tenor Hand’s voice most closely resembles.
Now, with the help of his longtime friend and local honky-tonk mainstay Tommy Alverson, Hand has an album, his first ever. It’s called Shadows Where The Magic Was (Texas Independent’s Records). After repeated listenings, it hard to believe this was Hand’s first time in a studio, or Alverson’s first time producing a record not his own. The question is, what took so long?
“I’ve just got old enough now to trying to get moving,” says Hand, who seems overwhelmed by the support his music has received. “I’ve done everything a fella oughta do and a lot of things I shouldn’t do, and I felt like if I had any kind of talent at all, it was in music. It means a lot to me; whenever I sing, my heart’s out there, it’s not just a voice hollering. I don’t know how to explain….It may not be the best anyone else can do, it but it certainly is the best I can do.”
In this, his first interview ever, Hand forces himself to overcome his natural shyness (although performing onstage “don’t bother me a bit”) to talk to a stranger about the intensely personal process of songwriting.
“I don’t feel like I write them,” he says. “I feel like I hold a pen and someone else writes them. And a lot of them I don’t even write the words down to because I can’t read my writing anyway. A lot of songs come quick; I’m not a consignment writer, but a fella my age can pull enough out of life to get some kind of song.”
And what a life it must have been, and continues to be. When I point out that a lot of the songs on the disc are about the pain of loneliness and the bitterness of heartbreak — such as the anguished sparseness of “My Heart’s Been Cheatin’ On Me” and the tormented title song — Hand’s voice goes low. “You put me on the spot there. Sometimes…well, it’s a blessing or a curse to be able to vent it in a way that it don’t hurt anybody and keeps me from losing my mind, and that’s about as honest as I can be….I feel like if a fella’s going to stand up in front of folks and sing, sing ’em something they can understand. And everybody’s been hurt.”
But some of the tunes vibrate with joy, too, such as the wry innuendo of “Everybody Got It But Me” and the swinging “The Banks Of The Brazos”. The evocative “Over There That’s Frank” is a jukebox hit waiting for George Jones to cover it. Great songs, but that voice — no one has sounded so authentically like Hank Sr. since Hank himself.
“I’m untutored in the music business,” says Hand. “I don’t know how to read music at all. And I feel like anybody who opens their mouth and sings from the heart is going to sound like somebody from that [Hank Williams] era, because so many performers then were unschooled….If a fella’s going to sound like something it’s better to sound like something from 40 years ago than to sound like something from now. I’m not knocking anybody now, but they all do seem to sound the same and to have the same style.”
Hand’s goals for Shadows are simple: “I’d like for a major artist to pick up one of the songs,” he says. “I know I ain’t no Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson, but if they’d just pick up one of the songs and get it out on a record for where I could do something for my momma and my daddy and my family, that would be the world’s greatest pleasure for me. I hate to trade it off on a money thing, but that’s what it amounts to right now. I pray for it every night.”