By Jeremy Hallock
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Shadows Where the Magic Was
When the music that James Hand loved--in this case, the stark traditional country of the post-war era--changed and moved on, he stuck with it. It's appropriate, then, that Hank Williams Sr. is the name most often used to describe Hand. Like Williams, Hand has both a nasal twang and a forlorn, heartsick quality to his voice and songs, but he does more than reference a stack of thick old 78s. He updates that sound in a way that recalls '70s honky-tonk troubadour Gary Stewart.
Stewart was an anachronism even in his heyday--the era of mechanical bulls and slick, facile country music. The lust, love, hate, and hurt in Stewart's songs fairly dripped onto the listener, and Hand is similarly raw and direct. Listen to his tearjerkers--"I Heard Mama Callin'" and "Not Worth the Trouble Anymore"--and you're listening to the guy who can't help himself and starts blubbering into his beer, causing his buddies to intently study their beer-nuts. He hurts, and he doesn't give a damn who knows it.
Which is not to say that Hand is some weeping willow. He writes classic country songs, with a strong shot of realism among the suds. "Over There, That's Frank" is a plummeting barfly's guided tour of the spot where he's drinking himself to death; the song's as pathetic as it is poignant. And "Merry Christmas Darlin'" is a gun-in-the-mouth holiday tune that's as full of self-pity--and shit--as it is pain. The title track, in which a crushed heart returns to the scene of former happiness, is a good primer in what it takes to make a truly great country song. Hand understands the adversarial relationship a person can have with his own heart, and how excruciatingly pleasurable it can be sometimes to torture yourself--at least you're inflicting the damage now.
Hand does up-tempo equally well: the rockabilly "Little Bitty Slip," the pastoral love song "The Banks of the Brazos," and the Johnny Horton-ish "Baby, Baby, Don't Tell Me That." In fact, even "Shadows" chugs along at a nice pace while telling its sad tale, a trick that recalls the best work of the Glaser Brothers. "Everybody Got It But Me" is the kind of joke-driven story-song that Hank Thompson and Lefty Frizzell used to specialize in, and with the punch line, Hand authentically thumbs his nose at any NashVegas PC posturing. Producer and local country musician Tommy Alverson embellishes little, which perfectly suits Hand's approach. Low-key (for the most part) drums, crying steel, sentimental fiddle touches--Shadows Where the Magic Was has by choice a sound that was mandatory in 1948; by so choosing, Hand and Alverson have turned in what may well be the country release to beat in 1998.