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James Hand delves into "Evil Things"

By Tom Geddie, March 2000

Standing on a stage in his white hat and western-cut suit, James Hand reminds people of the sad-eyed ghost of Hank Williams Sr.

In his six-year recording career, Williams became perhaps the most celebrated country singer-songwriter of all time before quietly dying in the back seat of his car on the way to a gig. A lethal combination of alcohol and morphine did him in late on the night of Dec. 31, 1952 or early on the morning of Jan. 1, 1953 at 29.

Only the most cosmic of believers could even imagine that Williams' soul actually found a new home in Hand because Hand was born six months earlier on July 7, 1952. That would mean that Williams' soul abandoned him halfway through his last, tormented year.

Nevertheless, some kind of connection exists between the two. The connection with Williams is strong enough that Hand, at 47, now avoids watching film of Williams' performances because he does not want to unconsciously pick up Williams' mannerisms.

While Williams is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, James Hand works in relative obscurity. He headlines occasionally at the Broken Spoke in Austin. He plays other gigs where he can find them within a couple of hundred miles of his central Texas home in tiny Tokio, about 10 miles from Willie Nelson's hometown of Abbott.

On Hand's second album, "Evil Things," (Cold Spring), his high-lonesome warble is a far cry from the smooth, pastel voices of what passes for country music on most radio stations today, and his straightforward lyrics come from experience rather than a textbook.

In "The Truth Will Set You Free," Hand laments that if he had lied, she might have stayed, but that the truth has set him free.

In "Why Didn't You Hold Me," he asks, "why didn't you hold me when you could have held me?"

In "Cuttin' Down (on my runnin' around)," he notes that he has not reached his last chapter yet, but he is running short of pages.

For folks who don't care about lyrics, "Evil Things" is also a solid dancehall album.

Ricky Davis on pedal steel and steel guitar, Mark Horn on drums, Jason Roberts on fiddle and Ethan Shaw on upright bass provide capable support. Dale Watson adds lead guitar on four songs, and producer David Leroy Biller adds a variety of guitar licks.

Hand, whose nickname is Slim, has kicked around Central Texas honky-tonks off and on since he was 13. He is just insecure enough to believe that that life might be his fate and just enough of a dreamer to want to be remembered him after he is gone.

Most mornings, he gets up about 6 a.m. to feed cattle and the horses he is likely to be training at any time on his father's small ranch. He works with the horses just about every day.

The music has always been there for Hand.

"When I was a little kid, like in the first grade, we would put our heads down on pillows, and they would play music," he says. "It mystified me. I found some things my grandmother saved from when I was eight or nine, and I had some little poems written on them."

Rumor has it that Hand has more than 1,500 songs, although he says he does not keep count and does not really write them.

"Life writes the songs," he says. "I just try to remember the words."

In 1969. when he was 16, he won the state Future Farmers of America talent contest in Fort Worth. He was supposed to go on to the national competition in Kansas City, but playing defensive end for the West High School football team got in the way of that trip.

He heard music at home, too, and started out playing Tex Ritter western ballads and rodeo songs. Influences include the three Hanks (Williams, Thompson and Snow), Jimmie Rodgers, Jim Reeves and Carl Smith. He also admits now to listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and expresses strong respect for Ray Wylie Hubbard. He doesn't listen to much modern country music "because it's more like a chant than a song."

Dallas disc jockey Little John Holloway got his hands on a demo tape of Hands' first, independent album, "Shadows Where the Magic Was," and played parts of it on a local public station, KNON, in 1997.

"His music is a representation of a time that has passed," Little John says. "It would fit perfectly in the 1950's, and it's so beautiful to hear it today. I don't think you could find a nicer guy, and certainly not one with as much talent who's so humble. His music is phenomenal. He's one of those people who not only deserve, but need to be played on the air. I was mesmerized that there's talent like that out there that's not been recognized."

"Just being up there singing is a small part of it," Hand says. "Talent's got the least to do with it. Just having people who believe in you is the main thing. if I ain't making somebody else happy, it don't matter to me."

Singers and songwriters with this much talent should be discovered much earlier in life; the fact that he wasn't, Hand says, may be his own fault.

"I don't have very high self esteem, and I don't know a lot of people in the music business," he says. "The older I became, I figured out life wasn't going to be like an Elvis Presley movie where I could sit around singing, and somebody would discover me. We mature at different ages, and I did a lot of running around and honky tonking."

"If I could be remembered for something good more than for something bad, I would like to be remembered as somebody who knows both sides of life and chose the right one."