Wayne Hancock – Hank done it this way
As we round another bend, the dark of night and the serenity of the Central Texas countryside is abruptly disturbed. Pulsing red lights encircle an 18-wheeler, flipped like a centipede on the side of the road, at least four Johnny Laws scurrying about the carcass. Wayne Hancock doesn’t even take his foot off the gas. Slowing down would interrupt the rhythm of the road. Slowing down risks missing the next crescendo.
It is especially important to keep moving tonight. Just three hours ago Hancock finished recording his fourth album, A-Town Blues, due out in September, his first since leaving Ark 21 in favor of Bloodshot Records. After burning a CD of thirteen unmastered cuts, Hancock is road-testing it, making sure that the rhythm of his music matches the rhythm of the Texas highway.
For the first time since childhood I am spellbound by the way music aligns itself with the road: the chop of the windshield wipers, the clicks of a turn signal, the clunks of expansion joints passing under the tires, and yes, the sight of a wreck on the highway perhaps coinciding with the last line of Hancock’s new song “Miller, Jack, And Mad Dog”: “So do yourself a favor/Don’t go driving while you’re high.”
“We’re in the church of the road,” Hancock says in his pinched East Texas drawl, taking a heavy drag on the joint we’ve been working on. “When you’re out in the desert and you blow a tire you’ll be amazed what leaps and bounds of faith come your way.
“I’ve broken down on my way to shows and gotten there early. I was going through Vega, Texas, and my generator goes down and I pulled in the first place I see which is the Vega Motel on Route 66 and at 4:00 in the morning there’s a guy behind the desk. There’s never a guy at 4:00 in the morning so I figure he’s an insomniac.
“We get up the next day and it turns out there’s an auto parts store on either side of that motel and a garage in both of them. We got there two hours early. The next time I go through town I say, ‘Hey, let’s go through Vega. They got a cool motel there.’ The place is deserted and looks like it’s been closed for thirty years. The auto parts stores were closed too. I’ve got lots of stories like that.”
Hancock’s van serves as combination bedroom/office/touring vehicle. Hawaiian shirts, cowboy boots and candy wrappers mingle with CDs, books and record contracts. And then there is Hancock, as much a collection of mismatched traits as his conveyance — the mischievous face of a 12-year-old speaking with the dusty voice of a Depression-era octogenarian, his attire salvaged from a production of South Pacific. Nonetheless, nothing about Hancock comes off as being affected.
“One time I was riding along and I was really down about something,” Hancock continues. “It was probably just my conscience — but I heard this voice like Frank Sinatra talking to me. He says, ‘Listen kid, this is nothing. Someday you’ll be looking back at this and laugh ’cause it’ll be funny.’
“When I was a kid I used to get drunk and try to talk to Hank Williams. You know, playing Hank Williams records at four in the morning in East Texas when I was 13 years old and drinking Jack Daniels and listening to Hank Williams and trying to communicate with him. ‘Cause he was the only guy that I understood.
“But when I was a kid, a singer would come out and have one good song and then rest of them would suck. I remember I said to myself, ‘One of these days I’ve got to save country music ’cause this is awful.’ Then I forgot about it for many years.”
“I sound like Hank Williams.”
Two days earlier Hancock is chuckling and shaking his head as he listens to the first take of “Sands Of Time” in the control room of Cedar Creek Studio in South Austin. Hancock seems a bit on edge. He fidgets as he listens, and his right hand, which shakes involuntarily — Hancock attributes this to his father’s involvement in nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll — increases its tempo. He buries it deep in his pocket.
While Hancock’s plainspoken self-comparison to the Drifting Cowboy piques my interest, the musicians are unfazed. As the day progresses I understand why.
“Scrap that…sounds like Elvis. I hate Elvis,” he says of another cut.
Another: “No…sounds like Johnny Cash.”
Another: “Did that sound like Frank Sinatra?”