Wayne “the Train” Hancock has spent much of his adult life on the road. Since his 1995 debut, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, he has logged well over a million miles crisscrossing the country between roadhouses and small clubs. In that time, he has played his mix of western swing, rockabilly and honky-tonk for people from every walk of life. Lately, it’s given him an opportunity to see the trouble people everywhere are having just trying to keep their heads above water. He sees it as his job to remind them there are reasons to keep trying.
On his latest album, Viper of Melody, released Tuesday (April 21), the Texas-born singer-songwriter continues to make his uncompromising style of music and take it to people who may not have the luxury of being able to attend major concerts. Recorded live in the studio, the album is filled with sounds and feelings that are timeless, as well as edgy. Whether the song is about shaking off the blues, jealousy and violence or being flat broke, Hancock refuses to sugarcoat anything. He pledged on his Web site, “This album consists of only my touring band, so what you see at the shows is what you’re gonna hear.” It’s an interesting approach that shows how his live performance — and what his audience gets out of it — is the main focus. During a recent interview with CMT.com, the conversation turned to the struggles his audience is enduring right now.
CMT: You call your music “juke joint swing.” What does that mean to you?
Hancock: It’s a juke joint, a small place with a couple of pool tables or a jukebox in it. And some of the places we play are definitely joints, beer joints. Most of the time, we play clubs, but a juke joint, to me, is a small bar where people go to drink — doesn’t even really have a stage. It’s small enough that we could all fit in that space, but we have a big, big sound. … A lot of it comes from the big band swing.
And you prefer the small venues, right?
Yeah, you know … the big ones are nice. I mean … the bigger the place, the more draw you get, but I think it’s lost after you clear about a 400 or 500-seater and start playing to 600 or 700 people. It seems to me like the intimacy goes away.
I think it says a lot that we can go out to some of these places where there are certainly people I know that wouldn’t be caught dead playing at because they’re [out of the way]. But I like doing that. To me, it’s like being a mountain climber and climbing a dangerous mountain that nobody else has done but you. And I think it’s cool when performers go to areas where [music fans] can’t afford a show, a lot of these people, you know what I’m saying? They can’t dish out the big bucks, so the big acts don’t come see them. So we go places where most people wouldn’t dream about going and have a successful time doing it. I love it, man. … But there are certainly times when I want to kick myself. (laughs)
On Viper of Melody, the song “Working at Working” is about being unemployed and broke. Can you tell me about that?
I wrote that, in I guess ’91 or ’92, when I first got to Austin. And, I don’t remember who the hell was president … Bush Sr. I had just got to Austin and was just a young man, so to speak, so I was living in hard places and trying to find jobs where there weren’t any. I was just putting my play on the world from where I sat. I never recorded the song because unless you looked at it from a young man’s standpoint, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. But all the sudden, now it makes a hell of a lot of sense. So I pulled out my thoughts for that. I just thought all the sudden this seems like a good song. This is exactly what’s going on.
And when you write songs, you don’t really want that stuff to happen. I mean, guys write songs all the time about terrible things, tragedies. They don’t write them because they want them to happen. They write them because they’re trying to find a common ground. Maybe they’re trying to work through their own personal thing or something, so when I wrote that song, I was really just writing my own frustrations down. But I don’t think I ever knew that we’d see those kinds of conditions in our lifetime.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the news about all the tent cities popping up.
Yeah, you bet. Sacramento is just like my father told me about the Great Depression because he lived through it. He was a teenager. It’s not quite as bad as that yet, but it sure does sound like it’s getting there. I’m coming in from the East Coast, and there’s a lot of people hurting. Like in Buffalo, N.Y., nobody seems to be working there. And then I went over to Detroit, and everybody up there’s just broker than shit.
Do you think that your songs will be able to help some people out?
I definitely think so, and that’s one of the other points I was gonna get to is that it’s sort of our job as musicians and entertainers to keep people’s spirits up. Isn’t that what we do? We’re supposed to write good music for people to get through it, and now more than ever, I think it’s important to be there, especially in the small towns. Because those people sure as hell can’t get out to a big town to see a big concert for what they charge.
Will you keep writing about stuff like that?
Well, yeah. I’m gonna write some about that, but I wanna write about how to get through it, too. Make it through these problems and how we can help these people out rather than just agreeing with them and helping them drink themselves into a stupor, you know? I don’t want to do that.