Hank, junior

Wayne Hancock rides shotgun down the Lost Highway

As a kid, Wayne Hancock moved around so often that now, at the age of 30, he can barely recall most of the places in which he lived. He knows for sure he was born at Baylor Hospital, and he remembers living in Kansas and Idaho when his father, an engineer who designed the booster rockets for the first moon launch, quit his job to become a forest ranger.

But most of the other places pass by like a blur--San Antonio, New Braunfels, Kilgore, and other misplaced points on the map. Hancock was a Marine, as well, spending four years in or around Hawaii. One reason Hancock figures he can't remember big hunks of his life was all those years spent at the bottom of a bottle, but he explains he's been sober going on three years. If he hadn't given up the booze, Hancock figures, he might have ended up dead in the back of a Cadillac just like his hero and inspiration Hank Williams.

"Hank Williams was my big idol when I grew up," Hancock says, "and people always try to blame their problems on other people. When you're a kid you try to be like your heroes, and I got pretty close to where he was. I didn't have a Cadillac then, but I got one now--a '66 Caddy. And let me tell you--when Hank Williams died, he was probably pretty comfortable."

Now, Hancock lives in an old cotton gin warehouse in San Marcos, a place called the Feedhouse Number 12 that comes complete with a boxcar sliding-door entrance. It's only appropriate that Hancock should live "about 50 yards away from the tracks," after a young life spent as a hobo of sorts--first wandering with his family, then with the Marines, then as a struggling young country musician working in any shithole honky-tonk that'd hire him for beer money. He ain't nicknamed "The Train" for nothing.

Though he's 30 years old and about to release his first album--the breathtaking Thunderstorms and Neon Signs on the tiny Dejadisc label out of San Marcos--Hancock speaks and sings like a man who has lived a dozen lives, some of them not even his. This baby-faced singer and songwriter is more than a throwback, he's an anachronism: A yodeling country singer with a penchant for red-dirt poetry, Jimmie Rodgers, Louis Jordan, big bands, and the songs of George Gershwin. Like Junior Brown, Hancock is a man who embraces dead tradition and breathes profound new life into it; he isn't retro only because, for him, country music starts and stops with Hank and Jimmie, like George Strait and Garth Brooks never happened.

"My dad knew all the cool tunes, and he'd sing them for us," says Hancock, whose sister Rebecca Hancock Snow sings George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime" with Wayne on Thunderstorms. "We'd hear my father talk about the singers in the old days and about how great Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were. 'Lovesick Blues' was the first song of his I heard, and the first time I heard it goosebumps went up my arms and shivers up my spine. After that, I put away all the records I had and started listening to Hank and Jimmie and Burl Ives and Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and started alienating myself from the world of the '70s to go back to the '30s, '40s, '50s.

"That's where my parents were from, and they kept saying the things were better then. It sounded like a real cool place to live, and if you grow up around that kind of atmosphere you'll long for those days because you're convinced they were better. You say, 'Maybe I'd have been this way, and maybe I wouldn't have been unpopular in school.' I couldn't relate to anything modern. The rock and roll guys were talkin' about partyin' and smokin' dope and gettin' laid, and I didn't know what they were talkin' about."

The influences are so obvious that when Joe Ely, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen, and Butch Hancock were writing and casting their musical Chippy, a first-person account of a Depression-era whore living in a West Texas boomtown, they brought in Hancock to play the ghost of Hank Williams. When the piece was staged at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan last year, Hancock appeared behind a cloud of smoke as if summoned from a dream or a memory, singing of thunderstorms rollin' over the West Texas plains and music from the Grand Ol' Opry playin' over the radio.

Hancock would make his recording debut on the Chippy sound track alongside Ely and Hancock and Robert Earl Keen, but few recording contracts came his way; it seemed he was too much a product of the past, too different from the pop-country that defines country radio. He says Warner Bros. tried to take him into the studio to record a demo, but the producer told him his songs had too many words, and he refused to let Hancock use his own band. Other attempts at working with the Nashville establishment led to similar failures.

As a result, Hancock went with Dejadisc, which allowed him to record what amounts to the best country music of the year, only because it doesn't even sound of this era: Loaded with steel guitars and trombones and clarinets, not to mention Hancock's high lonesome twang and yodel, Thunderstorms evokes the grand tradition of country--when the music transported the listener to a vast land of "real gone joints" along deserted highways, where a "Cold Lonesome Wind" swept through deserted plains, where a man would dance with his "honey lovin' baby" till the bars all closed down.

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