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 doesnt make Hancock happy.
I always say thats a nice compliment, when people say that, but could you keep your voice down a little bit? he says, laughing. Thats kind of a silly thing to say. How can you sound better than the person who sang it? You cant. Its a nice compliment, but its like, Geez, man, get a life. Is there a bulls-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 NPRs Prairie Home Companion and the prestigious PBS showcase Austin City Limits. Theres no one word to describe what Hancock does. It resembles music from another era, but dont make the mistake of calling it retro. To Hancock, its simply American music.
Wayne The Train Hancock: Yeah, its 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 its true. Its like saying everything is just disco if you dont like it. If you really want to get down to it, they really aint much on the radio these days that aint retro. Its all been done. The stuff on the radio now, theyve been doing it for the last 10 to 20 years. That makes it vintage. The stuff that Im doing, I dont know that its ever really been done this way. There were bands from the past that did it, but there werent really hillbilly jazz bands, but it seems like the drum thing, the percussion really kicked in. But at the same time, I didnt invent this, its been around for so damn long.
Its 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 thats a bad word to use. Thats ridiculous. Thats like saying alternative country. Whew! What exactly does that mean? Thats what I like to say about music on the radio, that its alternative country. Its 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 dont understand their music, so, in essence, I just became a hypocrite in what I just told you. Thats what retro is, so I dont 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: Youre pretty much a road dog. I read one article that said even before you had to, youd get in your car and drive just to see the countryside.
I just kind of like to get in my car. Maybe its sickness or something. Like being addicted to some kind of a drug. It is a drug, you know? Cant get enough of those diners, and those 12-hour shifts behind the wheel. Drivingit just does something to you, you know? I love it.
I read one article where you said your band wouldnt let you drive.
I think they was afraid of my driving, I think I drive a little bit careless. But, to my credit, Ive never killed anybodyin my band, in a car wrecknor have I ever got in a car wreck with my band. Ive 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 wed 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. Its nice in that area out there, just make a vacation out of it. If you dont do that, man, I would think after a while, if you dont 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. Its not due to how much work, but how much work Im 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 dont you like?
Everything. I mainly dont like it because it doesnt 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 theyre on a tour bus. Theres other things about busesyou cant take em down roads that arent made for buses. Like, I can do state parks. If Im going south, going down 66, which is a fun drive for me, you cant go thorough The Painted Desert in your tour bus. Lot of things you cant do. Cant 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. Im 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. Its one of those things. I feel like Ive 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 dont want to say, Take Me Back to Tulsa [a Bob Wills hit], because thats not my song. A lot of the old Route 66 runs through there. Its just one of those towns thats cool because of the history its got. Its got cool people that live there and its 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, thats how far the industrys gone: All you have to do is mention something, and they say, Oh! Thats a tribute to so and so. How can it be a tribute to Bob Wills? We dont 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 were doing. Ive even heard some people say that high school kids are picking it up, which is kind of scary. Well, not scary, but thats weird because usually kids, not just high school kids, but kids in school generally that age are into whatever-the-hells on the radio. Theyre not much aware of anything else. I dont write for kids. I write for adults. And if youre 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 thats cool that theyre picking it up, I guess. Somebody told me were the new outlaws. Pardon the expression, but outlaws means youre outlawed. And if youre being accepted, then youre 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 arent Clear Channel carry us.
[But theres not much else on the radio these days that appeals to Hancock.]
I cant think of anybody I like. Theres 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, Im looking at one of his posters on my wall right now. Hes 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 wont have nothing to do with us because maybe were not anorexic.
Big Sandy has also said hes had some pressure to be contemporary. He didnt really know what that meant because he wouldnt be true to his sound if he tried to incorporate a heavier rock sound. Youre beyond all that, I suppose?
Oh, definitely. I see it as a step down. For lack of a better term, its kind of like joining a gang. I speak of this from an outsiders point of view, because Im 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. Id rather take my chance outside the circle, man, because we can run our own game out here. We dont 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 dont want a tour bus. Big Sandy might need one.
He got rid of his. Hes back to a van, he said. At least it has heating and air conditioning.
Yeah, a lot of these guys, theyre 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 youve sold out, the term sold out when you say, OK, my way aint working, lets do it your way. Once you do that, you cant 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 doesnt 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 wouldnt be good. And once you go from playing bars to playing great big stadiums, its hard to go back to that because you have to stay at that level. Thats a loaded deck youre playing with. You cant win. I would rather stay and go ahead and continue to take it one hill at a time.
[Given that Hancocks 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 doesnt set well with Hancock.]
I said this about him and Ill say it again. Jane Fonda was Henry Fondas kid, too, and that didnt 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 youre gonna reflect anything from Lloyd to his kid, maybe you should reflect the good things because thats what she got from him, the good things. I never heard that guy say anything about anything. I dont even know where he stands politically. Far as I know, he doesnt know where I stand politically either because I dont bring it up. His kid, maybe shes not really spozed to be a musician. Maybe shes spozed to be a banker or something, something that has to do with money, because evidently thats whats important to em. You gotta understand, thats not his doing. He cant control his kid. Shes a grown woman and makes her own decisions, but as far as anybody who tries to judge Lloyd by that, I think is goofy. Youre taking a great person and youre assuming just because of his kid, that aint fair to him.