James Hand

"Decent people never see real outlaws," says James Hand. He should know. One of the country's hottest honky-tonkers, Hand is 100-percent pure outlaw, even if it's just the musical kind.

At 51 he took Austin by storm, and at 53 he's just released his first nationally distributed album of original country music. Willie Nelson calls his resonant baritone, with a wail as strong as Hank's and a delivery as sorrowful as Lefty's, "the real deal." Somewhere in hillbilly heaven, Williams and Frizzell are probably smiling at the thought of having another haunted and tortured troubadour joining their ranks.

While working as a truck driver in 1995, Hand drove through Dallas and hooked up with his friend Tommy Alverson, who produced his first CD, Shadows Where the Magic Was, a truly retro, dead-on classic country-style record. The Truth Will Set You Free, his new record produced by Lloyd Maines and Ray Benson (of Asleep at the Wheel) and distributed through Rounder Records, guarantees two-stepping while it delivers heavy, world-weary understanding. Hand has lived the kind of life that sad country songs talk about, but he avoids discussing the details. He'll tell you if you ask him, but he does not build himself up as a bad man and an outlaw. "Once you stamp yourself with that label, you better be prepared to wear it," he says.

Outlaw music and its close cousin, Texas music, tend to be filled with second-rate John Mellencamps and Jimmy Buffetts. They send serious country music lovers running for the doors crying for people like Dale Watson, Junior Brown and Wayne "The Train" Hancock. Hand isn't interested in such mediocrity; he's not interested in beating on an acoustic guitar and hollering with the pride of being merely average. He wants the audience to understand their own demons, regrets and struggles as they listen, while he contends with his. Asked what he offers that differs from other songwriters, Hand says, "I'm offering parts of my soul so others can suffer through it." And two-step while they're at it.

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Ben Bell