Roadside Playboys and Texana Dames
The supernatural saga of the Hancock family
The young, tall black man careens through the dance floor, slapping his broad pink palms against his smoky gray suit jacket. It's his best suit and he feels like a million bucks, says the crooked, ear-to-ear grin on his face. He claps a friendly hand on the shoulder of a woman contorted in her wheelchair as he lurches past. Someone's pinned a sparkly Christmas tree brooch on the woman's red wool sweater; her clenched hands and crabbed fingers haven't the motor facility for so simple a task. Her freckled cheek presses against a padded headrest, glasses slightly askew, her gaze fixed at one position on the stage.
Amid the onlookers crowding before the bandstand, a squat, broad-shouldered man stands slack jawed. He nods, rocking to and fro as the band plays "Feliz Navidad." His faded blue eyes shine bright with joy, and the labored droop of his mouth curves slowly upward as the song progresses. Behind him, a woman with Down syndrome holds hands with another DS man. They dance herky-jerky little steps, smiles splayed across their sweet, childlike faces. Join us, they invite, holding their hands out to a visitor. Who could resist this invitation to dance? Not Tommy Hancock.
At 75, the eldest of the Lubbock-bred musical clan performing for this unusual audience, Hancock can't play fiddle like he used to, so he's content to sit on the sidelines, dressed in a festive red shirt. He gets onstage a few numbers later, but right now, his children, grandchildren, family, and friends pack the stage to play "Jingle Bell Rock." As his 66-year-old wife Charlene Hancock steps down from the stage to sit out the song, Tommy catches her by her shapely waist and glides with her onto the dance floor.
Lining the stage like a string of Christmas lights are three generations of Hancocks, gathered to perform for this annual occasion. There are 10 musicians at the moment, though that number increases for the next song, then decreases for the one after that. The faces bear strong familial resemblance luminous blue or deep smoky eyes, and thick, dark hair.
Charlene, Conni Hancock, and Traci Lamar are the most recognizable, from Austin's Texana Dames, though sharp eyes will recognize Joaquin Hancock. Louie Morris, Tommy's eldest, and his son Zack are on one side of the stage while Joaquin's daughter Avalon slides into Charlene's vacated spot at the piano. Avalon's mother, Marty, plays percussion and sings as Charlene's brother Norm, Traci's son Nastasi, and her boyfriend David Gonzales fill out the lineup. No matter what the song, the message is clear: We are family.
All across Austin, the clear December Friday night crackles with holiday celebration, seasonal reflection, spiritual meditation. Yet nowhere is life more precious, more alive and grateful for the Supernatural Family Band than here, under balloons and crepe paper in the painted cinder block recreation center of the Austin State School.
Father Knows Best
"I am the patriarch of a large family."
Tommy Hancock's blue eyes twinkle in understatement as his chair squeals when he leans back. Those eyes have watched three-quarters of a century from an extraordinarily enlightened perch, and they're sharp as ever. His thinning hair is braided into silver cornrows, much to his family's amusement, and he is typically barefoot.
With a deep and abiding love for music and family, Hancock lives alone in a senior housing complex on the shores of Town Lake. Wife Charlene lives out at the lake in an arrangement agreeable to both. His daily life is enriched by a never-ending quest for greater experience and the meaning of existence. That sounds more profound than the way Hancock himself speaks, in a flat, West Texas twang, using words devoid of artifice.
"We've been here almost 25 years, and I have no regrets," he says, gazing out the window of his apartment on the ever-changing Austin skyline. "I can honestly say that life gets better the older I get. The pleasures change, sex being such an important pleasure and aspect in life. I still feel like I'm going to live forever, like I'm invincible and I have the iron will to not die if I don't want to.
"All things are possible. I've got a direct connection to the universe. I can meditate anytime and get my life straightened out no matter how screwed up it is. I feel real enthusiastic about life. I don't know whether that caused me to live a good life or vice versa. It probably boils down to being saved by Charlene. I didn't really know what love was until I met Charlene."
Tommy Hancock grew up in Lubbock, raised playing classical violin and switched to popular fiddle tunes while in the military. When he got out of the Army in the mid-Forties, the fiddle-playing bandleader of Lubbock's Roadside Playboys took up residence as house band at the town's famous Cotton Club.
In the early Fifties, Charlene Condray was "the sweetheart of Lubbock." A cheerleader at Lubbock High School, where classmates included Buddy Holly and fellow Cricket J.I. Allison, she sang weekly on The Circle 13 Dude Ranch show on local TV. Charlene was already a veteran performer and regional star at age 15 when the Roadside Playboys called. Their girl singer had ran off with the piano player. Might Charlene be interested in the job?
"I fell in love with Tommy when I was 16," says Charlene, breaking into a smile. "To see pictures of him back then, he was so gorgeous. The thing that got me, though, was his interest in people and life and all things. I'd never known anyone like that so curious, so interested in everything."
Tommy and Charlene married and kept on performing, even as the children came. Conni was the firstborn, then Traci. Joaquin was next and Holli, the youngest. Tommy had four children from a previous marriage, including son Louie Morris.
"I count them, too," says Charlene. "I hadn't planned on raising babies. I wanted to be a beauty operator or a movie star. That's what young women aspired to in those days."
Life was good for the young performers, even in the conservative confines of Lubbock. Tommy Hancock and the Roadside Playboys ruled as house band at the Cotton Club, and it's there that the Hancock saga really begins.
The Cotton Club
Dance halls are the lifeblood of rural life in Texas, country cousins to roadhouses and juke joints. Like church on Sundays and county fairs, they're the social center of the community and draw people from all walks of country life to dance their cares away. In Lubbock during the Forties and Fifties, the Cotton Club was the most sizable stopover in the Panhandle for touring musicians driving coast to coast. Hank Williams. Harry James. Little Richard. Benny Goodman. Bob Wills. Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley. All played the Cotton Club.
The original Cotton Club of the Forties was a huge, 1,600-seat venue that sat outside town. It fell victim to fire more than once, and after one devastating blaze, Conni recalls, "The only thing left was the sign. So my dad said, 'Do you mind if I take this sign and build a new Cotton Club?' The new Cotton Club was a bit smaller 1,400 people and picked up where the old one left off."
Tommy and his band often backed up name acts like Porter Wagoner and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Others, such as Hank Thompson & His Brazos Valley Boys and Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, had full touring bands. Occasionally, a show could be a lesson in the realities of the music business.
"I was at the Cotton Club to see Hank Williams, and all kinds of politicians were trying to get in," remembers Tommy. "My guitar player had a beer under each arm inside his coat, and the guy at the door told us, 'Don't give him no beer, don't take nothing in there.' He let us in because we were the house band, but he wasn't letting the politicians in. If you were important, he had no use for you. But the house band, he'd let ya in. So we got in, and my guitar player gave Hank the two cans of beer. Hank sat back and played 'Kaw-Liga' and 'I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.' That was his last song.
"In the good ol' boy department, Hank was just what you'd expect from some white trash Southern guy a lot of folks liked. Seeing him helped take the edge off my ambition. Ambition seems to be a horrible thing sometimes. I was never troubled a lot by ambition because I've been around those guys who've made enough to see the reward wasn't all that great."
The dance hall provided the Hancock children with their taste for the music business. For Louie Morris, who took his mother's surname, growing up as the son of a club-owning musician father had its star-studded moments.
"It was different from the culture I experienced as a teenager with the Rolling Stones and Beatles. I wasn't into country music, but I'd go see Ray Price perform then go home, and Ray would be sitting there at our dining room table having coffee. I walked in one night, and Waylon [Jennings] was there after his show. I listened to him and Tommy talk about the old days. Waylon was cool, your basic roadside playboy, an outlaw musician trying to make a living and doing a great job of it."
Even more than the stellar names that passed through were the people who got their start thanks to Tommy's encouragement. He was an early fan of Buddy Holly, writing him postcards and letters of encouragement. The week before his wedding, Buddy lost his wallet and glasses during an outing at a local lake. Decades later, the lake was drained and Buddy's glasses and wallet were found intact and returned to the family. In the wallet, along with Buddy's driver license was a membership card to "The Club for Unappreciated Musicians." Buddy was member No. 4. The card was issued and signed by Tommy Hancock.
"We were a bunch of burr-head kids me, my two brothers, and a couple of friends," chuckles producer, musician and Dixie Chick dad Lloyd Maines. "Tommy gave us a gig and we played every Sunday afternoon for about two years straight. Willie Nelson played there when he still had his crewcut and leisure suit, and the opener was always Johnny Bush. I was starting to dabble in steel guitar. Willie and Johnny both used Jimmy Day on steel. He was the greatest inspiration to me. He didn't talk to me much, but I would sit on the side of the stage and watch every move he made."
Owning a club is hard business, and to Tommy it became a burden. It drew country folk from such a wide radius that individuality was hard-won. Cowboys from one town creased their hats in a certain way while cowboys from another town wore one pant leg tucked into a boot. Along with the ganglike community pride came macho attitude.
"Fourteen hundred cowboys is a big number to handle," admits Tommy. "I've been playing for those West Texas cowboys my whole life. I've played the game, but it's hard to get 'em to stop fighting and start drinking. The cops wouldn't set foot in those Lubbock clubs in those days. I didn't like running the club, but my mother and stepfather liked it. They'd backed me with money on it, so we stayed in business at the Cotton Club way longer than I wanted to."
By the end of the Sixties, the Cotton Club had done its job. Buddy Holly was 10 years dead, the Crickets dispersed, and Waylon Jennings on his way to fame while a younger generation of Lubbock musicians struggled. Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Gilmore formed the Flatlanders. Musicians such as Jesse Taylor, John X Reed, Ponty Bone, the Maines Brothers, and Terry Allen looked beyond Lubbock's broad horizon at their prospects.
In the late Sixties, Lubbock was also quite segregated. The Cotton Club was one of the few venues to book black performers like Little Richard and Ray Charles for mostly white audiences. The town's hip cognoscenti didn't fare much better. The occasional coffeehouse would pop up and disappear, but not until a health food store called the Supernatural Market opened did the restless souls find a kindred spirit and a place to gather. That wasn't enough for Tommy Hancock, so he applied to and was accepted into Texas Tech law school. Around that time, the innate curiosity that so attracted Charlene to her husband brought Tommy to LSD's doorstep.
"I decided I was tired of the music game been doing it 25, 30 years at the time and when I came back, I decided I didn't want to be a lawyer taking LSD. Dress up and argue with people. Bad vibes and stuff."
So Tommy Hancock, his own sort of Lone Star Timothy Leary, tuned in, turned on, dropped out.
New Mexico and Everything After
"It wasn't until we left Lubbock and moved to New Mexico that I got into music," explains Traci Lamar. The second of Tommy and Charlene's four children, her parents' decision to leave Lubbock and move to New Mexico in 1972 was "an adventure. I loved it."
"The timing couldn't have been better for me," agrees Conni. "I was 15, the oldest, and already facing conflict within myself about the politics of Lubbock. We lived in a nice part of town, and we went to school with doctors' and lawyers' kids. My dad even went to law school for a year, but he sat me down at one point and said, 'I can't be a musician and a lawyer. Which would you rather I do?' I said 'I'd rather have a musician dad!'"
For Joaquin, Tommy and Charlene's only son, there was hesitation about the move.
"I felt like I was leaving behind everything I knew, and I think it was a bit of a stretch for my mom. But I could relate to what was happening to them. They had been in Lubbock a long time.
"I liken Lubbock to a deprivation tank, devoid of a lot of culture, especially then. I think my parents were really thirsty for something, and it created a drive to be creative, but they also wanted something to stimulate them. To put them on the path."
"The path" was one to enlightenment, the desire to find meaning. Tommy had long found spiritual company with the other musicians of Lubbock, but he and Charlene broadened their horizons through LSD and making sure their children were properly guided through their own experimentation. The kids were educated about drug use, experimented on their own, then put the drugs aside to move on with their lives and playing music.
"It all went together," thinks Joaquin, "dropping out, alternative lifestyle, family band all the trappings that went with that. It was more of a gypsy lifestyle and pretty experimental in that way."
"We didn't have electricity in New Mexico," says Conni, describing the change from urban to rural living. "We went from having the TV in the center of the house to no television at all, so playing music was a real natural way for us to entertain ourselves."
Tommy and Charlene made a point of providing an array of instruments for their children to try. Louie believes the impetus to form the Supernatural Family Band came from Traci's crush on David Cassidy via The Partridge Family. Traci, who was 12 when the band started, laughs about its genesis.
"They got us all up onstage during a regular weekend job, taught us a few chords, and said 'Follow us.' We didn't really know anything, but we were onstage, and we learned that way."
"A lot of people in Lubbock come from musical families," pinpoints Charlene. "I did. Buddy did, Lloyd did. Putting a band together came naturally for us."
The Supernatural Family Band found a regular gig near the Texas/New Mexico border, where they honed their musical skills.
"Thanks to Tommy and Charlene, we were learning our instruments," relates Louie. "Tourists would pour in, Red River skiers, families on vacation. We had a great life, playing every Friday and Saturday night and then going back to our cabin. A fabulous experience."
The spiritual flame still flickered in Tommy's heart, however. He discovered the teachings of the Guru Maharaj Ji and led his family to them.
"When my son Louie came to live with us, he said, 'You've done a good job raising all these kids, but none of them know about God.' I said to him, 'I don't either, Louie, what can I teach them?' He said, 'Seems like you'd be the one to lead them.'
"So I started going around to the churches in Lubbock. I wasn't finding anything, so we started chasing gurus. We started following them and found one who could hit the spot. He was a young kid named Guru Maharaj Ji. The Bible says, 'Seek first the kingdom of heaven and there's a light within.' Intellectually, we knew that stuff, but he was the first one to show us the real thing and experience what we'd been hearing about. That's had a lot to do with keeping our family together. Six out of eight still practice meditation. It's a great relief when your children know how to contact God correctly without help. They're okay under any circumstances. They don't all have it, but each time one of them gets it, it's a great relief."
Around 1974, the Hancocks left New Mexico, traveled to California, then settled in the guru's hometown of Denver, Colo., where they continued to perform. Tommy remembers Conni started putting pressure on him after a while to move the family to a warmer climate, "someplace south." In late 1980, they packed up and headed east to Florida. The plan was to stay for the winter, then move to California. During the journey to the West Coast that spring, the Supernatural Family stopped in Austin to play a gig. That's as far as they got.
The Family That Plays Together
"My dad taught us when an obstacle is in the way or changes happen, there's usually a reason. If you relax and wait a minute, you'll realize what the reason is."
Conni isn't talking about the family settling in Austin, but she might as well be. The confluence of circumstances that met the Hancocks when they played their first auspicious gig at Soap Creek Saloon was astonishing.
"It felt like home," she remembers. "I said, 'This is where I'm going to stay.'"
Traci found the capital city equally appealing.
"I was blown away at all the live music available. I loved it all. I didn't have any knowledge of the blues, but it was happening here. We were at Antone's a lot.
"Daddy wanted us to get a regular weekly gig, so we got the Shorthorn on Thursdays. There were a bunch of state school people that went there on a regular basis. Daddy recognized that having that state school element in this working class bar could turn into something interesting."
"Something interesting" is an understatement. The Shorthorn Lounge on North Lamar near Koenig was not a hip nightspot like the Continental Club or Soap Creek. Even Tommy Hancock, who'd been playing dance halls all his life, had second thoughts.
"When I walked into the Shorthorn and saw what it was, it was the nearest I ever come to backing out of a deal," affirms Tommy. "You go into a place like that in the afternoon, it's pretty hard to imagine anything joyous happening. The building was slanted and the floor slanted, everything was wrong about it. Clientele was hookers, bikers, and crazy people. But I knew from years of playing there's an outside chance that if you can fill it up with music, you can change it. That really worked there. People were just so glad to hear something happy in there."
Thursdays at the Shorthorn with the Supernatural Family Band became a hot gig. Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains sat in once.
"It was the unofficial clubhouse for the Joe Ely Band and other displaced Lubbockites," Monte Warden raves. Warden, who just received a platinum album for his song "Desperately" on George Strait's Honkytonkville, got his first stage exposure at age 14 through those Shorthorn Thursdays.
"I'd met Niki Sullivan of the Crickets, who told me to call Tommy Hancock, who invited me to the Shorthorn," continues Warden. "Tommy was sweet and asked what I wanted to sing. The bug bit me. I was there every Thursday my grades would allow. That was the deal I cut with my parents. If I stayed on the honor roll, I could go to the Shorthorn. I'd show up with my little guitar and wait for him to bring me onstage."
Tommy's assessment of the Supernatural Family Band is that, ultimately, it got too big to support. Besides, the children had reached the age where they wanted to do their own thing.
"It just played itself out," he says. "Conni, Traci, and Charlene essentially fired me and Joaquin. Joaquin was anxious to do something else himself, but the girls wanted to do original music, and rehearse and play tight, like serious musicians do. Anyone that goes off and does something, we all back them, like Louie and his band."
In 1988, Conni, Traci, and Charlene formed the Texana Dames. It was easy to establish themselves with a regular gig at La Zona Rosa, then a Sunday residency at Güero's during the following decade. The girls' charm and distinct personalities are evident on their four recordings. After the Güero's gig ended recently, the entire family stopped and took a collective deep breath.
The Dames are still an active band. Traci's son Nastasi is a drummer in the family band. Joaquin, who plays with Deer in the Headlights, and his wife Marty first cousin to another scion of a musical family, Eliza Gilkyson encourages the musical education of their daughters, Jewel and Avalon. Holli, the most enigmatic of Tommy and Charlene's four children, remains in Lubbock, where she married the son of Tommy's Roadside Playboys drummer. Louie plays with his own band, Alien Hounddog. Louie notes with pride that his granddaughter just got a piano. That's a fourth living generation Hancock making music in a musical dynasty.
"Joaquin's daughter, Avalon," nods Louie with a sly smile. "She's going to be the superstar of the family."
When the nimbleness left his fingers, Tommy Hancock put down his fiddle and took up dancing. He'd dabbled in acting and made plenty of albums, but dancing took him to a different level. He embraced it with a love and affection that goes beyond a whirl on the dance floor and, determined that others should know of his discovery, wrote a book called Zen and the Art of Texas Two-Step. Politically incorrect but brimming with heartfelt wit, it's a priceless guide to his quirky, back-porch philosophy.
"Dancing was such a nice surprising revelation for me I thought I'd take a try at describing the art," writes Hancock at the beginning of the book. "Exercise my Divinity by being a dimension changer: bring an energy consciousness from the here-now Oneness of within myself outward into duality in the form of music and dancing.
"I found that it integrated so perfectly with the other concepts of my life, that it sometimes seems the dance is in everything. So I can describe my larger self using dance as a center."
On a Clear Day
"I'm not one to look back, and I'm not one to look forward, either. I'm really one to try and stay with where I am right now."
The matriarch, the main Dame, Charlene Hancock is philosophical about the past and what lies ahead. Her current interest is in the archive project Conni has undertaken. It includes assembling not only the Hancock family photographs and memorabilia, but also the many recordings over the years, including those by Tommy, the Supernatural Family Band, Texana Dames, a retrospective of Charlene's career, and even the recent release of Traci's deeply romantic CD Apasionada, a literal labor of love.
"The archives project makes me feel real good about myself," attests Charlene. "We're getting more organized as we go. Tommy's mother died last year at 96. She kept coloring her hair and doing her nails. She was the one that inspired me to be healthy and live a healthy life. I had her pictures after she died. With the grandkids, we gotta do something for them. That's what started this whole thing."
Tommy the patriarch focuses on a different aspect of the future.
"I realized I'd done everything I think I wanted to do and I've got everything I need to live a good life. So what else is there? It puts me in the position of surrendering to the forces of the universe and saying, 'I'm gonna have to think up something to do.' I quit worrying about, 'What am I going to do when I get old?' Me and Charlene used to have an ongoing joke about stuff. We'd say, 'Aw, we'll do that when we're old.'"
The waltz of the West Texas wind still whips around the plains and across the flat Lubbock landscape though the Hancocks left it behind decades ago. Tommy Hancock lifts his gaze and sets it on a distant cloud in the pewter Austin sky.
"It still looks like infinity from here."