Wayne Hancock walks a very fine line exceptionally well. If he were to stumble even a bit, his style of no-frills classic country and his uncompromising, intense personality could quickly devolve into cliché and caricature respectively. He maintains his balance by imbuing every song with passion and an exceptional level of musicianship. Underneath these elements is a strong sense of self-awareness and a keen effort by both Hancock and his band to avoid taking themselves too seriously. The result, at least on A-Town Blues, is a record that is fun, intense and an unqualified success.
Hancock is a product of the endlessly fertile Austin music scene. His first release, 1995’s Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, introduced the musical formula that he relies upon to the present day. His style mixes classic country (particularly Hank Williams), Bob Wills’ Western swing, rockabilly and honky tonk in ways that manage to sound both traditional and innovative. He wrote most of the songs himself (with the somewhat surprising exception of a cover of the Gershwin standard “Summertime”), and was accompanied by his road band — a wildly swinging and endlessly inventive group of musicians. The response to his debut was favorable, with the alt-country crowd identifying with his anti-Nashville rhetoric in particular.
Unlike his No Depression brethren of that era, Wayne “The Train”, didn’t grow away from his musical roots. Let Wilco, the Jayhawks and Whiskeytown “grow” into other styles and genres. Hancock was just fine with his own musical stew, and he continued to dish it out over two more albums for the Ark 21 label. He improved as a songwriter, and his band became more and more deadly. However, he began to suffer some criticism for his strident commitment to a sound that some critics derided as retro.
A-Town Blues is a shotgun blast to the ass of those critics. Hancock and his band masterfully show that the formula he has devised remains a potent and vital one, rather than some sort of empty homage to vintage influences. This is a flat-out great album, and a blueprint for artists looking to do something meaningful within the framework of traditional roots music.
The album rockets out of the gate with the title track, a galloping number driven by a guitar figure lifted from Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin'”. Hancock ratchets up his eerily Hank-like vocals, and calls out for solos by his sidemen in his finest Bob Wills holler. The song steps out of the traditional mold lyrically, as Hancock drawls, “My home is on a road adorned with neon”, a decidedly non-traditional lyric. These sort of contemporary elements co-exist harmoniously with the traditional throughout the album.
“Man of the Road” is firmly pushed along by the standout bass work of Shawn Supra, with an able assist to producer Lloyd Maines (Wilco, Richard Buckner, Joe Ely). Maines’ dry and unvarnished production complements the entire band, but Supra’s bass benefits the most. His elegant simplicity elevates track after track, each driven in its own way by the woody, rubbery syncopation of Supra’s playing. This contribution is critical in light of the fact that Hancock does not employ drums at all on the record. And it is a high compliment to the rhythmic sensibilities of the band as a whole that this fact went by unnoticed until I read it in the liner notes.
The lyrical content of the album centers around the classic American theme of moving on down the road, but there are notable exceptions. “Miller, Jack & Mad Dog” has to be one of the coolest songs ever written warning of the ills of driving under the influence. Eschewing the moral high ground for plain-spoken good sense, Hancock delivers this simple sermon:
Miller, Jack and Mad Dog will do you every time
But they’re no good for staying on the right side of that line
If Johnny Law don’t get you, somebody else could die
So help yourself and others, don’t go drivin’ when you’re high.
These words of wisdom are delivered over a breakneck rhythmic workout and appropriately ominous-sounding guitar riff. Another songwriting highlight is the weeper “Sands of Time”. Again, Hancock alternates elegant simplicity with romantic imagery. Simple lines like, “Yesterday I saw my baby walkin / Arm in arm with another man”, are paired with more wistful gems like, “My heart is driftin’ with the sands of time”.
“Every Time” finds Hancock tackling a late-night ballad in the classic style of American standards, rather than country. It’s a song that could be lifted from the repertoire of Nat Cole or Charles Brown. Hancock’s quivering, dry and low tenor massages the lyrics beautifully, while the guitar accompaniment favorably recalls work by elegant players such as Wayne Bennett or Oscar Moore.
This touching song is followed by a spirited, rowdy cover of “Viper”. Written by Fats Waller and popularized by Cab Calloway, it is an unabashed paean to reefer that easily puts to shame anything on The Chronic. Opening with the immortal lyric, “Dream about a reefer five feet long / Mighty immense but not too strong”, the song is certainly every bit as powerful to audiences today as it was when penned by Mr. Waller.
On these and every other track, Hancock is blessed with the assistance of a stellar band. The electric guitars of Dave Biller and Tony Lake are flawless as they cover the range from jazzy, liquid fills to biting, driving riffs. They fly through “California Blues”, soloing with, over and against each other with abandon, while handling a weeper like “Happy Birthday Julie” with deft sensitivity.
The dominant element of the band’s sound is the dynamic steel guitar of Jeremy Wakefield. He conjures more texture and depth with his modest instrument than some string sections. His solos reveal a witty and rich musical intellect that challenges and teases the listener time and again.
A-Town Blues was knocked out in just 20 hours, but never sounds rushed or tossed off. The closing track, “Railroad Blues” is introduced by Hancock as filler “just for the hell of it”. Musically, however, it is far from a time-killer. Written when he was 23, Hancock’s Jimmie Rodgers-styled blues is a fantastic showcase for the raw talent that serves as the bedrock of all his music. Yodeling in several shades of blue, Hancock’s worn and weary vocal delivery is touching. Producer Lloyd Maines sits in on steel guitar while Hancock accompanies himself on acoustic slide guitar. The effect of this combination is as potent as any of the full band tracks.
The common thread through all of the tracks on A-Town Blues is Hancock’s total commitment to the material. When this commitment is paired with the dynamism of his supporting musicians, it results in explosively good music. Debate over the extent to which Hancock is innovating is a waste of time in the face of music of this quality. A-Town Blues is roots music done right. Historical accuracy and idiomatic reference are simply tools that help Hancock to construct unique musical statements of his own. He may worship at the altar of Hank Williams and Bob Wills, but when the day is done he goes out and does his own good work. And this album is very good work indeed.