One of the sweatiest shows I ever saw in a small bar was at Duffy's Tavern in Chico, Calif. That night featured Austin, Texas, musician Wayne “the Train” Hancock, the finest purveyor of classic jump blues, western swing and hep-cat country boogie you're likely to find. A veteran roadster playing around 200 shows a year, Hancock tours with great steel players and stand-up bassists to propel his vintage vocal twang. Hank Williams III once said: “Wayne Hancock has more Hank Sr. in him than either I or Hank Williams Jr. He is the real deal.”
But what I like most about this 44-year-old former Marine is that he isn't a strict revivalist or purist. He mixes his favorite old-school genres and plays them with a heavily rhythmic, heartfelt swing that blows the doors off anything you'll find on the contemporary country charts. His new album, “Viper of Melody” (Bloodshot) was laid down fast and produced once again by revered Texas musician Lloyd Maines, father of Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines. For this one Hancock used his touring band and the results sound more like one of his marathon live shows.
“Viper is an old slang term from the '30s meaning reefer enthusiast,” Hancock says from the road in Lancaster, Penn., mimicking the snake hiss of weed inhalation. “Just a play on words. It's about songwriting and having fun.”
Hancock wrote some of the tunes on the new album years ago, and many share a common theme of hard times (“Rich folks call it recession, but the poor folks call it depression,” goes one lyric). Yet Hancock hasn't really noticed a sense of despair during his recent travels cross-country. “Seems like people are gonna put their shoulders to the wheel and ride it out,” he says.
This hasn't been the easiest tour, however. Hancock had to get rid of several band mates when a major scuffle developed. “One guy had a bad drinking problem, the other got tired of hearing him run his mouth and finally did something about it,” he says. “But it cost me two players. …. The guy who got his face beat in, they're having a benefit for him.”
Recently married, Hancock has cleaned up his hard-partying ways on the road. A former alcoholic, Hancock has suffered from tremors his entire life, which is why he calls marijuana “his glass of champagne.” While he still struggles financially, he consistently receives large checks from having his music in films (“They paid me 14 grand for one yodel in ‘The Longest Yard’ remake. … Hank Williams' music was too expensive”), as well as shows such as “Six Feet Under” and satellite radio.
At some point the conversation turns to hard times for journalists, and Hancock displays why he's one of the more compassionate guys in the biz.
“Sometimes you gotta walk through the briars to get to the green grass,” he says. “Next time we see each other, we'll both be alive and doing well, and hell, I'll buy you dinner. It's just money, brotha.” S
Wayne “the Train” Hancock performs at Plaza Bowl on Friday, May 29, at 8 p.m. Opening bands include locals the Hotdamns and Dean Lee and the Unwelcome Guest. $10. Call 233-8799 or visit www.myspace.com/plazabowlrva.