When it comes to a new Wayne Hancock record, you know exactly what you’re getting -- and that in itself can be a damn comforting notion.
Nobody does throwback country and western swing quite like Oklahoma native Wayne Hancock. From his voice on down to the players he selects for his backing band, Hancock manages to bring sounds and styles well over half a century past their prime into the 21st century with a relevance that transcends mere anachronistic fetishization of a long-gone era. Once again sticking with his tried and true formula of Hank Williams mixed with western swing and a dash of post-war/pre-rock ‘n’ roll country, Hancock here delivers yet another reliably enjoyable set of originals.
Tales of life on the road, failed relationships, and even a murder or two make up the bulk of Hancock’s lyrical storytelling on Slingin’ Rhythm. Set to a mid-tempo shuffle throughout, there's a consistency and uniformity to the music that makes this new album virtually indistinguishable from anything else in Hancock’s catalog. But that’s exactly the point, given the level of quality and consistency with which he continually delivers. Even after suffering a serious motorcycle accident in the wake of 2013’s now somewhat ironically titled Ride -- complete with motorcycle handlebars and the open road stretching out on the album’s cover -- Hancock remains steadfastly devoted to his own particular brand of country music.
“Well I love the road and plans are never to retire / And anyone that says I will ain’t nothing but a liar / Like my heroes of western swing, 20 years on the road ain’t nothing but a thing / Coz that’s how I make my livin’ by slingin’ rhythm," he sings with knowing assurance on the title track. It serves as something of a mission statement, showing the indefatigable nature of Hancock and his band as they tackle a dozen tracks in just over a half hour. It’s a light-hearted introduction to an album that refuses to take itself seriously and opts instead to keep the mood light and toes tapping.
“Dirty House Blues” finds Hancock calling each soloist to the fore, playfully egging them on as they deliver workmanlike performances in service to the music rather than as a showcase for their instrumental virtuosity. It’s just one of many small throwback touches that speak to Hancock’s dedication to the form; he comes across as genuinely thrilled to be able to keep doing what he's doing. Stepping into the shoes of his idols, songs like “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine” find Hancock in full Hank Williams mode, vocal affectations and all. Yet his delivery is so genuine that it transcends mere pastiche and feels like the real deal.
With longtime producer Lloyd Maines behind the board and on Dobro throughout, Slingin’ Rhythm delivers the comfortable familiarity bred of a musical partnership that spans more than two decades. Theirs is a warm affinity for not only a particular brand of country music, but also Hancock’s by-the-numbers interpretation of it. Assembling a number of excellent backing players, Slingin’ Rhythm has the feel of the records it sets out to emulate. Its unfussy production and playing lend the album the air of authenticity found on nearly every album Hancock’s released since the mid-‘90s.
There’s nothing new to be heard, but, again, that seems to be the point: when you pick up a new Wayne Hancock album, you know exactly what you’re getting. And given the uncertainty of far too many things nowadays, having a constant like the music of Hancock can be quite comforting. Were it not for the 21st-century sound of the recordings themselves, one would be hard-pressed to differentiate the work from the likes of Hank Williams or Webb Pierce. In short, his is a sound firmly rooted in the traditional. Because of this, as long as Hancock lives up to his promise in the title track, the heart of country music will remain firmly beating on the two and four.