Pound for pound, Rocks Off's choice for greatest living Texas songwriter is Butch Hancock, who happens to play in the same band as his closest competition for that title - old Lubbock buddies and fellow Flatlanders Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck over Labor Day weekend, Hancock and Gilmore ran through several reasons why we feel that way: "Just a Wave, Not the Water," "Circle of Love," "If You Were a Bluebird" (always our favorite) and "West Texas Waltz," to name just a few.
Hancock is as prolific as he is profound. Earlier this year, he played five consecutive nights at Austin's Cactus Cafe without repeating a single song, the second time in his career he had done so. The whole thing was recorded and now, Hancock says, he's trying to figure out what to do with all those songs.
Now back with the Flatlanders, Hancock and his buddies are still touring behind 2009's Hills and Valleys and play Conroe's Crighton Theatre tonight. Rocks Off talked to him for a few minutes earlier this week from St. Louis, where he was hanging out in a hotel room after lunch with Gilmore and Gilmore's son Colin.
Rocks Off: How formal or informal an operation is the Flatlanders at this point?
Butch Hancock: Well, it's always been a cross between formal and informal (laughs). That may be an unanswerable question. Obviously we're playing pretty much with the same band all the time these days, and we all have other projects going on and solo careers as well. We're just fortunate that we can get together and make the Flatlander thing happen. It's such a delight touring with all these guys and just having a bunch of friends on the bus.
RO: Are you still in Terlingua?
BH: I get back down there a lot of the time, but we've got our kids in school in Wimberley right now, so that's where we're hanging out most of the time. I think as soon as we get back, we're going to head out for Thanksgiving down there in Terlingua. We get down there once or twice a month. I've got a housesitter down there now, so that helps out. Life in the desert is fantastic. I love it out there.
RO: Do you find it easy to write out there?
BH: Pretty much. Although I have to say, I think I'm at the point where I've been able to write just about anywhere. You can always turn your back on whatever is going on and scribble down some notes. Busy restaurants have always been one of my favorite places to write. The cacophony works as white noise, so I can get off in that other zone pretty easily.
RO: How elastic is the set list from night to night?
BH: We've been changing it a little bit. We've been doing some old songs that we haven't done in a long time, and some brand-new ones. Joe's done a couple of new ones, and I've got several on tap as well. We've all got albums in the works - I've got to tell you about Jimmie's new album. He just recorded an album with a band called the Wronglers.
RO: How far through your catalog did you get in five nights at the Cactus?
BH: I did the same thing 20 years ago, almost to the date - well, 1990 or 1991. I think we did six nights that time, and 140 songs. I think I might have repeated four or five songs out of that batch. Most of them were songs I had written since that time, or they were songs that I hadn't performed too many times. The first time I did it, it was called "No Two Alike," and this time we called it "No Two More Alike."
RO: What is the appeal of trains for songwriters?
BH: Ohhh... I think they're such great icons of travel - traveling from town to town, and that's what troubadors have always done. They also touch on the image of the Old West; this last one we did was a steam locomotive. Some of it's just kind of iconic, and yet there's such an amazing feeling of just riding on a train. I've ridden trains all over the world, pretty much, and it's just a great feeling stepping onto the platform and you're in a new place. We get the same thing riding the tour bus too.
RO: Was Hills and Valleys the first time you three had collaborated on an album?
BH: Most of the time we had just written our own songs, pretty much. The first album we did when we got back together [2002's Now Again], almost all of that was very collaborative. The ones we collaborated on were truly collaborations. We did a lot of writing at Joe's studio, just hanging around and writing on things. Other times we'd write little pieces while we were off on our separate ways and then get back together and compare notes.
RO: Do you ever get called in to be... I guess the word they use is "song doctor"? Do you do much of that?
BH: No. A few people have asked me and I generally tell them I don't do that.
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RO: Do you find it hard to give other people advice about their songs?
BH: No. I enjoy discussing songwriting with folks, and I can give folks pointers and things like that. Collaboration - if there's an energy there and it feels right, then it just happens. I think that's partly from growing up in Lubbock and spending most of my musical career operating out of Austin, there's been that attitude of "Yeah, we're doing it just to write songs and perform them," and not really as a kind of business. Although we're obviously in the business of that as well. We're still trying to keep the dog wagging the tail instead of the other way around.
RO: On the latest record, there are a lot of lyrics about borders, travel, the wind, a lot of motion. Does that come from a lifetime as a traveling musician or something else?
BH: When you're in Lubbock, everything in the world is happening over the horizon. We also realized that everything in the world happens right wherever you are. And then borders, of course, and the old territorial insanity that humans have. We wrote a couple of songs during the time when that border wall and immigration was the big news. One thing we noticed was the further away from the border you get, the less people understand about being within borders.