If your dictionary was hip enough to have an entry for the term “juke joint swing”, Wayne Hancock’s picture would be plastered beside it. The Ex-Marine from Austin is the real deal, a traveling truck-stop troubadour who’s on-the-road itinerary makes Willie Nelson and Family look like pikers. Hancock’s latest disc, Viper of Melody reveals that the honky tonk master still knows how to play rock ‘em, sock ‘em country with a beat, a twang, and a boogie.
Describing Hancock’s mastery is like trying to explain the force of a natural event such as a tornado to someone who has never experienced one. Even when he plays the music slow and drawls out the lyrics of love, his power is palpable. There’s a self-evident intensity behind every note.
“I want to jump the blues / And make the hard times swing”, he vamps on the first track. Unlike revivalists who try to revive the glories of past musical genres through technical prowess, Hancock inhabits the words he’s singing. When he gets nasty and talks about shootin’ someone, the immediate reaction is to duck. Don’t mess with him or his gal, and if you see him driving down the road, let him pass you or he’ll just ride right over you.
That’s not to say Hancock can’t be mellow in that singing-the-blues-all-night-while-drinking-at-the-bar kind of way. On the title track, he tells the listener that he knows the relief of pouring his heart into a sad melody. He’s the kind of guy on the next stool that will spend his last dollar buying you a drink. Hancock’s got a heart. It’s his mind that gives him trouble because if he thinks about his situation long enough, he might just get mad, so stand back.
If Hancock’s view of life might seem simple and cartoonish, that doesn’t mean the lurid colors don’t bleed like real blood. “Well, the rich folks call it recession / But the poor folks call it depression / Everybody’s hittin’ the street with the low down blues”, he observes in “Working at Working”. In a voice that recalls Jimmie Rodgers (yodel and all), Hancock lets the listener know that hard times don’t affect everyone equally. The less fortunate always suffer worse, and that’s you and I, brother and sister.
But Hancock’s more Hank Williams than Singing Brakeman. He’s more interested in having good times than worrying about the bad. And he’s always ready to keep on moving. If trouble is waiting for him, then he’s not waiting around. If his wife is mad at him and she goes to work at eleven, he won’t be getting up until noon. Still, he can’t wait until his baby forgives him so they can go out and have some fun. Hancock knows he’s always guilty of something. That doesn’t mean he has to suffer, just delay his gratification for a little while
Viper of Melody recalls the past in its use of Western Swing, old fashioned lingo, and other dated references, but the music never feels old. Hancock surrenders himself to his passions and brings the listener with him. It’s like looking at the moonlight on a June night with one’s main squeeze in tow. There may be something corny about it, yet there is no denying the inherent romance of the moment. Hancock’s music is as real as those moonbeams.