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Wayne the Train keeps a rollin'

By Jon Johnson, November 1995

It would be the easiest thing in the world to cast Wayne Hancock as a man born into the wrong era. Like Lyle Lovett, his looks are out of place in a modern Nashville where style has seemingly triumphed over substance; where a Stetson and tight jeans come with your video budget.

His voice, by the same token, bears no resemblance to anything that's come out of Nashville in 40 years; eerily reminiscent of Hank Williams Sr. but also occasionally harkening back to the likes of the late, great Texas Playboys vocalist Tommy Duncan and even to the shadowy Georgia-born minstrel singer of the '20's and '30's, Emmett Miller.

And, finally, his resistance to using drums on his records would meet with a bemused reaction from just about any Nashville-based producer.

Hancock has a terrific new album out, "That's What Daddy Wants." The album, recorded and mixed in a week in May, builds on the sound of his 1995 Dejadisc debut, "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs," keeping on board producer/guitarist Lloyd Maines and most of the same musicians, but adding some new elements, as well, including occasional horns and - horror of horrors - drums on three songs: "Misery," "Brand New Cadillac" and the title track.

"It was a joke. It was sort of like going to people and saying, 'Okay, you know I don't like to use drums.' So it was kind of a joke to start out with drums on the first track. Don't look for them on my next album, though, 'cause I doubt they'll be there."

Hancock's 1996 split with Dejadisc was a necessity. "Actually, they left me...They just ran out of money. They went under owing us 12 grand."

Though Hancock held discussions with several labels, he eventually ended up signing with Ark 21, a new label started recently by ex-Police manager and IRS Records founder Miles Copeland. Hancock signed with Ark 21 in July to a five-album deal and says the deal was closed fairly quickly.

"One of the Ark 21 representatives actually walked into a store in Ann Arbor and asked who was hot and the guy gave 'em my CD. One thing led to another, and here we are. A lot of people say that we probably had to do a lot of arguing to get the album done the way it's done, but when we cut the album, I wasn't signed, which meant that I could do whatever I wanted to. It took three days to record it and four days to mix it."

If one thing has changed noticeably about Hancock between "Thunderstorms..." and now, it's that he exhibits very little enthusiasm for the Nashville-bashing that is standard operating procedure for those outside the country mainstream.

For instance, he now shows no particular bitterness towards an early association with Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson that went sour and now chalks it - and the manner in which Nashville is run - up to simply being the way business is handled these days.

In fact, one of the few instances in which he shows some resentment towards Nashville is not a result of his own experiences, but those of the late Faron Young, who shot himself in late 1996 and for whom Hancock had a strong admiration.

"Well, you know, if that's not a sign of bad business, I don't know what is. There was a guy who was a big star in the '50's - he was huge! - and they dumped him. He helped countless others get off the ground and it's just sad that it went to the extent that it did. They've even forgotten George Jones now."

"But I actually have a pretty good deal of respect out of Nashville now from the publishing companies for what we're doing, so I guess I can't bad mouth 'em like I used to." Hancock adds that his songs are now being shopped around in Nashville by his publisher, though he's asked that they not be brought to the attention of country's big stars, but that they would instead be sent to less visible artists "because I didn't want anyone else screwing up my songs. It sounds funny to get a publishing deal that's that protective of who they give them to, but that's just my deal. They asked me if I could try writing with other artists in mind, but I can't write for Reba McEntire or Alan Jackson or any of those people because I'm not them."

Though Hancock's strongest influences tend to pre-date the birth of rock 'n' roll in the early '50's, he has developed a particularly ardent following among rockabilly fans, who are drawn to his unapologetically hillbilly style.

And though he's performed rock 'n' roll songs only on the rarest of occasions in the past, the new album features a cover of Vince Taylor's 1959 rockabilly classic "Brand New Cadillac."

Asked if it was a song that was out of character, Hancock answers, "I was asked to do it. There was this tribute album, and they wanted me to do it because I was on the same label that was putting out a lot of the other artists. And I did this song to let people know that there's really nothing I can't do. I mean, aside from singing opera, heavy metal and rap."

Despite having a reputation as being someone who is, if anything, even more tradition-minded than fellow Austinites Dale Watson and The Derailers, Hancock shows a surprising enthusiasm for experimentation.

The new album's "Lee Ann," a tribute to his girlfriend of the same name, is a lovely torch song complete with horns that sounds more like it sprang from the pen of Hoagy Carmichael than from Hank Williams; a facet of his sound that Hancock says that he would like to explore further.

Though Hancock is the first to admit that his biggest influence has always been Hank Williams - even when he was a teenager and was just starting out as a musician - he carries a love of show tunes, big band and '30's pop music that runs nearly as deep as his passion for Williams' music. Hancock, who has opened recently for Trisha Yearwood and ZZ Top, has a past resume including a stint in the military and various odd jobs.

"But y'know, I just hope that this music's around for a long time and I can keep playing some good country music. Lord knows I'm not much of a worker!"