One goes into an interview with Wayne "The Train" Hancock expecting to confront the ghost of Hank Williams, because the singer has made a good living the past 17 years channeling Hank and other classic country acts. And, as expected, Hancock, who broke onto the roots music scene in 1995 after appearing in the Lubbock-situated musical Chippy, proved to be something of a throwback, complete with Luke the Drifter's Bama drawl.
Based in Austin, Hancock remains an in-demand touring machine. His van will be parked at the Armadillo Palace Saturday night. We caught up with him at home, unwinding from his latest long-haul road trip. He began the interview by telling me, "Hold it, let me light a cigarette, then we can do this."
RO: Your bio says you moved around a lot as a kid. I always thought your accent was like Central Oklahoma.
WH: I actually spent a lot of time in East Texas growing up. That's probably it.
RO: You'd just won a talent contest when you enlisted in the Marines. What was your time in the military like?
WH: They sent me to sea school. A lot of Navy ships all have a squad of Marines on board. But you've got to be really tidy in sea school. Like they'll look inside your pants for a hanging thread, little stuff like that. And I'm not that tidy. I actually wanted to be in infantry, so they finally kicked me out of the sea school.
I ended up stationed in Hawaii and it was great experience. I met some guys there, spent a lot of time just playing music when I was off duty.
Rocks Off: You're known as a road dog. Does it ever get old?
Wayne Hancock: Hell, yeah, it gets old. I'm 47, and it has definitely taken a toll on me. I do a lot of driving and I've gotten to where sometimes I'll get bursitis in my hip. I've had some bouts of bursitis in my elbow and my shoulder.
RO: Is a tour bus out of the question?
WH: You know, I've always said I was going to keep it cheap. I want people to be able to come to my show and not feel like it just took something off the table, so doing it in a van is just a part of the business plan.
My friend Dale Watson finally got a bus and I'm really happy for him, because he's been out there on the road for years, night after night. But I just don't see a tour bus in my future.
RO: You're one of the few acts that has stayed away from drums even though you rockabilly it up pretty hard sometimes. What's your deal with drums?
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WH: Our rhythm is such a tricky thing. It seems so simple and basic, but it's got to be right. It's basically about me on my acoustic and the upright bass. I've used drums at various times, but it has to be the right guy, someone who can lay back and not over-play.
Some guy jumped up the other night and he was doing alright for a minute, but then I just had to turn around and give him the "stop it" look. And he did.
RO: Does that piss you off, people who want to get up and just jump in with you?
WH: Oh, yeah. Guys who bring their drums or their harmonicas, whatever, and think they'll just ask you if they can play on your gig. You wonder what they're thinking. I mean, it's my job, I'm working here.
RO: People have called you a throwback, and you've been described as retro. Is that you, or is that just your act?
WH: If you're going to do what I do, which is all old-timey music, swing music, rockabilly music, country music, you have to immerse yourself. Or at least I have to.
RO: You've got another record coming out and you've been at this a long time now. Are you okay with where you are career-wise or do have other aspirations still?
WH: I've just gotten with a new manager. What I want to happen is to get with a little more high powered booking agent, just see if we can't get a raise, if you will. I'd like to give myself and my guys a raise. But otherwise, I love what I do and I don't want to stop.
But it would definitely be nice to move up just a bit as far as the gigs and the payoff. I'm working just as much as I want to, I just want to be a little smarter about it and get my guys a little raise.
RO: Your last few albums have been on Bloodshot. Is that the plan for the next one?
WH: Yeah, I'm sticking with them. They've treated me fair and they do what they say they'll do. That's about all you can ask of label these days, especially the decent independent labels.
RO: Do you see audiences for this old-school, retro swing stuff growing or shrinking?
WH: It's funny, I'd say it's growing. I'm seeing more older people who dig this kind of music and they're discovering us somehow and coming to the shows more. And there's also a shitload of young people coming into the audience because they've been exposed to it mainly by their parents. I definitely don't see the audience shrinking.
RO: You've always drawn Hank Williams comparisons. What's your favorite Hank Williams song?
WH: I've got to say "Lovesick Blues," but there's two versions. I like the one on the live record.
RO: So do you listen to new music at all? Have any favorites?
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WH: I don't listen to the radio much. Sometimes when we're traveling I'll listen to [Sirius/XM channel] Willie's Roadhouse, but I really don't listen to new stuff. Like I said, you have to stay immersed in the stuff you do, or at least I have to. I doubt Junior Brown is listening to much new stuff either.
10 p.m. Saturday at the Armadillo Palace, 5015 Kirby, www.thearmadillopalace.com.