February 16, 2006

15 bucks and free beer for Hand’s honky-tonk

By Chris Morris

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - You can practically tell
what James Hand's music sounds like from the names of the
places he plays: Ginny's Little Longhorn ... Pearl's Dancehall
& Saloon ... Riley's Tavern ... the Broken Spoke.

Hand's robust, authentic honky-tonk music was bred in Texas
beer joints. His original songs -- heard on "The Truth Will Set
You Free," his Rounder Records debut, due February 28 --
reflect a deep familiarity with and love of the classic country
styles, from Hank Williams' high-lonesome wail to Ray Price's
dancehall shuffles and Hank Thompson's six-pack-to-go bounce.

The album, which succeeds three little-heard '90s releases
on small regional labels, has been in the works for a long

"I started when I was 10 or 11 years old, and then I had a
band when I was 13, playing the rodeo dances and honky-tonks,"
Hand says. "Back then I was playin' for $15 a night and free
beer. Now I'm 53, and I make $15 a night and free beer."

His first album, 1996's "Shadows Where the Magic Was,"
contained "Merry Christmas Darling," a song he wrote when he
was 14.

He has continued to supplement his income as a musician
with work as a horse trainer. "I've been doing it since I was
an infant," Hand says, adding drolly, "I've been doin' it way
before they started whisperin' about it."


The musician -- the kind of formal, self-effacing man who
calls strangers "sir" -- says of his predilection for deep
country melancholia: "It's harder to explain sadness than it is
to explain happiness. I've been cloaked in sadness for a time.
But I don't walk around with a big cloud of gloom hangin' over

Hand's originals -- such striking numbers as "In the
Corner, at the Table, by the Jukebox," "Here Lies a Good Old
Boy" and "When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I" -- and his
compelling singing, which conjures comparisons to Hank Sr. and
George Jones, gradually attracted attention in his home state.
"The Truth Will Set You Free" was produced by Ray Benson,
leader of the latter-day Western swing group Asleep at the
Wheel, and Lloyd Maines, the noted Texas musician-producer (and
father of Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines).

"I'd met Ray two or three times in the course of playin'
around," Hand says. "Rounder Records contacted Mr. Maines."

The resultant album is a brilliantly cut honky-tonk gem
that boasts inspired playing by Maines (on pedal steel guitar
and Dobro) and Redd Volkaert, the longtime lead guitarist for
Merle Haggard's Strangers.

On the eve of his first nationally distributed album
release, Hand's life remains much the same as it's been for
decades. He still lives 18 miles north of Waco, near the tiny
town of West, Texas, where they call him "Slim." He continues
to perform in the area's roadhouses and barrooms. ("I can
pretty much hitchhike home -- all I got is a guitar," he says.)

But the world at large will hear from him soon. On March
18, he'll play an album-release show at Hill's Cafe in Austin
during the South by Southwest Music Conference, the music
industry's big annual talent hoedown. And in July, he'll make
his first appearance outside the U.S., at the Country
Rendez-Vous Festival in Craponne sur Arzon, France.

He says with a dark chuckle of the latter gig: "Right now
I'm apprehensive about it. I have an easy enough time starving
to death where I speak the language."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter