Wayne “The Train” Hancock is what you call a man out of time.
Widely considered by critics, fans and especially fellow artists as one of today’s finest purveyors of juke joint country roots music, the Texas native never felt much kinship with the sounds that surrounded him in his youth. His tastes had already settled on styles that ruled the world decades earlier.
“It was mainly big band and swing music, Broadway show tunes, some classical music, Burl Ives – a lot of the music from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” said Hancock, 48, who returns to Lexington on Thursday for a performance at Willie’s Locally Known. “As a consequence of listening to that kind of music, I just wasn’t into anything that was on the radio. I’ve never liked any kind of music I heard there. When you turned on the radio back then, it sounded like the better percent of my generation just didn’t get it. Frankly, I feel like I fit in better now than I did 40 years ago.
“I use to listen to these trucker stations late at night. They always used to play late ‘40s and early ‘50s country music back in the day. Then at some of the places I worked at, especially here in Texas, everybody was listening to Tejano music. And there was Top 40 radio. Whether you liked it or not, you got to know the tunes because those stations rammed them down your throat 16 times a day. I don’t have anything in common with radio, man.”
The country inspirations that took hold, though, manifested in Hancock’s extraordinary 1995 debut album, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. Nearly 20 years and 10 albums later, the singer’s devotion to that vintage sound remains steadfast. On his 2013 record, Ride, Hancock’s country roots sensibility is eerily authentic. The most obvious ghost hanging around his new tunes is Hank Williams. You hear it not only in Hancock’s confessional high tenor singing but in the giddy, pervasive sentiments created by pedal steel guitarist Eddie Rivers.
You can guarantee a lot of attention was paid to the latter during the recording of Ride. At the helm of the sessions was producer Lloyd Maines, who doubles as one the great Texas pedal steel players of his generation.
“There has always been some kind of telekinesis going on between me and him,” Hancock said of Maines. “I never have to really tell him what I want. But whenever he makes a suggestion, it usually winds up being what I want. Lloyd used to play steel guitar on all of my earlier stuff. Now he won’t do it anymore because he said my steel player is better. That’s pretty high praise.”
But the Williams influence runs even deeper. Though Ride abounds with a joyous juke joint sound that borders on rockabilly, the storylines to several of Hancock’s newest songs embrace a level of darkness that even the great Hank would likely find chilling.
Case in point: Deal Gone Down, a Ride song Hancock fashioned out the kind of violent, unexpected tragedy that can only come from real life.
“There was an old honky tonk I used to frequent in the late ‘80s,” Hancock said. “There was this blonde haired Fabio-looking character who always had all these women around him. I was pretty young and naïve, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. Well, what was going was he was fooling around with everybody’s wives when their husbands were all out working in the oil fields.
“Later on, my dad sent me a newspaper article about how somebody got wise to that guy, went into that honky tonk with a shot gun and killed everybody in the whole damn bar. He killed the waitresses. He killed the patrons. He killed the wives. Then he went to a hotel in Tyler, Texas and took his own life. I used the story because I knew the people that got killed.
“When I write songs like Deal Gone Down, somebody might go, ‘That’s terrible and sad.’ Well, yeah. It is terrible and sad. But it’s also a reminder to people that you should do right because if you do wrong like that, it’s going to come around to you again.”
Hancock has had his own trials, too. He added that he received the newspaper clipping while in a Dallas hospital (“that was around ’88, about two weeks after I went rehab for the first time”). But life on the road as a world class juke joint songster has never been better. The hours are long but the rewards – specifically, getting to sing his brand of swing-infused country the way he wants – are substantial.
“It’s a long road, man. But sometimes the longest road is the best one to take. I had a shot at the big labels some years ago, but the conditions weren’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to dress the way I don’t dress or sing songs I damn sure didn’t agree with. There’s no guarantee what will happen when you take that road.
“So I make a living. I pay my bills and keep my lights on. The good Lord willing, there will be a little money left over for some fun, too.”
Wayne Hancock with The Kentucky Hoss Cats perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 26 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway. Tickets are $15. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to www.willieslex.com.