The Devil in Us All
Butch Hancock, saving the world one song at a time
"If you still allow yourself to condone all the infamies, all the atrocities, of this Antichrist on my word I believe he is Antichrist I will not recognize you; that is the end of our friendship." Tolstoy, Page 1, War and Peace
Butch Hancock lets out a laugh at the 2-inch thick, 700-page (abridged) literary classic thrown down on a small wooden table in the Threadgill's World Headquarters beer garden, not yet opened at 10am one balmy Friday.
"Oh my God, where did you find this thing?" he exclaims. "Holy mackerel. Leo Tolstoy, man."
Holy mackerel is right. Hancock's first solo album in nine years, also titled War and Peace, wages epic protest for and against man's two tribal extremes. On one hand, global conflict drags "on and on and on." On the other, amity is in short supply. Not only are the scales of cosmic justice grossly imbalanced, but by even the most basic human standards, Peace should weigh in as the only anvil on the universal Health-O-Meter. While all the names have been torn off the people suits, Antichrist laughs all the way to the bank.
A cappella opener "Give Them Water" might have been condensed into a 90-second intro, but at five minutes, its hymnal nature gains a powerful mass ("all things must live within the all and everything"). Flowing from "Water," the album's statement of purpose, "Damage Done," then lays it all on the front lines: "We fight for love or money, and how we fight for fun, and how we sometimes fight to see some damage done." Pipeline profits, ain't they a hoot: "Desert shields and dirty deals and dim lines drawn in the dust. Send half a million men to save some oil in the sand, my gawd, in cars we trust." Hancock's lyrical maneuvers score from opening bell to closing shot.
Musically, War and Peace doesn't rest on its word count. Hancock played all the instruments save for fourth Flatlander Rob Gjersoe's electric guitar leads and some familiar harmonies by Lubbock's other two musketeers, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. "When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly" shimmers like heat rising off a blacktop, out of which the devil rises, the first of a number of his sulfuric appearances on the disc ("you know the devil just loves a war"). Follow-up "Toast" counters with a banjo and Old Testament God ("I notice not what God hath wrought"). The carnival bed of nails on which lays "Old Man, Old Man" belies grim accusations denied by the burning bush.
Old Man, old man, who you gonna send to hell?
Who you gonna give the golden crown?
Who you gonna raise up from the ragin' fire?
And who you gonna burn into the ground?
Even then, Hancock's just getting warmed up. "The Devil in Us All," identified as "us oil," reveals sharp incisors in the songwriter's "What, me worry?" smile. His nasal, kindly, campfire delivery spreads lilting bonhomie in the song's opening verse:
He smiles like the devil in us all
Could be the moment, could be the hour
Could be the usual addiction to power
So it goes, War and Peace picking up momentum like creaks emptying into the Colorado. "Between Wars" ambles straight into Hancock's compositional hall of fame, which, considering glories of the past three decades, beginning with late-Seventies Lone Star staples The Wind's Dominion and West Texas Waltzes through to 1997's You Coulda Walked Around the World, that's no trivial, West Texas matter. Its upbeat strum and beery musical glow rises up akin to a Civil War-era traditional. "Cast the Devils Out" grins Sunday school sing-song, and within the album's naked purpose, needs no explanation, though the line "mark your ballots in the light, be sure they count 'em" anticipates the album's epic closer. "That Great Election Day," a randy, rambling, folk Judgment Day, whose title is, again, self-explanatory ("who's gonna vote their conscience and who's gonna count the votes?") completes the best political strategy since Green Day's American Idiot.
"I love the first one," offers Hancock as his favorite track on War and Peace. "The a cappella one. To me, that's the album right there. I also love 'Between Wars.' I think, musically, that's my favorite one in there."
Live, both the opening incantation and "Between Wars" crackle with conscience. Introduced at his Cactus Cafe CD release two weeks ago as "saving the world one song at a time," Terlingua's poet laureate opens light, with his kicking (and unrecorded) "Mama Does the Kangeroo," Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," and his Flatlanders set-piece, "Julia." Dedicating the show to Ann Richards, Don Walser, and Venezuela's outspoken anti-American idiot Hugo Chavez, Hancock then rattles off "Water," "Damage Done," "Old Man," and another new LP cut, "The Master's Game," with bite. The second set fires up "Toast," "Between Wars," "Cast the Devils Out," and "The Devil in Us All," which rolls and tumbles as if improvised for the full house.
"I'm surprised no one else has written that song," he quips. "It sure seemed obvious to me."
The evening's feast ends on "When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly," which began the War and Peace process last April as a demo. "If You Were a Bluebird," "You Coulda Walked Around the World," and finally "That Great Election Day" bring the protest to a generally peaceful conclusion.
"A lot of this album has to do with the fact that some of these sentiments, and even some of the phrasing, is out there already in the public milieu. A lot of this is not me talking. This is everybody talking. Besides the cartoon imagery we have about God and the devil, a lot of people hold the images dear in their hearts, so I'm trying to speak that language to get these ideas across. If the language of those images is any good and can lead people to truth, then let's give it a shot. But let's don't say we love God, but we're going to go kill people. That's where the line has to be drawn."
If your Seeing Eye dog missed it, War and Peace is that Maginot Line.
"When I started the album, I was hedging on whether I should put one or two so-called political songs on there, and I thought, 'Wait a minute! Where's that coming from?' Is that just the fear they've been trying to put in us? So I said, 'Well, let's just find out.' ...
"Back in Dylan's day, when 'The Times They Are A-Changin' came out, everything was ripe for that. There was still enough time in-between everybody's synapse gaps that they could hang with an idea long enough to get it. You're not going to find any answers in this album, but it might throw up sparks that'll point you some direction. That's what I hope this album does is point people back inside themselves enough to really question their own definitions of all these phrases and of their interpretation of these images."
Promise us the next chapter, your Anna Karenina, won't take another decade.
"You know, you get out in the desert too long," winces Hancock, 61, chastised. "I've been building a house, man, and raising a kid, and doing Flatlander things. But I've got a huge backlog of songs that need treatment. So I hereby vow to put out at least one album a year, hopefully two. Until I can't."
Butch Hancock lays seige on the Cactus Cafe once again, Monday, Oct. 16, 7:30pm.