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Wayne Hancock 

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When you talk to Wayne "The Train" Hancock about his music, you'd better get it right. He doesn't have any patience for fools. Today, he's focused on the press who've called his latest release, Tulsa, a tribute to Bob Wills.

"It's not a tribute to Bob Wills other than the fact that we have some of the same instruments in our band," he chuckles. "I think they did it because they were trying to get away from the 'sounds like Hank Williams' angle."

The Hank Williams thing doesn't irk Hancock as much as it used to. He's heard it so much that he dismisses it as silly, advising those who believe it to find another line of work. But he's not through with this tribute thing just yet.

"The only thing I can think of is that we both play swing, we both call parts, and we're both singing about Tulsa," he says, adding that, if you want a Willis tribute, catch a set by Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson. "I wanted to write something about the town because I have a lot of friends there, and it's a cool town."

Being a dissident is nothing new for Hancock: A tough ex-Marine, Hancock has likened himself to a stab wound in the Nashville fabric of country music. He's not the lonesome wildman that Hank III celebrates in lifestyle and in song, but he's no dreamy crooner, either. If you want a tour of the best in Texas music, from big band to swing to honky-tonk done with a style and grace you don't find much anymore, Wayne the Train is the man you want as your engineer.

Wayne "The Train" Hancock plays the sixth show at Hideaway BBQ in Raleigh at 2210 Capital Blvd. on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. For more, see the Hideaway BBQ Web site.


Grant Britt's full-length interview with Wayne Hancock

“Let me just get one thing here,” says Wayne “The Train” Hancock before settling in for our interview. “Had to get me some snuff,” he says a few seconds later, packed up and ready to go.

The Austin native describes himself as a country boy, but his music is not the pickup-truck-ridin’, broken-hearted, hard-drinkin’, love-mah-dawg brand of country that Charlotte-based country music legend Unknown Hinson refers to as being uttered by “anorexic pretty boys with shaved chests.” His country is more in tune with Hank Williams’ vision of that genre.

Hillbilly swing is what he calls it. His voice has some of the same characteristics as Williams, and grandson Hank III likes to say that Hancock sounds more like Hank than Hank did. But that doesn’t make Hancock happy.

“I always say that’s a nice compliment, when people say that, but could you keep your voice down a little bit?” he says, laughing. “That’s kind of a silly thing to say. How can you sound better than the person who sang it? You can’t. It’s a nice compliment, but it’s like, ‘Geez, man, get a life. Is there a bull’s-eye on me or what?’”

Although he flies pretty low under the radar of so-called commercial country music, Hancock garnered enough attention with his 1996 debut, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, to get exposure on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion and the prestigious PBS showcase Austin City Limits. There’s no one word to describe what Hancock does. It resembles music from another era, but don’t make the mistake of calling it retro. To Hancock, it’s simply American music.

Wayne “The Train” Hancock: Yeah, it’s just good music. Someone once said that calling the music retro is the same thing as using a racial epitaph without actually saying what they say. But it’s true. It’s like saying everything is just disco if you don’t like it. If you really want to get down to it, they really ain’t much on the radio these days that ain’t retro. It’s all been done. The stuff on the radio now, they’ve been doing it for the last 10 to 20 years. That makes it vintage. The stuff that I’m doing, I don’t know that it’s ever really been done this way. There were bands from the past that did it, but there weren’t really hillbilly jazz bands, but it seems like the drum thing, the percussion really kicked in. But at the same time, I didn’t invent this, it’s been around for so damn long.

It’s always been around: How can you call it retro? If you do something as good as your father, are you retro, or are you just good? So I think that’s a bad word to use. That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying alternative country. Whew! What exactly does that mean? That’s what I like to say about music on the radio, that it’s alternative country. It’s alternative to anything that you like. See, I just did it right there. I just made a broad statement of everybody on the radio. I just put ’em all down. I just don’t understand their music, so, in essence, I just became a hypocrite in what I just told you. That’s what retro is, so I don’t like names. If somebody does a good job, they do a good job.

[Hancock writes most of his material, and a lot of it has to do with being on the road. “You know the road is my wife” he sings on “Highway Bound,” from his latest, Tulsa. “I love my life.”]

Independent: You’re pretty much a road dog. I read one article that said even before you had to, you’d get in your car and drive just to see the countryside.

I just kind of like to get in my car. Maybe it’s sickness or something. Like being addicted to some kind of a drug. It is a drug, you know? Can’t get enough of those diners, and those 12-hour shifts behind the wheel. Driving—it just does something to you, you know? I love it.

I read one article where you said your band wouldn’t let you drive.

I think they was afraid of my driving, I think I drive a little bit careless. But, to my credit, I’ve never killed anybody—in my band, in a car wreck—nor have I ever got in a car wreck with my band. I’ve been in several car wrecks on my own, but that was because I was careless.

How do you keep from letting the road get you down? Any tricks you use, or does just your enthusiasm for seeing another place keep you going?

My thing is I try to stay off the interstates as much as I can. Each tour, I try to route us almost like a vacation. Going through any interesting spots or anything anybody wants to see, museums, whatnot. I take a lot of back roads so I get those good views.

You said a few years ago you were taking tents along with you to camp out along the way. Do you still do that?

Yeah, not tents, but we’d go out to campgrounds and cook steaks and stuff. Sometimes, they have cabins you can rent, or like the Wigwam motel is a nice one to stay at because they have a grill, you can go out there and barbecue steaks in the summertime. It’s nice in that area out there, just make a vacation out of it. If you don’t do that, man, I would think after a while, if you don’t have a tour bus or something or really good drugs, it would probably drive you right out of your head.

[Hancock has cut back his touring schedule somewhat, from 250 to around 175 dates this year. “It’s not due to how much work, but how much work I’m willing to do,” he says. “And I hate tour buses.”]

Still doing it out of a van?

Yeah, paid my due on the bus, thank you.

What about the bus don’t you like?

Everything. I mainly don’t like it because it doesn’t seem to be people-friendly. How many times have you gone to see someone who actually had a tour bus and you went to see ’em after a show, walked right up to their bus and started talking to ’em?

Kinda hard to get to.

Yeah, because they’re on a tour bus. There’s other things about buses—you can’t take ’em down roads that aren’t made for buses. Like, I can do state parks. If I’m going south, going down 66, which is a fun drive for me, you can’t go thorough The Painted Desert in your tour bus. Lot of things you can’t do. Can’t just pull off onto a back road. And I own my van. We have a three-piece band plus my girlfriend, so we all have our own seat. I’m not a tall guy, so I can actually lay down on my seat, stretch completely out and sleep really good. I sleep better in the back of my van than I do in most hotels. It’s one of those things. I feel like I’ve earned the right to be in a van.

[Even though he made himself comfortable on the road, when he writes about it, the reaction he gets from some quarters makes him uncomfortable. Tulsa was perceived as a tribute to Bob Wills.]

I put out a record and I write a song about a town that I like, which is Tulsa. And I don’t want to say, “Take Me Back to Tulsa” [a Bob Wills hit], because that’s not my song. A lot of the old Route 66 runs through there. It’s just one of those towns that’s cool because of the history it’s got. It’s got cool people that live there and it’s a rockin’ town. When I go there, I have a great friggin’ time. I love Tulsa. And when we hit town, it swings hard. And so I was more or less writing about just being on the road. Funny though, that’s how far the industry’s gone: All you have to do is mention something, and they say, “Oh! That’s a tribute to so and so.” How can it be a tribute to Bob Wills? We don’t even mention his name.

Do you find that young people are more accepting of that kind of music if you put it in your format than they would be if they just stumbled across it themselves?

Seems like the younger people are more into what we’re doing. I’ve even heard some people say that high school kids are picking it up, which is kind of scary. Well, not scary, but that’s weird because usually kids, not just high school kids, but kids in school generally that age are into whatever-the-hell’s on the radio. They’re not much aware of anything else. I don’t write for kids. I write for adults. And if you’re a kid and you want to hear my music, well, you gotta grow up if you want to come to the kind of places we play. We play adult bars. So when a guy told me that, I was like, ‘Oh, geez!’ But that’s cool that they’re picking it up, I guess. Somebody told me we’re the new outlaws. Pardon the expression, but outlaws means you’re outlawed. And if you’re being accepted, then you’re not an outlaw, then are you? Maybe an outsider. The term outlaw, hell, what are you outlawed from? Hell, satellite radio carries us. Most people that aren’t Clear Channel carry us.

[But there’s not much else on the radio these days that appeals to Hancock.]

I can’t think of anybody I like. There’s a band out of Cincinnati called the Star Devils. I like them, a killer fuckin’ rockabilly band. I like stuff that flies under low radar or is completely off the screen.

How about Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys?

Yeah, I’m looking at one of his posters on my wall right now. He’s a damn good friend of mine. He would be the other one, Big Sandy. A lot of the people I like are people the industry people never heard of or won’t have nothing to do with us because maybe we’re not anorexic.

Big Sandy has also said he’s had some pressure to be contemporary. He didn’t really know what that meant because he wouldn’t be true to his sound if he tried to incorporate a heavier rock sound. You’re beyond all that, I suppose?

Oh, definitely. I see it as a step down. For lack of a better term, it’s kind of like joining a gang. I speak of this from an outsider’s point of view, because I’m a country boy. But I guess if you got tired of having your ass whipped by all the boys, you could join a gang and be a part of a bigger thing. But they do things their own way in a gang and they have their own stars. But, outside of that gang, you have to be one bad-ass sumbitch to be able to handle it yourself and be able to speak the language. I’d rather take my chance outside the circle, man, because we can run our own game out here. We don’t have rules, like we have to hate each other, or we have to have a tour bus. If we have to have a tour bus, I don’t want a tour bus. Big Sandy might need one.

He got rid of his. He’s back to a van, he said. At least it has heating and air conditioning.

Yeah, a lot of these guys, they’re looking to do it like our heroes did it. But if you look at it like our heroes did it, they basically did those big bands even back then. But I just think that once people think you’ve sold out, the term ‘sold out’ when you say, “OK, my way ain’t working, let’s do it your way.” Once you do that, you can’t go back and everybody knows it. Almost overnight if you get accepted. Say, just for example, The Dixie Chicks. Detract what they said, detract that she doesn’t know the common rule, never bring up religion. Or any politics. If they had never said any of that still, how easy would it be for them to go out and go back to playing? Remember these are the people who said, I believe somebody told me they were quoted as saying that they were tired of the country audience. They wanted to go after a bigger audience. How easy would it be for them to go back to playing bars? It wouldn’t be good. And once you go from playing bars to playing great big stadiums, it’s hard to go back to that because you have to stay at that level. That’s a loaded deck you’re playing with. You can’t win. I would rather stay and go ahead and continue to take it one hill at a time.

[Given that Hancock’s producer, Lloyd Maines, is the father of The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie, it seems a bit ironic that Hancock would use the Chicks as an example of how not to do business. But that comment doesn’t set well with Hancock.]

I said this about him and I’ll say it again. Jane Fonda was Henry Fonda’s kid, too, and that didn’t take away from the actor that he was. Nor did it take away from the man that he was, his character. She was his kid that did those things, not him. And if you’re gonna reflect anything from Lloyd to his kid, maybe you should reflect the good things because that’s what she got from him, the good things. I never heard that guy say anything about anything. I don’t even know where he stands politically. Far as I know, he doesn’t know where I stand politically either because I don’t bring it up. His kid, maybe she’s not really ’spozed to be a musician. Maybe she’s ’spozed to be a banker or something, something that has to do with money, because evidently that’s what’s important to ’em. You gotta understand, that’s not his doing. He can’t control his kid. She’s a grown woman and makes her own decisions, but as far as anybody who tries to judge Lloyd by that, I think is goofy. You’re taking a great person and you’re assuming just because of his kid, that ain’t fair to him.

  • When you talk to Wayne "The Train" Hancock about his music, you'd better get it right.

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