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James Hand gets set free

By Jason MacNeil, May 2006

There are several country artists today who often cite legends like Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams as influences. To be influenced by those giants is one thing, but to be able to deliver songs in 2006 that have all the trademarks of classics from those eras without any over production or gloss is another. Texan James "Slim" Hand has been singing his brand of country and honky tonk for four decades now, but only recently has the national spotlight begun shining in his direction.

Now signed to Rounder Records, Hand's "The Truth Will Set You Free" has garnered critical praise. Hand, who once sat on Lefty Frizzell's knee as a six-month old, says he's happy with all the attention.

"A fellow thinks he might have something to offer, but you never know until the public decides," the modest and down-to-earth singer says in a telephone interview from Texas. "It's a lot different than sitting on your front porch swing and four or five of your friends hanging around saying, 'Well that would be pretty good you know?' Although I don't think I'm pretty good, I'm very blessed."

Hand, a native of Tokio, Texas, released a handful of albums in recent years and was often found playing gigs at places like The Broken Spoke in Austin. In 2003, he caught the eye of Rounder Records founder Ken Irwin at the annual South By Southwest festival in Austin.

"We started talking then, and just as time evolved, bless his heart, he hung in there with me, and there have been some pretty trying times for both of us. But, like I say, I appreciate it."

Hand also was able to have Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson as well as Lloyd Maines assist him with "The Truth Will Set You Free." But Hand had to overcome some problems with allergies before putting his timeless warble to tape.

"At the time, I had allergies so bad I couldn't talk. I mean I really couldn't. I was sounding like a dying duck in a hailstorm" he says. "I never met Mr. Maines, but when he saw that I couldn't talk he said, 'Don't worry about, we'll work around it.'"

Another setback occurred when Hand's father took ill following the singer getting down basic or "scratch" vocals to tape.

"I called the record label and said, 'I'm leaving,'" Hand says. "So I didn't leave (my father) for about 60 days. As a matter of fact, I called a policeman friend of mine to drive me down there (to an Austin recording studio) on one Sunday. They set aside four hours on a Sunday afternoon. So that's what we did.""They played what they thought was pretty finished, and I told Ray I could do better than that. So they called everybody together, and in a span of four hours, actually we nearly redid the album."

As for "The Truth Will Set You Free," diehard fans of Hand will recognize a few songs from previous albums such as "Shadows Where The Magic Was" and 2000's "Evil Things." But there is new material also that instantly brings to mind Luke The Drifter and Ernest Tubb.

"I was kind of worried that folks would think that I hadn't written any new songs," Hand says. "Mr. Maines and Mr. Benson and Mr. Irwin told me that, 'James, you're fixing to be heard in a lot more places than just Austin, Texas. We like those songs. Don't worry about it.' So we got them on there, and sure enough, they seemed to be received very well."

Perhaps the only bittersweet moment was not having his parents around to witness this new groundswell of support. His mother passed away in 2002 while his father passed away in May 2005. He says that the song "If I Live Long Enough To Heal" is perhaps the one that hits closest to home.

"It was pretty difficult," he says of creating the song. "I wrote it for mama and daddy. I'm a Christian man. You look at my track record, it may not show it, but it's a good song, and I hope mama and daddy like it."

As for personal favorites, Hand enjoys the album's coda "When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I."

"That's about the truth of it," he says. "When a fellow goes through a hard time, you don't want necessarily everybody to see you. When you get down with a bottle in your hand, you go hide until you get over it. And I take that hiding part pretty seriously."

Hand has held many jobs over his life, from training horses to driving trucks to working with rodeos. But he has also had his low moments, something that he tends to keep close to his chest.

"I guarantee you that if anybody were to sit down and say, 'Okay, this is what I want to do to be a country singer,' I've done it," he says. "But there are facts of my life that are unforgettable to me and unremarkable to many people. I don't talk a whole lot about the stuff. I don't think it's anybody's business what a man does when the walls fall in on him, as long as he don't carry it to the street."

"I think that any degree of success that a person has, he owes it first of all to heaven above, and he owes a certain amount of gratitude, if not 90 per cent of it, to the people that are around him. I hope and I pray that I never become so different or so swallowed up by success that I change one little itty bit. The only way I change is that if I had any money, I would pay the bills on time."

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