Writing about music offers many rewards, but seldom does it present an opportunity for a bona fide quest. Questing is something of a lost art as it is -- especially now, when it's not even necessary to leave the house for groceries. But for someone who must have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail at least 100 times in his youth, the hope of one day setting off in pursuit of an elusive, faraway quarry was never terribly distant. You could even say going on a quest was always a part of my ... my ... Idiom, sir?
This particular quest has its genesis a couple of months back, when local indie label Cold Spring Records released Evil Things, an absolute gem of a country album. Its author, James Hand, surfaces occasionally to play the Broken Spoke ("He's got that Hank Williams-type charisma," Spoke owner James White says. "When I see him up on the bandstand, he reminds me of Hank"), but otherwise his profile is that of your average CIA operative. A call to the label turns up a phone number, plus the information that Hand is not actively promoting the record. In fact, says label publicist Jennifer McGuire, he's pretty much disowned Evil Things altogether. Dave Biller, who produced the album, uses the word "disappointment" rather than "disowned."
"I got the impression he wanted it to be more of a rockin' kind of thing," says Biller. "But I thought the songs were very country."
Calls are placed to the Hand residence somewhere within the 254 area code. The first goes something like this:
"Is James Hand there?"
A couple of days pass, then another call:
"Can I speak to James Hand, please?"
"Uhhh ... the country singer?"
"He's not here."
This time, I'm able to leave a message. A few more days go by, but there's no word from Hand. Another call:
"Is James Hand there?"
"Oh, is this the guy from the paper? I still haven't seen him."
Obviously, the Southwestern Bell approach isn't working. It rapidly becomes clear I must track down Hand in person, only without the first clue where to start looking. Thinking back a couple of years, I remember then-Cold Spring A&R man John Riedie mentioning Hand lives in Tokio. It's a start, at least. DeLorme's Texas Atlas & Gazetteer reveals Tokio to lie on U.S. Highway 82/380 between Brownfield and Plains in far, far, far West Texas. Uh-oh. What have I gotten myself into?
Casting about for some sort of plan, it dawns on me to look in the phone book, which reveals area code 254 to be in the southern half of the old 817 Fort Worth/Waco region. A call to Riedie confirms the other Tokio is indeed located a few miles outside of West, itself about 15 minutes north of Waco. Apparently, this Tokio was removed from the map around World War II and never found its way back on.
A rental car is procured, and after a few loose ends at the Chronicle are tied up, the quest is under way. The journey north is uneventful; accustomed to my lumbering 1988 F-150 pickup, which rattles like a crapshooter at high speeds, I struggle to keep the zippy 2000 Chevrolet Cavalier's speedometer under 80. Thankfully, the state troopers are off somewhere enjoying the radiant Monday-afternoon sunshine.
An hour and a half after departing Austin, I exit I-35 at FM 2118, the main east-west thoroughfare of "The Czech Point of Central Texas," known to census-takers and rural-route deliverers as West, population 2,515. Home of the 1962 girls' AA basketball and 1999 boys' AAA baseball state champions, West takes its Central European heritage seriously; the name of most local business establishments -- eateries, antique shops, even glass-cutting -- contains some sort of Czech reference. There's Kolacek's Kolace Kitchen, the Nemecek Brothers Meat Market, and Czech Point Collectibles, to name a few.
The Czech Stop gas station/convenience store sits right off the highway, and also specializes in various baked goods. Numerous publicity stills, from Reba McEntire and Martina McBride to the Picket Line Coyotes and Ted Roddy's Tearjoint Troubadors, line the upper reaches of the walls; a row of booths by the window allows locals and travelers to take a load off while chowing down on their kolaches and whatnot. After a much-needed trip to the lavatory, I head to the counter for even more-needed Camel filters.
"You look really young," says the clerk. "Do you get carded a lot?"
I ask her if she knows James Hand.
"You mean Slim? The singer?"
"I know who he is. He's out at Wolf's bar sometimes. Turn right at the stop sign, go past the railroad tracks, and it's on the corner on your right."
Wolf's is right where she said it is, but Hand is nowhere to be found. A handful of townies commiserate at the bar, studiously ignoring the stranger in the Hole in the Wall T-shirt. I decide not to bother them and head out sightseeing instead, taking in the whistle-stop railroad depot, the cotton mill on the south edge of downtown, and the fertilizer plant near the Knights of Columbus meeting hall. A pause for dinner at Prida's Czech-American Restaurant across from the depot brings a stroke of luck: Neither of the young waitresses is exactly sure where Tokio is, but one calls her mom to get directions while I feast on sauerkraut, sausage, rice-stuffed cabbage rolls, and tangy Czech fries.
Tokio is a wide spot in the road a few miles west of West on FM 1858; take a right at the auction barn. Actually, the "town" consists of a few farms and the 100-year-old Tokio Store. Hand isn't here either, but the portly Ralph and Ralph's mother Georgie are, and they're well-acquainted with "Slim."
"He comes in here about two or three times a week," says Ralph. "He'll drink a beer or two and sometimes get a six pack to go."
He says he saw Hand's parents, who live with their son down the road a piece, in town earlier today, and that James is a "real nice guy. I don't guess he's ever met a stranger." Ralph calls out to the Hand place, but the line is busy. It's getting late, so I retire to the Every Day Inn on the outskirts of Waco for the night.
Up and at 'em Tuesday; first stop, Wolf's. Proprietor Joe Wolf is sitting alone at the bar watching the midday news. Yes, he knows Hand, "ever since he was a little kid." Wolf says he used to have a place where young Hand would come in and sing Hank Williams songs, and tells me about a club where the Bouldin used car lot is now that Hand worked at for about a decade. His brother was even on Slim's football team at West High.
"He knows him a lot better than I do, but he's playing golf in Austin today," Wolf says, adding, "I haven't seen [Hand] in about six weeks."
After lunch at the Czech Stop, I cross the highway to take a picture of the West city limits sign. On a whim, I duck into the nearby beer joint Shadowland. A sign over the bar says "Everybody looks good at Shadowland," and two guys are busy installing a new air conditioner. The stocky older one, Bud Craig, says Hand is a "helluva good guy" and that if I wait about 30 minutes, "this fella'll be here who knows him real well." The younger guy turns out to be Shadowland owner Aubrey Gerik, who won the bar in a poker game.
Sure enough, half an hour later, scrub-clad Buck walks in. Buck has known Hand since he was "this tall" (mid-thigh).
"I went to all three of his weddings," he laughs, "but I wasn't ever the best man."
He plays a couple of songs off Hand's first CD, Shadows Where the Magic Was -- also a staple of the Wolf's and Tokio Store jukeboxes -- and explains the origins of the singer's nickname: "He's just always been skinny, I guess." A bit nonplussed that I'd come all this way virtually unannounced ("You must be desperate for something to write about"), Buck makes a quick phone call to the Hands. Twenty minutes later, who should stride through the door but Slim his own self, trailed by his bull-riding son Tracer. After a bit of small talk about wrestling -- Hand says he tried to convince a doctor to stitch up Tracer's recent cut in the shape of "the people's eyebrow," ô la WWF superstar The Rock -- Slim agrees to sit for an interview. Mission accomplished. Quest complete.
Austin Chronicle: Tell me about the new album.
James Hand: I love it. I love everybody on it. I think everybody was the greatest thing in the world.
AC: You said earlier it wasn't finished?
JH: I had some songs written that I wanted to put on it that I didn't get a chance to.
AC: Have you lived here your whole life?
JH: Not yet. So far.
AC: Did you always want to be a country singer?
JH: Ever since I was a kid.
AC: When did you get started?
JH: When I was about 13.
AC: Do you mostly just play around here?
JH: Yeah, I play here. I played at the Shadowland last Saturday night. There's people that say I don't want to play anywhere else; that's not true. To me, I don't see no sense in playing Pocatello, Idaho, where nobody knows who you are, just to say I've been on the road. Hell, I drove a truck for most of my life, I've been everywhere. Why go somewhere where nobody knows you? That's why I signed a record deal with Cold Spring, so I can get some distribution, which to them meant John Riedie sending me to Portland, Oregon, with two CDs in my pocket, selling 'em, supplying the van, supplying the way there, supplying everything, and him knocking 15% off the top.
AC: Would you rather take care of all that yourself?
JH: No. I don't know how to do that. People say that you're lazy if you don't run your own show. I know how to sing and I know how to play, and I think I know how to write the songs. I don't know how to do all that other behind-the-scenes stuff any more than one of those people don't know how to stand up in front of a microphone and give their soul up every time they sing a song. I'm so disappointed at the way things have gone, but even at the worst of it, the only time I'm comfortable, when I'm not so scared and lonesome, is when I'm singing. Then I'm singing about being scared and lonesome, so I guess it don't matter. What I do when I'm alone most of the time -- can't sleep at night -- I just walk through the woods thinking about things.
AC: It seems like your songs are pretty autobiographical.
JH: Yeah, I don't see how a fella can write about something he ain't never done. How do you sing a song you don't believe in?
AC: Do the songs come pretty naturally to you?
JH: Yeah, yeah.
AC: Have they always?
JH: Mmm-hmm. I wrote one the other day called "What We've Done to Us," like, "It ain't what I've done to you, it's not what you've done to me, it's what we've done to us." And I wrote one, I don't know, yesterday or something, about "Livin for You Is Killin' Me." You take a fella who gets up every day with the birds singing and the sun shining, a guy who kisses his wife goodbye and goes to work. I don't see him writing a song like that. People say I love misery. I don't love misery. I love a girl that don't love me.
AC: Would you say you've had a hard life?
JH: I'd say I've made it hard on myself.
AC: In what way?
JH: In a way that I wouldn't want to blame anybody else for.
AC: Have you had hard times with women?
JH: I don't want to get off into that.
AC: What makes you happy?
JH: I don't know. I like the outdoors a lot. I like animals. When I was a kid, I was always out in the woods, and still am. It's where I go to try to find answers for things that I've done that I shouldn't have done.
AC: What do you think about when you're out in the woods?
JH: If I've ever been good enough, for my family, or how I failed at things and why I hold on to what I ought to let go, and why I let go of what I oughta hold on to. And failure. I think of failure a lot. I wrote a poem one time, "Away into the forest I'm longing to be, where the shadows are deepest and no one can see." Why am I afraid, you know. Like when I'm in the public and I'm singing, I'm always afraid people will make fun of you or something and say that you ain't no good or you're never gonna be nothin', or they call you stupid. I hate that. When I'm in the woods, I'm pretty much in control of it then, or when I'm singing, I'm in control. People ain't gonna come see you play and sing if they're gonna make fun of you. I'm insecure, I guess. Really insecure.
AC: What was it like growing up around here?
JH: I had a wonderful childhood. My family, we're a very close family. I went to high school here at West, know everybody in town. My whole life is right here.
AC: Was it ever important to you to be a big star?
JH: Yeah, sure. I think that anybody that ever plays wants to be a success at it. Like my son, he rides in PBR [Professional Bull Riders circuit], and they interviewed him and asked him why he did it, and he said the money. But the part they don't ever put in the interview is you start out doing something because you love it, then as you grow older, life demands that you be paid for it, or what are you gonna do?
Me, I play probably way less than any other, but the fact is, if I were a star making money, there's no obstacles that you couldn't do for your family or your friends. Money to me takes obstacles out of life's highway. You don't take those obstacles out so you can drive faster, you take those obstacles out for people that you love. It's hard to be broke and see your momma and daddy living on $950 a month. That's why I would want to be a star, to have money. Not for me. I don't give a rat's ass about me. I promise you I don't.
AC: Do you think you still could be big?
JH: I think my window of opportunity is closing pretty fast. I know that I'm a dinosaur. I can see some high-powered record producer, they look at me and look at my songs and say, "This guy's good, but he's born too late."
AC: But you think you can only do your music one way?
JH: A man feels something special for every song he writes. I don't think you could take my music and destroy it any way you did it. People, like it or not, if it's selling or not; people have the basic human emotions, they love, they hate, they love, they hate. You can't deny how you feel in your own heart. Now whether you like to hear Metallica sing about a broken heart, or you like to hear me sing about a broken heart, eventually, somewhere back down the line before all the music, the amplifiers, the instrumentation, the contracts, the people that have anything to do with the music, somebody had to sit down somewhere all alone and say, "God, why are you against me? What have I done? What can I do to ease the pain?" and scribble something down on a piece of paper.
You start that when you're about 12 or 13 years old, and it's the only outlet you have from losing your mind. Then, you get to be 47 years old and you wonder why I didn't get a job like everybody else, why I didn't do something with my life other than chasing a dream until it led me off the edge of a cliff. So when I say I sing because I got to, it's not because somebody's got a gun pointed at my head, it's cause that's what God put in me, and I think it would be a terrible waste if, even in my death, something didn't happen to some of my songs. I just don't believe God put me on earth to be a complete failure, but then I don't believe he put me on earth to be Elvis Presley either. Who knows what a failure is? In certain people's eyes right now, I'm a complete and total waste, a failure.
AC: What about in your eyes?
JH: I think I'm probably pretty much a failure.
AC: Do you think you would have been happier if your life had turned out to be more stable?
JH: I don't know. I've never had that opportunity. Most people get in and out of relationships, it's almost like shuttin' the door, you know: "Well, that's behind you, don't worry." I don't have that chip in my mind that allows you not to worry. How do you not worry?
AC: What do you think about the idea that a lot of the best music comes from a broken heart?
JH: Like when you're happy, you want to hear happy songs. When you're sad, you want to hear sad songs. It oughta be just the opposite. If in the next instant somebody walked in and said, "Okay James, I'm gonna take care of all your debts, take care of your family, give you money to live on, all you gotta do is sing and keep writing songs," that's probably as close to heaven as I'll ever get. But you know, in an interview, you don't want, "Please let somebody read this so I can be a superstar." That's bullshit. That ain't what it's all about. Like if The New York Times called you right now, you'd go, wouldn't you?
AC: Probably, yeah.
JH: So, as a journalist, you don't want to be stuck out interviewing people like me the rest of your life, do you?
AC: I don't know. This is pretty close to what I want to do. I want to find people that nobody else is really writing about and tell their story.
JH: [laughs] You found one.
AC: I think these stories are just as important as what's in The New York Times or the big magazines.
JH: Maybe you can straighten some of it out for me and tell 'em I'm not the ogre.
AC: How did those perceptions come about?
JH: I swear to God I don't know.
AC: Folks think you're difficult?
JH: The record thing -- I'm not gonna sit here and tell you about [Shadows], how all that crazy stuff happened, because it doesn't do any good to point the finger at anybody. All it does is make me look like I'm saying sour grapes.
AC: Something tells me you're not seeing any money from it.
JH: Not a penny. My total revenue from what I sing probably since the time I'm 13 until now when I'm 47 has been less than $20,000. I bet you that would be a high estimate. People think I'm making money, but I promise you I ain't got paid for any of it. And my second CD, I guess they're selling it places. I mean, hell, I hope it sells a million copies. I just don't see it happening.
AC: Does being burned by the music business dismay you as far as making another record?
JH: No. It's sorta a Catch-22, like what you asked me a while ago about the money thing. If I were in it strictly for the money, I'd quit in a heartbeat. But how do you ask God to stop coming in my mind? As we speak right now, I've got things running in the back of my head. Don't think I don't wish I couldn't reach in and just [pull them out]. I have people tell me, "Man, [we've played it so much], we're tired of hearing your CD," and it's very humbling and very flattering. I tell 'em, "Well, if you think you're tired of hearing it, I wish I could have a lobotomy where I could get it taken out of my mind."
Lemons are sour, but people put 'em in their tea all the time. So I can't get sour toward that. I mean, I'm unknown. In the grand scheme of things, I'm completely unknown. As far as what I've done, I don't think it's as important as what I might could do. But living in obscurity is probably better than dying in glory. I don't know. I do know that when I'm singing and it's going right, it puts goosebumps on me.
AC: What kind of situation does that happen in?
JH: When you know that you're doing what you're put here on earth to do, like if you're a ditchdigger and you know at the end of the day you did a good day's work, you get goosebumps thinking, "All right, I did it. It's me." It's not if anybody's watching you or not, like a lot of times at night, I'll write a song or whatever, and I know it's good -- it's almost like God does that.
AC: Do you think it was God's plan for you to be a country singer?
JH: I think everything is God's plan one way or another. There's not a thing that any of my close friends could say about me in my mind and my heart that would ever be bad.
AC: You seem like a pretty religious guy. Are you?
JH: Yeah. I carry in my heart more than I do elsewhere, you know. I don't see how anybody can be alive and not be spiritual. You hear people say it's their higher power. Call it what you want to, I call it God. You hear people say, "I've lost him, and I've found him." I never misplaced him. I know where he his. You've gotta have a set of standards where you know what's right or wrong, but I've done things that I don't want put in the weekly reader, and I don't think it's important for anybody to know what I've done or what I do when the walls start closing in.
AC: What's important to you? Your family ...
JH: My family, of course. Getting to heaven is pretty important. God, and my family, and being honorable to people, and for people to know that I'm not pretentious, or that I think I'm somebody, or that I'm different. Now the most important thing to me is my momma, but in the grand scheme of things, it's like -- what's that poem, "My kingdom, my kingdom, my kingdom for a horse"? The very most important thing to me is to know what happiness might be, like to love somebody and have them love you back, and not be about a money thing. Without bullshitting about it, I think if I had a recording contract, if I was making a lot of money, then the person I love the most outside of the family, we'd be together. I hate myself, and I hate the whole fuckin' recording industry for not giving me that chance.
AC: Do you feel like you've earned it?
JH: I don't feel like anybody's earned anything. I don't want a gift, I just want a chance.
AC: Is music a comfort to you?
JH: Yeah, probably the only comfort I have, actually. It's a comfort when I don't have to worry about it, like when we're gonna play somewhere, who's gonna be there, who's not gonna be there, if the crowd's gonna show up, same thing anybody else would worry about, I assume. There's a guy in Austin now, his name's Bill Campbell, he's a good guy. He hires the band ... real good guy, plays the bass.
AC: Would you ever think about maybe moving to Austin and playing out a little more?
JH: Well sure, but if I get to Austin and there I am, who cares? People always say, "Don't you want to play?" Well hell yeah, but where do you talk to somebody that can get you a place to play where you're not making $8 a night? It's not like I'm 13 anymore, where okay, I'll play anywhere, pass the hat. That's not important either. I just want to play somewhere where I feel like I'm accomplishing something. At this stage of the game, I've become a little more aware of the fact that somebody [who] may not be where I am, in my eyes at least, is making $1,000 a night and I'm making $50 a night. How do you justify that fact?
I honestly think that in the grand scheme of things, talent is probably the least important aspect of it. You have to have somebody willing to spend a bunch of money to make a bunch. I have a morbid fear of waking up one morning and somebody looking like me, singing like me, talking like me, but it ain't gonna be me, and he's gonna be the next thing, and at night when he goes home, they give him a script to read, tell him what to say. Basically, it's like being a fisherman -- if you're gonna angle, you gotta know the angles. You gotta angle every day. So I ain't thinking about quitting. I'm thinking that it wouldn't make any difference whether I did or not to anybody in the music industry.
AC: It would to you.
JH: Well, sure. It's all I got. It's everything I own, and it's cost me all I own.
AC: Has it been worth it?
JH: Not yet. It's killed me. It's killed me. But the day after tomorrow it may all turn around. That's when it would really not be worth it, if that dream came true and nothing changed.
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