Punky Tonk Blues

Wayne "the Train" Hancock

by Tim Stegall

See, I was originally country," Wayne Hancock twangs in his rubbery North Texas drawl. "But about the mid-Seventies, I started getting very pissed off at country music, and stopped listening to 'em totally. If country music played the music that I play -- and Big Sandy plays, and some of these other jump blues bands -- shit, yeah! I'd be listening to country music! And I'd probably have a job, and be working like everybody else! But they don't play it. What they play are these pretty boys with hair longer than my momma's! You watch 'em playin' the guitar in their videos, they're supposed to be making a D, and you're hearing 'em makin' an E! It's real bad shit, and I know it's not nice to slam Nashville, but forgive me. I'm gonna slam 'em any-fuckin'-way, 'cuz they need to be slammed. They need to be woke up."

You'll argue with me, his mother will argue with me, and I'm sure Wayne'll argue with me. Nevertheless, it needs to be said: Wayne Hancock is a punk rocker.

No, Wayne the Train's music is hardly slam-and-spit power chords, and has no roots in CBGB's speednoise. He'd sooner kick back his Stetson and slip on a pair of two-tone Fifties footboats than slouch around in leather and a pair of ripped denims. But punk is 75 percent attitude, and Dallas-native Hancock's got that by the freightcar-load. Listen to Hancock talk and realize there's no love lost between him and Nashville: "Nashville is just like going into Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's house on Christmas Eve. Everything is just so gaudy, guys with big hair. It just makes me sick! I think if I ever get on Crook & Chase, I think I'll ask 'em, `Is that really your hair?'" Or: "I used to think Nashville was some fantasy land, where if you have talent, they'll take you on. I know different, now."

In an age where even supposed "punks" like Green Day have the corporate pipe lodged between their teeth, Wayne Hancock will not kiss tuchis and play nice. Wayne "the Train" Hancock's gonna do what he does best, and if it curdles the stomach juices of the Nashville establishment and puzzles C&W radio programmers, and stumps "honky-tonkers" who find "Juke Joint Jumping" impossible to line-dance to... well, in two words, "Fuck it!"

No wonder Hancock goes down a storm in alternarock joints like Emo's. As Hancock's co-manager Michael Dietz puts it, "Those kids at Emo's look at him, and they've never heard a country album in their life, and they don't see Wayne as country, either." "That's 'cuz I'm not!" Hancock shoots back, preferring to think of himself as a "hillbilly" singer.

Who knows, Hancock may be right. The noises pouring off his DejaDisc debut Thunderstorms and Neon Signs bleed a recklessness unheard in country circles since Sam Phillips shut off the Sun Records echo machine for the last time or since Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant wrenched their last science fiction squeals from their axes. These noises also show a deeper grasp of roots and traditions than anything this side of Dwight Yoakum (a "sell-out" in Hancock's eyes: "He used to be a hillbilly singer, but look at him now! They ruined him! Money may be more important, but to me, it ain't!). But the traditions and roots on Thunderstorms... aren't just those of Fifties honky-tonk or rockabilly (stemming from the slap bass pulse which throbs through 95 percent of Hancock's music). Sure, his first aural glimpse of Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" may have "brought tears" to Hancock's eyes and sent shivers up his arms, bringing him to chuck his
AC/DC and KISS records into Tuesday's garbage, but the Hancock household record collection not only stocked the works of Charley Pride, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ernest Tubb, and T. Tex Tyler, but also Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain." Now you know why the Train's daredevil guitar sidekick Mystery Bob Stafford occasionally pulls out a trombone, why Hancock's own "Ain't Nobody's Blues but My Own" is so perfectly Dixieland, and why Thunderstorms and Neon Signs closes with an utterly straight reading of "Summertime."

Hancock thinks the diversity's borne out of the necessities demanded by his live act. "See, the idea is, if you're puttin' on a show for people and all you do is honky-tonk and retro, then people are gonna think of you as a honky-tonk and retro band. If you do honky-tonk music, then you come out with `Stormy Weather' or `Singin' in the Rain,' especially if you do 'em justice. Then people have a helluva hard time -- they can't tell you what they are! If you write a song like `Ain't Nobody's Blues but My Own,' then they can't call you retro, because it was written in the Nineties."

Ah, "retro." As trashrock archivist Billy Miller puts it, "retro" is the contemporary musical world's equivalent to the word "nigger": A hateful, ignorant term used by hateful, ignorant people, intended to hurt and discredit things they don't like or understand. The modern musical mainstream -- be it alternative or country or whatever -- has a hard time dealing with any sort of music with a sense of roots or traditions beyond five minutes ago. (Ironic, considering most alternarock is based in the same cock-rock excesses punk was meant to eradicate, and most contemporary country is based around equally corrupt California cocaine cowboys like the Eagles.) And Hancock, typically, knows the truth behind the slander.

"The big rock & rollers outta L.A. and Nashville are threatened by my band, by the Derailers. You got Junior Brown out there, you got Sue Foley out there. I could go on all night namin' 'em for ya -- all these great bands that exist. Even Monte Warden. They label 'em `retro,' or say they sound like this, so that way, they won't be a threat. But I'm not here for Nashville or MTV or to make $50,000. I'm not here for none of them motherfuckers! I'm here for people like you and me and the guys that work out there on the streets that wanna get off and have a beer and turn on the radio and kick back. That's who I'm here for. And if all I get outta this is a house like Joe Ely's got, with a trampoline in the front yard and a go-cart in the back, then I'll be happy."

Hancock's hard-won traditionalism extends to the subject matter of his songs, tunes populated by motel dwellers who've ridden rails and go jukin' on Saturday night. Wayne admits slightly to the myth building in which he might be indulging -- it's hard to gauge how much truth lies in Hancock's boasts of his father having been everything from a NASA rocket scientist to an FBI agent protecting Kennedy a certain November day in Dallas. He doubts people still jump from honky-tonk to honky-tonk, state to state, a la "Juke Joint Jumping," "but it sounded like a good storyline to me at the time." The 30-year-old also admits to not having ridden too many rails: "I've walked a lot of railroad tracks, because if you walk a railroad track, usually you avoid residential areas, and there's a place to sleep beside them. I rode a rail train one time, and I think it went three blocks and it started picking up speed and I jumped off it, 'cuz I got scared. But my great uncle was a hobo, and he rode the brake lines, and my father rode the brake lines. The neat thing about railroad lines is that poor people use 'em, because cars cost money. But, man, if you can get beside railroad track and walk it long enough, either you'll walk into where Union Pacific is and you can get a job with them -- because they're always hiring -- or you can jump on a freight car if you absolutely have to and it'll take you somewhere. It'll take you to a city, at least where there's work or there's shelter. That's why I write about 'em so much."

And, yeah, Hancock claims to have played more than a few juke joints. "The juke joints I've played in East Texas are about the size of a [small] house, and most of 'em are fallin' down. There's a sign outside that says `Cold Beer.' At most, they'll have two pool tables, a pisser in the back, and usually it reeks to high heaven when you walk back there. You might fall through the floor into the shithole if you're not too careful. There['re] 20,000 rednecks, but there's always some old men playing checkers, and there's a bar and a jukebox. There['re] thousands of 'em all over East Texas, I'm sure they sell bootleg liquor, stuff like that."

Okay, maybe there's the teeniest bit of romanticizing going on here. That's allowed. It's not equitable with dishonesty. Dishonesty is synonymous with the TNN and CMT and CMA and all those other acrimonious acts we've already spent too much time shredding through this piece. Honesty is what you see and hear as Wayne "the Train" Hancock leads his flexible backing unit (Stafford, Chris Miller on lap steel, and the ex-Seville's bassist named Eric whose last name Hancock can't pronounce) through their changes, playing songs informed by a hard life spent in many locales -- spent for a spell as a Marine, spent waking up in a drunk tank or two "with fat guys with bad breath, your face stickin' to the concrete." (Hancock's face, however, hasn't seen a drunk tank floor in three years, which explains why he may have penned the first designated-driver song in the honky-tonk canon, "Double A Daddy.")

Much like the record, Hancock and crew walk onstage with no prepared set, no standard arrangements. Songs are called out off the cuff, Hancock yells for individual solos, and he may even lead the boys through a freshly written tune they've never played in their lives. You wouldn't be able to tell, though. It's this naked, seat-of-the-pants abandon which gives this music its unique energy, which commands attention, creates the charm. These are qualities which are none too prevalent these days, which Wayne Hancock is determined to propagate.

"You let them folks out there know," he says, preparing to take the stage at Jovita's, "that I'm not selling out. I don't give a fuck if they put $50,000,000 on the table. As long as I'm alive, there'll be good music. I don't give a flying fuck about money. All I care about is getting good music out there."

Amen, brother. More power to ya. n

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