"I'm in a fuckin' weird mood today, man," declares Wayne "The Train" Hancock. "For some reason, I woke up feeling like a Brooklyn New Yorker — you just want to go down the street and start some shit with somebody, over nothin'!"
Just my luck. During the course of an hour-long interview, Hancock threatens to come find me if I use one particular quote. (He later relents, though I'm still thinking this might be a good weekend to get out of town.) He discusses American Idol ("like watching a bunch of clowns on the Bozo Show"), Michael Jackson ("surprised he lived as long as he did"), and the odds of someone being castrated or killed after taking off with someone's wife ("nine times out of 10"). Then he recounts in exhaustive detail a recent feud between bandmates that nearly ended in homicide.
We also talk some about his new album.
While Texas musicians are known for putting down Nashville music, Hancock has taken it a step further, famously describing himself as a "stab wound in the fabric of country music."
The Austinite's sound is steeped in the tradition of western swing and hillbilly music, and has earned accolades from the likes of Hank Williams III and Bob Wills sideman Bobby Koefer.
Born in 1965, Hancock was prepped for life on the road by his father's tendency to change careers and localities every few years.
As a young teenager, he was already playing the East Texas country circuit, culminating in a victory at the since-abandoned Wrangler Country Showdown. But like Elvis in the aftermath of his Louisiana Hayrides, Hancock's career was quickly interrupted by a stint in the military.
Over six years, he developed a love-hate relationship with the Marines: "I loved the Corps, but I just hated the bullshit. And there was a lot of bullshit — pretty much like life. But the whole time I was in, nobody took a shot at anybody. [Hancock was stationed in Okinawa.] I was really fortunate to miss all this terrible, terrible war that's going on now."
Even so, Hancock says he was drinking a lot by the time he got out.
"I went into civilian life with a big chip on my shoulder, because I was an angry young man, mad at the world, you know? But now, I can't even tell you what most of the stuff I was angry about was."
With no job and no prospects for getting one, Hancock moved into a friend's garage and tried to figure out what came next. It was during this period, back in 1991, that he wrote "Working at Working," which he just included on his new Viper of Melody album.
"When I wrote that song, everybody was doing great — I was the one who was hurtin'. You know, the country was fine and all that. I did the garage thing for a lot of years, just living by the grace of God that somebody gave me a space to put all my crap and have a roof over my head. I wrote the song because I didn't have the experience to get a job and I couldn't pay my bills. It was very frustrating."
My ass, his chair
After a few more years of gigging and a chance meeting with country renegade Joe Ely, Hancock landed a role in "Lubbock Mafia" ringleader Terry Allen's musical, Chippy. He also met up with Allen's musical accomplice Lloyd Maines, who produced his 1995 debut, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs for now-defunct Texas indie Deja Disc. (Maines, who produces his daughter's band, the Dixie Chicks, also helmed Viper of Melody.)
Prior to hooking up with his current label, Bloodshot Records, Hancock recorded two albums — Wild, Free & Reckless and That's What Daddy Wants — for Ark 21, a label run by Police manager Miles Copeland. He wasn't particularly happy there.
"Every time they'd write Lloyd Maines a check, it would never get there or it would bounce," claims Hancock. "Now, this is from a big record company with big talent like Waylon Jennings, and they were so full of shit. One time I went into Miles Copeland's office — you know, the big guy — and I parked my ass in his chair, put my feet up on his desk, and waited for him, I was so fucking mad."
But with Bloodshot, Hancock says, "I can come up with an idea for an album on Monday, and then if I've got it all together, I could probably go in on Wednesday and do the album, and by Friday I'd have my money. At big labels, you can't do that."
Determined to keep things simple on Viper of Melody (the horn arrangements from albums like That's What Daddy Wants are long gone), Hancock and Maines recorded the songs live in the studio: "We'd do five takes each, nothing rehearsed or plotted out," he says of instant classics like "Your Love and His Blood." "I'll tell you, this newest album I did is probably the most laid-back album I've ever done."
Hancock says he's really happy with his new album, and so is everyone else he talks to. The only problem: He can't bear to listen to it.
With Viper of Melody, Hancock had tried something new. He recorded with his touring musicians, whose subsequent meltdown left a bitter aftertaste.
"I can't stand listening to it now," he says. "They kind of ruined it for me. I've been pretty silent about what happened, man, because there's not really much to say about it," explains Hancock, who proceeds to dwell on the topic for the next 30 minutes.
As Hancock tells it, two of his musicians got into a row after a gig in Kansas City, one of them showing up at his motel room in the middle of the night.
"I had just laid down to go to sleep, and he comes to the door and he's got blood all over him. And he says, 'I think I just killed your steel player.'"
Hancock went around the back of the motel to investigate: "I've never seen so much blood on the ground. I tell you, brother, I really wasn't expecting that. I thought maybe it was gonna be a black eye, maybe it'd be a bloody lip, you know, maybe somebody took a little punch in the face. That wasn't it at all. Thank God he stopped hitting him, because he would've beaten the hell out of this guy. The man looked like a walleyed bass."
In 16 years of touring, Hancock says he'd never seen anything like it. But the combatants have since been replaced, and Hancock is back on the road.
"We have a very loyal following and we're very loyal to them," he says. "We're like the milk truck. We bring the good music down the road, and you come stand out on the porch, and when we roll by, we leave you feeling good."
Wayne Hancock plays Hank Williams' "Lost Highway"