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.

"When I started playin' the little honky-tonks on the Gladewater Highway in East Texas, I was around 13 or 14," Hancock says. "I'd play all the little juke joints and pool halls and dives, and those people knew the same people I did musically, so it was never any problem, but when you're a nobody goin' around singing, it was hard to get an audience from the 1980s to like stuff from the 1950s. You could always find young people who knew who Hank Williams was, but they were...well, not exactly rednecks, but a lot of big-time alcoholics.

"I used to have to play dives full of old ugly women and their boyfriends who were in their 40s with their pants sliding down the crack of their ass when they put their quarter in the jukebox. It was awful. But now we play for people who are into the music--the old traditional people and the guys doin' metal who like us because we got three lead guitars and a steel guitar. I must say, the quality has improved tremendously."

Wayne "The Train" Hancock performs September 22 at the Sons of Hermann Hall. The Derailers open.

Easy pill to swallow
Another one bites the dust: As of this week, Tablet has joined the ranks of Metroplex bands signed to major labels. Though the deal is being finalized as you read this, the band is set to become the latest addition to the Mercury Records roster--which also includes the likes of Bon Jovi, KISS, John Mellencamp, Joan Osborne, and Def Leppard. (With the exception of Catherine Wheel, Greta, and Redd Kross, Mercury isn't exactly overflowing with so-called alt-rock artists.)

Tablet's manager Shaun Edwardes--who also helped Vibrolux secure its deal with Atlas-Polydor earlier this summer--says terms of the contract are still being negotiated, but it likely will be for seven albums. "It's fairly standard," Edwardes says of the deal, which will call for a certain number of guaranteed albums with the rest being optional (meaning the label can choose to accept or decline them).

The ink might just be drying on the contract, but Tablet is scheduled to begin recording their first Mercury album at the end of this week in Los Angeles, with Matt Hyde (Jane's Addiction, Porno for Pyros) producing. Edwardes says the album is due for release as early as February 1996--about two months before Vibrolux is scheduled to have its major-label debut in stores.

The band was signed to the label by Aaron Jacoves, vice-president of A&R, with the blessing of Mercury president Ed Eckstine, who flew to Dallas earlier this summer and caught a Tablet show at Trees.

"Ed liked it, " Edwardes says, "then we did a showcase at the Dragonfly in Los Angeles at the end of June, so we had all the A&R people there. We had a few other labels interested--A&M was one, Atlantic was another--but we decided we liked Aaron and Ed and Mercury. Aaron seemed to be in touch with where the band's coming from. He's been in to see them four or five times."

Scene, heard
The New York City-based Dragmules--the band of Dallas expatriates that features Johnny McNabb (ex of Rumble), Josh Weinberg (formerly of The Daylights), and onetime State Bar-tender Trippy Thompson--has released its debut 2A on Atlantic Records. It's dedicated to Jay Lavender...

Pantera lead...uh...singer Phil Anselmo will debut his new band Down September 21 at Deep Ellum Live. From its inception, Down--which also features Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity and members of Crowbar and Eye Hate God--"was going to be a band that was influenced by bands that were influenced by Sabbath before it was cool to be influenced by Sabbath," Keenan explains. "Dig?" Dug...

Texas Jewboy Richard "Kinky" Friedman will read from and sign copies of his new book God Bless John Wayne September 23 at Borders Books & Music beginning at 3 p.m. Friedman has also released a terrific new CD of outtakes and rarities from his '70s heyday as America's sweetheart of the rodeo and synagogue, appropriately titled From One Good American to Another...

Angus Wynne--the man responsible, once upon a time, for bringing the likes of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to town for their first local appearances--has joined with Dallas Alley to help breathe new life into the R&B club Blues Alley; over the years, the venue has also been the disco-rock Boiler Room and a country-music club. Initially, Wynne, who was also responsible for the legendary Texas International Pop Festival in 1969, will book the club and piece together a house band (just like the old days) featuring local R&B players who used to tour with the likes of Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Bland. "I'm trying to focus on the classic R&B material that was indigenous to the Southwest and Texas," Wynne says. "It ought to be very exciting and dance-worthy." As proof, he's brought local soul legend Al "TNT" Braggs into the club for shows not to be missed...

At 3 p.m. on September 22, The Toadies will sign copies of their hit album Rubberneck at the Best Buy on LBJ Freeway and Midway Road--the sure sign of stardom in anyone's book...

Correction: It seems we were a little eager two weeks ago when it was reported in this space that Ugly Mustard had signed to Bill Ham's Lone Wolf management company. Bassist Mike Daane says the band has indeed been in discussions with Ham, along with several other managers, but that nothing has been signed yet with anybody. The band, which recently played a showcase at the CMJ conference in New York City, has also been the subject of much discussion among several major labels. "It's nuts," Daane says of the recent business activities.

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObservaol.com.

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