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Wayne Hancock Q&A
Wayne "The Train" Hancock Q&A
By Richard Skanse
Apr 2009

If there's one thing you really need to know about Wayne Hancock, it's this: The man is not a bullshitter.

Mind, that's a pretty bold statement to make, given that I have nothing to base it on outside of the man's music and one badly garbled 50 minute phone chat. There's no inside information I'm working off here, and no long history of knowing the guy or even testimony from those that do. Hell, maybe a little more research on the matter would turn up evidence that Hancock's actually a notorious bullshitter, or, at the very least, a keen white liar, fiendish practical joker and/or a mean poker player.

 

But honestly, that's not the kind of B.S. I'm talking about, so any revelations along those lines wouldn't matter, anyway. My analysis of Hancock is strictly in regards to his music, his artistic integrity and his unflappable conviction as a performer. And as far as all that's concerned, I'd bet the proverbial farm that I've got him pegged. True to his nickname, Wayne “the Train” Hancock runs on schedule, stays on track and always delivers the goods — and those goods, from his 1995 debut,Thunderstorms and Neon Signs , through to his latest, Viper of Melody , are never anything less than exactly what he intended them to be. This is not a guy who talks a big talk about “keeping it real” and then does the opposite. And it's not a matter of him just not having had the opportunity to “sell out” yet, either. Even when he says there's been people who've tried to get him to conform in one way or other, I get the feeling that the concessions he's refused to make were hardly the kind that might havereally watered down his gut-bucket honky-tonk and juke-joint rockabilly and turned Hancock into some kind of disposable, conveyor-belt country radio goon. Some artists who start out on the fringe are only a makeover and one made-to-order hit away from crossing over to the mainstream, but not this guy. Say what you will about the sorry state of Nashville (and Hancock will say plenty ); but it's just too much of a stretch to think than any industry suit could be so clueless as to witness a Hancock show or hear one of his records and think, “If we could just get this guy into the studio with Dan Huff or have him write a song with Toby Keith, we'd have a monster!” More often than not, any direct exposure to Hancock is most likely to just leave such mainstream-country types scratching their heads in utter confusion — or, running scared into the kind of dark-night-of-the-soul that leads to a mid-life crisis career change. Or the bottle.

 

Meanwhile, Wayne “the Train” just keeps barreling right along doing his thing like nothing ever happened, because — to quote the title of his second album — “that's what daddy wants.” And this is one daddy-o who never does anything else. And that ain't no B.S.

 

Congrats on Viper of Melody — it's a great record, as is par for your course. I asked [producer] Lloyd Maines about it the other day, and he said that it's “always pretty much nose to the grindstone” anytime he's ever made a record with you. He said you like to record as live as possible to capture the moment, and that you always record your records in two or three days. But I read on your Web site that this one actually only took a day and a half. Were you crunched for time or something?

Nope. Never really been crunched for time. I just like to get it done in that quick of time.

 

I was just joking, really. But seriously, what's the longest a record's ever taken you?

Probably my first one — that took a few days to make. Maybe three or four days.

 

You actually made your third record, 1999's Wild, Free & Reckless , in less than a day, didn't you?

Yep. And Swing Time [a 2003 live album cut at Austin's Continental Club] was made in like, three hours. It was cut on the same night, actually.

 

When you hear about some artists taking weeks or months or even years to make a record, that must just blow your mind. Do you hear about those and think, “What are they doing, recording a note a date?”

Yeah. I think sometimes people have got a little too much time on their hands. Maybe they've been given a good pile of money to make a record, and they go into the studio and get to where they want it to be tooperfect, you know? They've got access to that big studio, and all these people and tracks to work with, and they just get lost in perfection. But I think when you make something too perfect, it takes all the fun out of it. Sometimes I think a note being played “wrong” is what makes the song, you know? That's why I like to record live.

 

But Lloyd has quite a reputation as a perfectionist. He's got great ears and can spot an out-of-tune string like a hawk. How does his aesthetic work with your whole, knock-it-out-and-just-capture-the-moment mindset?

Oh, we work together great. Lloyd's probably the best producer I've ever worked with. In fact, he's about the only producer I've ever worked with. [ Laughs ] I guess in a way we both like “perfection,” but I just expect my guys to get it right in the first take. Or at least in the first one or two takes, because it's more like bluegrass that way. I like things spur of the moment. And if you can play music and you can get it right in one or two takes, then you'll have no problem getting it across onstage. But if someone's in the studio and you have to punch in on every note, how can they possibly recreate that same thing onstage? There's no way they can. You have to be convincing both onstage and on the album, because that's what people are buying from you. So I think it's really important that any record I have for sell comes off as good as the show we just played.

 

You recorded Viper of Melody with your road band. You haven't really done that before, have you?

No. The way I usually record, or the way I used to record for years was, I'd go in and use studio guys from around Austin. The thing is, tour bands come and go; sometimes you'll get really good ones, and then you'll lose a guy after a while because he wants to do something else with his life. Plus, whenever I make a record, I always do them the way I wished my tour band could sound. I've always been lucky to have good players on the road, but you can't always have, say, horn players with you on the road, budget wise. [Hancock's last album, the western-swing infused 2006's Tulsa , made particularly good use of studio horn players.] But my record company [Bloodshot] has been on me forever to use the guys I was touring with; they wanted me to do a guitar album, because I've toured for so long with just three people. And these guys I've got now, they're as good as any I've ever played with in the studio.

 

They're all fairly new, though, aren't they?

Yeah. Well, the steel player [Anthony Locke] has been with me for two years, and the bass player [Huckleberry Johnson] has been with me about two years, too. The lead guitar player [Izak Zaidman] has been with me now for about a year. They're really good guys, though, and I think they'll be with me for another five or six years. That's a long time for a band!

 

One thing you've never really had in your band is a drummer.

Nope. I've never felt the need for a drummer, because it works without one. Well, my thing works without one — I wouldn't recommend anyone else doing it unless they know what I know. I mean, it's like bluegrass; in bluegrass, you don't usually see a drummer, because they don't need one. The picking and the rhythm itself is the percussion. You can hear it. And you can hear it in my music. And I always thought, “Well, if you already have the rhythm, and the whole band can hear it, there's no need for a drummer to keep time.”

I started listening to the rockabilly bands when I was about 24 years old — I knew about rockabilly before then, but I'd never actually heard anyone play it live. There was a band called High Noon in the early '90s that was really good, doing really well, and they played rockabilly music and they didn't have drums. But you could hear the rhythm, you could hear the chunk , you know? And that was the sound I'd been looking for, but never could find it anywhere. I tried it with drums, with electric basses and drums, and I never could get it until I started using the doghouse bass. Between the doghouse bass and the way that I play guitar — I slap the hell out of it with my right hand — I found out we could make that chunk noise, eliminate the drummer and make three or four people in the band sound like we had six or seven.

 

Your first exposure to live rockabilly — was that when you first landed in Austin?

Yeah. That was when I first, first got here. I got here about '90, right after New Year's Eve. I remember, because I was leaving one town that was a real shithole, and I was moving to another town that I didn't really know anything about. I remember getting to Austin thinking, “Well, it's gotta be better than where I just came from!”

 

I know you were in the Marines. Was this right after that?

Yeah, that was after the Corps years.

 

Where were you stationed?

In Hawaii.

 

I imagine that time of your life — the military chapter — must seem like a whole other world now.

It was a whole other world. My father was a WWII veteran and a Korean War veteran, and he tried to re-enlist for Vietnam. He wasn't a career military man, but it was just a good paying job. He went all the way to Lieutenant. I'm pretty impressed by that, because the whole four years I was in, all I made it to was Lance Corporal — which is not very high. That was 20 something years ago. What's funny is, I have dreams now about going back into the Marines. And in my dreams I'm like, “Why am I doing this? I'm too old!” [ Laughs ]

 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up a lot of different places. I was born in Dallas, but we spent a lot of time moving around the country. I guess the first time we moved was to New Braunfels, around '68, when I was 3 years old. We lived there for a little bit, and then in the early '70s we moved to Idaho. My father was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of damn near all of them. He was an engineer for Boeing, and then one day he got tired of the whole damn game and became a forest ranger for awhile. He was one of those guys where you could put him in any situation, and he could deal with it. He just really liked to work. He was especially good at mathematics; he just understood it, you know? So for me to become a musician was probably not what my dad wanted, I don't think. He probably would have preferred me to be an engineer or a doctor. But … he wanted us to be happy.

 

Did he ever get to see your career take off?

Yeah, he did, a little bit. I was actually on the road when he died, which was 10 years ago. I was in Montana when he died, and I had to play that night in Minneapolis. It was a rough gig, having to play after your father's just died. But people coming to see you, they don't know about your tragedy, they're just there to see a show. So you have to act like nothing happened. I did pretty good. Somebody asked for “Cold Lonesome Wind,” and my daddy really liked that song. So I kind of broke during that song, but I held through it pretty good.

 

You didn't really discover rockabilly until your 20s, but did you grow up with the more hardcore honky-tonk stuff that's also such a big part of your sound today?

Yeah, I grew up kind of listening to that. My father, because he was in the second World War and Korea, most of his music was from the '40s and '50s: there was lots of Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. And big band records — Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, all that stuff. And my older sister really liked the Beatles, so I had that, too, and at the time I was probably wishing that I could hear more rock 'n' roll. But I got to where I really started to like all that older stuff, like Hank Williams. And after a while, it got to where I couldn't listen to anything but that.

 

Are you still that way today?

I like to open my mind. I mean, everybody's got something in their record collection that they like that they don't tell anybody else about. [Laughs ] This last time we were on the road, we listened to a lot of jazz. I still like hardcore honky-tonk music, though. I just like that style. And some of the things they were going through back then are very similar to the things we're all going through now, so it really makes sense to me. What I did was, I took that attitude from then, and I applied to now; I took that old style that I love, and I'm taking it with me. I think that the music industry … maybe it's because of arrogance, or maybe because they realize they don't own everybody, I think they try to keep everybody in the dark about what real country music is. Real country music is a hell of a lot more than bad lyrics and shitty musicians, you know? But that's kind of what we're stuck with, those of us who don't have satellite radio. Fortunately, I don't listen to the radio, so I guess I'm OK!

 

As much as you love classic honky-tonk, do you ever feel in any way confined or limited by it?

No, not at all. If anything, I feel confined when I listen to what the rest of the [pop/country] world has to offer. That music, to me, is very confining, because it's like they want everything to sound the same. To me, that's very communistic. If the world was the way Nashville wanted it to be, then it'd be like the new world order: we'd all listen to the same music, and we'd all probably have to wear the most expensive clothes and buy the most expensive gas, too. Thank God there's people out there who don't want to conform.

 

Has anyone ever actually tried to get you to compromise your sound?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. When I was with Ark 21 Records, [label boss] Miles Copeland just could never hear things without drums. He's a friend of mine, and I respect the guy because he's a good businessman, but … he's one of those guys who knows how to make money, but when it comes to music, he don't know nothing. And I'm sure that'd piss him off to hear me say that, but I stand by my comment, and he knows how I feel. Anyway, my second and third records, That's What Daddy Wants and Wild, Free & Reckless , both had drums on them, and that was all Copeland's idea. He wanted me to put drums on everything, but I only used them on a couple of songs. And I had the lady playing drums [Austin's Lisa Pankratz] do these really outlandish, Gene Krupa style things — just to be a smartass!

The thing is, when I make a record or play a show, I'm there representingmy music, not theirs. The only reason I ever got into the music business was so I would have a way of getting the stuff I like — and the stuff that people who come to see me like — out there. And I've had a following for what I do pretty much ever since I first played here in Austin, and it's there anywhere I go to play a show. So anytime someone starts moving in and trying to enslave my sound, I'm going to fight them off. It's the same thing with naming my price. My price is not to be named, ever. I never want to be one of those guys who says, “Yeah, I sold out; now I'm making all this money, but my music sucks.” If that was the case, I think I'd have to kill myself. That'd be the ultimate failure. It's better to have pride in what you do. Maybe the American dream is to be well off at any cost, but I'm not willing to do that. Besides, we live well enough by our own means, playing on the road.

 

Speaking of the road — you got married last year at a gig in California, didn't you?

Yeah.

 

Most people take that day off.

Yeah. Well, here's the thing. We were trying to figure out a way to arrange the wedding here in Texas, but we've got family on all sides of the country, so we were trying to sort that out. And I thought I wanted to get married in church, because I love the Lord, but I don't really belong to a church because I'm always on the road. And then there was the issue of when to have it, because we're only home for a limited number of days at a time. Finally we just decided that because we're on the road all the time, and because we met when I was on the road, why not get married on the road? It just seemed the right thing to do. It just made the most sense. Why not get married at a honky-tonk while we're playing? That way we don't even have to hire a band! And, what better place to get married than Hollywood, California? It was the most far out, crazy wedding I've probably ever been to. Everything in it was crazy. Gina had the bridesmaids dress up like hotel maids, and I had my friend Big Sandy [of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys fame] come out and marry us onstage. 
Wayne and Gina's Wedding at Safari Sam's, Los Angeles. June 8th, 2008 - by Leslie Kalohi

 

Your wife, Gina, now books all your shows. That pretty much gives her the power to get you out of the house or keep you around whenever she wants, doesn't it?

Well, she's on the road with me. She does the booking and sells merchandise, so she's busy, busy, busy all the time. There are times when she will stay home, I'm sure, but we work really good together. I had been needing a good booking agent, someone I could trust who wouldn't be sending me to crappy gigs just so they could get a commission. And I knew Gina was good with people, so I thought, why not let her take a stab at it? And she took to it right away. In fact, she did such a good job that after six months, I couldn't believe I'd ever worked with anybody else. It's really helps to have an agent who's actually out on the road with you, because she makes sure we don't have to drive 500 miles a day between gigs, and we seldom play a place where don't sell the room out. And, because there are still people out there who do crappy business, it's nice to have someone with you who can make sure that the guys taking money at the door aren't going to bullshit you. She can go up to club owners when it's time to get paid, and if they try to say, “Well, I talked to your booking agent, and …,” she says, “The booking agent's right here!” [ Laughs ] I've seen more than a couple of guys swallow hard when they figure it out. Plus, my bass player's an old football player, so you don't want to piss him off, either! So we make a really good team. We're back in business, and these last couple of years have just been outstanding.

 

It sounds like it! And having the new record out should keep things going good. On one sadder note, though, I wanted to ask you about Paul Skelton, who died of lung cancer in February. I know he played guitar on all of your records but this one, and you dedicated Viper of Melody to him. Do you have a favorite memory of him you'd like to share?

Yeah, I do. I loved the man. Everything about Paul was great. I guess my favorite story about Paul was … I was playing Threadgill's in Austin — it was a sing-for-your-supper thing, where you'd get onstage, play for 15 minutes, and then you'd get to eat for free. It was a great deal. Anyway, that's where I first met Paul. I remember he played some song in a really unique way, and I said, “Why do you do that?” And he said, “Because it makes people pay attention.” I thought that was pretty interesting. I said, “Pay attention, huh?” He said, “Yeah, watch this.” And then he went into “Honky Tonk Man,” but he didn't play it normal, you know? He had a way of playing everything just … different. For that song, he did one of those things where he winds the string down, and then started beating on the stage with his shoe … it was wild. And somebody was walking by carrying a big tray of beans or something, and they whipped around to see what he as doing when he started playing guitar and dropped the whole tray on the floor. I told the guy I was sitting with, “I want that guy with me onstage!” That was Paul. He was a genius.

You know man, when I was doing this album, I kind of knew he wasn't going to be around. And that was the reason I put that dedication to him on there. He played on every album I've ever made except for this one. I asked Paul to be on it, but when I talked to him, I could tell he wasn't doing very good. I could hear it in his voice, because he sounded very weak. He said, “Nah, I'm in the hospital …” And I understood. But I dedicated the album to him. What's interesting is, there's a song on there called “High Rolling Train” that I wrote for my father, when he was dying of cancer. So maybe that was Paul's song, too. I don't know. We didn't want him to go, but we're selfish that way. I guess the Lord must have had a better place for him — He gets all the good players! But when your friends go, you just gotta say to yourself, “I'll see them again.”




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