By Chris Gray
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Somewhere between Jimmie Rodgers and Brooks & Dunn, country music turned up its nose at homemade hooch and juke joints and moved uptown to call drinks and kicker clubs.
To Wayne Hancock, Dallas-born and Western swing raised, that move was a mistake. So the 31-year-old musician has dug in his heels and held tight to the vintage country styles of Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter and Hank Williams.
Those influences can be heard on Hancock's 1995 debut CD Thunderstorms and Neon Sign. Chock full of sparse arrangements whose simplicity undresses the emotions behind the lyrics, Thunderstorms led to a series of rave reviews in the likes of Pulse!, Newsweek, CMJ and Rolling Stone; it also led to a wave of hype that's hailed Hancock as a savior of old school honky-tonk and a leader of a new breed of country and western musicians.
That's a considerable image for a man who, as he admits, "never really intended to be a musician" to live up to. But as Hancock also says, "There was just a bunch of junk on the radio, so I had it in my mind that, damn it, I'd make my own music."
The origins of that music go back personally to the time when Hancock was nine and his father taught him a few guitar chords. Stylistically, the origins go back a lot further. "I was living in the 1970s, but felt like I was stuck in the 1920s," he says. "In the '70s, [musicians] were doing all these weird electronic, wah-wah noises. As far as I'm concerned, that stuff had no place on the bandstand. I felt like I had to create my own thing."
For inspiration, he turned to his father's record collection, which ranged from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Big Band music to Western swing to roots rock. "I remember getting a Charlie Pride record that was a tribute to Hank Williams," Hancock says. "As soon as I heard that, I quit listening to Charlie and started listening to Hank. I expanded to jazz and blues and bebop -- anything that would make someone drop their plate and look at the stage."
But while a teenage Hancock dug deep for the music he loved, taking it to the stages of his hometown, radio hyped dime-a-dozen cowboys and paint-by-numbers songs. Despairing of his chances to make it in that atmosphere, Hancock joined the Marines right out of high school. Six years later, he went to Nashville with a chip on his shoulder and a vicious drinking habit.
"The whole scene turned me off," he said. "It wasn't about being into music and having rhythm in your soul, it was about money." Nashville left Hancock so disgusted that, again, he swore off his dream of making music and returned to Dallas, where he worked dead-end jobs while living in the projects.
But that grew old fast, and soon, he admits, "it just seemed more natural to pick up my guitar and play for money, beer and food instead of mowing some dink's yard." With a renewed sense of purpose, Hancock and his drinking habit went to Austin, where he happened upon a steady, low-paying gig and a friend's couch. He also happened upon some payback for his years of low living.
"I went to the hospital, and every disease you can imagine was in my stomach," he says. "I told God that if he kept me sober, I would never drink again. It's been three years and eight months."
With sobriety on his side, Hancock cut his album and watched his star rise. As a country music purist, he was a bit surprised at his wide-ranging appeal. Even the Mohawk brigade took a liking to the yodeling crooner. "I call them the earring people," Hancock says. "I think they admire the fact that I can look a record executive in the eye and tell him where to take his contract. They're very loyal people, and they appreciate honesty."
Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, an icon among many "earring people," was so impressed with Hancock that he offered to produce Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, a job that eventually went to Son Volt producer Lloyd Maines. "[My associates] wanted Trent to do it because he's a big name," Hancock says. "That's why music is the way it is -- 'cause people chase after recognition instead of people who know what they're doing. Trent can produce a great rock album, but he ain't no hillbilly."
Hancock takes his growing success in stride, content to spend his off time restoring his '66 Cadillac and shopping for a small apartment in his adopted home of San Marcos.
"One day I guess it'd be nice to have a '50s-style ranch house with huge picture windows so I could watch the storms roll in," he says. "I'd like to have enough money to never worry again, but as long as I'm doing music because I like doing it, I'll always be rich."
Wayne Hancock performs Friday, August 23, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Tickets are $6, 21 and up; $8, 18 to 21. Loblolly opens. Doors open at 7 p.m. For info, call 225-0500.