The Train Rolls On
Wayne "The Train" Hancock should be in the mood to celebrate. After all, he's earned critical acclaim and the undying gratitude of y'allternative listeners for his first two albums of rousing, staunchly traditional Texas swing, 1995's Thunderstorms and Neon Signs and the new That's What Daddy Wants. His personal life's in good shape as well: He recently began cohabiting with the woman he dreams of someday marrying. But in spite of this cornucopia of blessings, Hancock is an angry man--angry that the sounds coming out of Nashville, Tennessee, the alleged capital of country music, have so little country in them. And although he'd like nothing better than to see this situation change, he believes it's too late to correct it by peaceful means.
"We don't want to win it over," he insists. "We want to kick everybody out and take it over. You understand that? And this is not a threat; it's a fact. There are a lot of people who are tired of this. This is wrong, and I've had enough. It's like coming home after being gone for a while and finding some numbnut living in your house. And he's giving you his clothes and he's taking yours. Now you're the bum, and he's saying he's the person who really lives there. Well, that's how I feel about Nashville."
For these reasons and countless more, Hancock has declared a holy war on the C&W establishment--and he believes that he has the troops to emerge victorious. "Junior Brown, he's the machine gunner," he divulges. "We've got him on the right flank; he's out there blowing away all their little bitty top guns. On the left flank we've got Big Sandy, and we've got Ray Condo bringing up the rear back there, and he's blasting people. But you see, none of these guys can really get in people's faces. I mean, Junior does musically, but verbally, he wouldn't want to do that, because he's older and shouldn't try to risk anything. Big Sandy, he can't do it either, because he's a gentleman out of California. And Ray Condo, he's been around a long time, and he doesn't want to waste his time. But I'm young--32 years old--so I figure I'll just go for it."
Hancock's taste for military metaphors comes naturally; his father was a Navy man whose assignments caused the family to relocate on numerous occasions. The clan finally settled in East Texas when Wayne was an adolescent, but because of his northern accent (he was born in Dallas but raised in Idaho), he was branded a Yankee and made to feel like an outsider. "Man, I'm still affected by what happened to me in school," he acknowledges. "I wasn't a troublemaker or anything like that, but I was always the kid they made an example of. I was the kid who was always walking a fine line."
After graduating from high school in Kilgore, Texas, Hancock enlisted in the Marine Corps, as much to avoid further class time as to follow in his father's footsteps. But he ultimately came to the conclusion that he was not cut out to be a jarhead. After nearly four years in uniform, he left the service only to discover that most of the career options within his grasp left him cold. "I tried ironworking, and I wasn't any good at that. Then I tried working around a few metal shops, but I wasn't any good at that, either. I've just never been much for working. You put paperwork in front of me, and music fills my head and I just kind of drift off. It's weird, and I don't really understand it. It makes me feel like I'm dumb or something."
With his options running out, Hancock settled on a new vocation: alcoholic troubador. "I was pretty much just a guy looking to make enough money to get drunk," he allows. He began haunting bars and watering holes in Florida and other parts of the Deep South, playing vintage country tunes in order to finance a nightly swim in the bottle. He subsequently moved to Nashville in the hopes of scoring bigger paydays, but his time in Music City was hardly a glorious adventure.
"I went there like everybody else--trying to make it in the music business and not knowing a thing," he recalls. "If you're some bum walking around there with a guitar, they look down on you, and if you don't sound like anybody in their little clique, they don't want anything to do with you. Obviously, not everyone's like that, but it sure seems like the majority of them are. Especially the ones who aren't worth a damn." He describes the tales about nobodies hitting it big in Nashville as "a crock. Go there and lose everything you got; that's really what it is. Unless you just want to make money and be a star--because they'll tell you just how to stand, exactly how to sing, what to wear and how to wear it."
Out of luck and out of funds, Hancock returned to Texas, where his fortunes began to improve. In 1994, a year after he quit drinking, he landed a role in Chippy, a theatrical production in Austin that included contributions by such musical heavyweights as Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen. Hancock's turn as Mr. Jukebox was impressive, but even better was "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs," a tune he performed during the show. The cut provided the name of his debut disc, which was lauded by the press in Texas and beyond.
That's What Daddy Wants, cut after a solid year of touring, has been greeted with even greater fanfare, and for good reason: It's one of the year's best recordings. From steel-guitar-driven honky-tonkers and two-stepping Tex-Mex to loping laments and rollicking raveups sure to please the swing set, the disc is a veritable menu of what's missing from FM country. Best of all, Hancock delivers his straightforward tales in a lusty, tomcat voice loaded with youthful sass and striking urgency. Even when he steps back to offer refreshingly tender paeans to romance, his level of intensity borders on the frightening.
It's no surprise that Hancock's version of country seems a bit retro; his idol is Hank Williams, to whose legacy he pays more than lip service. "He was what they call the start of pop country," Hancock claims. "That means they cut him off at the rails, and after him, they started manufacturing everybody. They took him and used him up and threw him away. They did the same thing to Patsy Cline. When she was in Nashville, they said, 'Look, do it our way or we're not going to help you.' So she went home and sat there for about six months because nobody would deal with her. They blackballed her. Because Nashville ain't never really been about music.
"Country music basically died in '58," he goes on. "When Buddy Holly crashed, they all went with him. There were a few stragglers, like Buck Owens and George Jones, but they weeded them out. Maybe I'm just a crazy, paranoid son of a gun, but I think Nashville would like to see that kind of music die and left in this millennium. Because playing music like that is dangerous, and you can make money doing it. And that means all their boys will be out of work. You know what I'm saying?"
Of the current crop of Nashvillers, Hancock sees few who stack up to the heroes of yesteryear. "Take Reba McEntire," he says. "A lot of folks don't like her--and I'm one of them. Maybe it's because she had a big picture of herself put up in Nashville. It's like, God, people, don't you think everybody here knows who she is already? They ought to have put up a big picture of Ernest Tubb; he's the guy who built the town. Or how about Garth Brooks? Now there's somebody who's made a lot of money destroying my music. Really. He took what was considered country and fucked it up to the max. I've never met the man; maybe he's a nice guy and I shouldn't slam him. But to have the outfit that he runs with tell me that I'm too country for country--that's just bullshit. Because I can stand on stage with my microphone without any ropes, headsets, light shows or smoke tricks and captivate my audience for two or three hours. And not have to fly around the room.
"The only one who stands out in that crowd is LeAnn Rimes--and I know they're gonna ruin that chick. She better get some brains real fast, because they're gonna try to change her into some kind of Reba. I'm sure they've got her growling and doing all kinds of that stuff already. It just makes me mad. It's so frustrating."
In Hancock's opinion, "The only way to do anything in Nashville is to go around kicking down doors and getting in people's faces and challenging their best with my best." Moreover, compromise is out of the question. He says that he was recently told by representatives of commercial country stations that "87 Southbound," from Daddy, would receive big-time airplay if only he would drop the song's opening salvo, wherein the singer recounts discovering his lover "on those damp, slick, sticky satin sheets." But Hancock isn't about to capitulate to formatters afraid to offend so-called family values.
"If you just start it without the introduction, then it's the same old country thing and there's a big part of it lost," he says. "So, no, you can't have it." After a pause, he asks, "Family values? Those guys ain't got any values. That's called a power play, and that's a person seeing if we'll sell out. Well, there won't be no sellouts here. I'd rather be remembered as somebody who tried rather than as somebody who sold out and made a lot of money. Fuck that."
With no armistice in sight, Hancock promises to escalate his attacks on country complacency, using his nickname to underline his point. "You ever seen what a train does to a person or an automobile when it hits them? There's nothing left of them--nothing. Little kids who get run over by one, it just pops their legs right off. Trains are scary things, there's so much tonnage going forward. With this kind of music, there's a lot of energy going forward, too--something that's desperately needed on radio today...So you can tell those people that just when you thought it was safe, I'm here. You've taken my country and thrown me and the music out on the street, and the meaning along with it, and you've been there now for thirty years claiming the place is yours. Well, it's time to move on, my friend. That hill is mine--mine and everybody else's. Here comes the train, the train of glory. We're gonna make some good music and have a good time, and anybody who tries to stop us, we're gonna run right over 'em."
Wayne "The Train" Hancock. 9 p.m. Thursday, November 27, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $7, 830-
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