With the release of The Truth Will Set You Free, his first nationally-distributed album, singer-songwriter James Hand seems poised to cross the borders of his native Texas into the larger musical world. And it's about time, too. He's 53 years old.
Already, Hand has been spotlighted on National Public Radio's influential Fresh Air show, and he just played Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic for a third year. A film crew headed by some of the same folks who created the 2004 version of The Alamo has been following him around since January as they shoot a documentary on his musical journey.
Many critics hear in Hand's woeful ballads and mournful vocal style a latter-day Hank Williams, a comparison the cover photo on his new album encourages. It shows a skinny guy, most of his face obscured by shadows, standing alone at a microphone, wearing a white hat and '50s-style country finery. He cradles his guitar high on his chest, just as Williams did, and leans slightly forward, as if he might be favoring a bad back.
But the Williams' similarities, while real, are also gratuitous. Hand's music stands up quite well on its own. Sometimes it's bouncy and danceable (as in "Baby, Baby, Don't Tell Me That") or morose and self-pitying (as in "Here Lies a Good Old Boy" and "Just an Old Man With an Old Song"). Whatever the tempo and message, Hand couches it in an intense, hard-driving, vibrato-laced voice that sounds like it could break into a yodel at any moment.
Hand speaks to CMT.com from his home in West, Texas, which, he explains, is a community located near Tokio and just a few miles from Waco. He has a dry sense of humor, and some of his responses have the polished succinctness of having been given before. He is deferentially courteous.
When he wasn't making music, Hand made his living training horses and driving trucks.
"I guess I used music as a crutch, it seems like," he says. "But I discovered I could adopt a highway and walk up and down it and pick up cans and stuff and supplement my income. So I decided I'd go ahead and give music a full shot."
Besides a lifetime of playing clubs and bars, Hand put out three albums independently between 1996 and 2003 -- Shadows Where the Magic Was, Evil Things and Live at Saxon Pub, Austin, TX. Then Ken Irwin, Rounder Records' co-founder and chief talent scout, heard Hand sing during a South by Southwest entertainment conference in Austin.
According to Hand, Irwin was at first skeptical that he had actually written the songs he was performing. "I told him that I did," Hand relates. "He said, 'I don't think so.' I said, 'Well, I was there when I did it.' Whenever I agreed to give [Rounder] 50 percent of my publishing, I believe they all decided it was a good thing."
Without being asked, Hand volunteers that there are skeletons in his closet that have inspired his songs. "I don't think anybody that's real happy has been a very successful songwriter," he reflects. "But, on the other hand, I don't look around for funerals to go to either."
To get Hand's album rolling, Irwin hired veteran Texas musicians Ray Benson and Lloyd Maines to serve as producers. Benson is best known, of course, for his band, Asleep at the Wheel, while Maines has been in the spotlight for his production work on projects by Pat Green, James McMurtry, Charlie Robison and many others. He also co-produced Home, the 2002 album by his daughter's band, the Dixie Chicks.
Hand's mother died in 2002, and he was nursing his father through his final illness when it came time to record the album. "Everybody at the record label was very, very patient with me," he reports. "The last 60 days of Daddy's life, I just told them, 'I ain't leaving [him].' And I didn't. And they never said a word, except, 'Don't you worry about it.'" His father died in May 2005.
The roots of country music run deep in Hand. "Lefty Frizzell used to come by the house when I was a child," he says. "I think I was, like, 6 months old. I got a picture of me sitting on his lap."
Hand met Willie Nelson in 1980 when Nelson was shooting the movie Honeysuckle Rose. At the time, Hand was working as a bouncer at a bar Nelson had dropped into with co-star Amy Irving.
"I said, 'If you're not Willie Nelson, you've certainly won our Halloween contest,'" Hand notes. "He said, 'Well, it's me.' So he hung out there at the beer joint. I didn't live very far from there. So I came out to the house, got a guitar, and we sang and played. He pulled a napkin out, and he said, 'Look. This is good for any show I've got anywhere, and it's good to come down to my studio in Pedernales and cut some demos. I can't promise anything but that.'"
Nelson tapped Hand and his band to open a series of shows for him in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri last September. "He really took an interest last year," says Hand. "As busy as he is, I believe he's trying to help me." According to Hand's publicity material -- and the cover of his album -- Nelson has labeled the late-bloomer "the real deal."
While Hand is unclear about the details of the documentary being shot on him, he does have it in focus as a source of humor. "I don't mean to come off as a smart aleck," he says, "but I told [the producers] that they ought to let me do something to be documented first. ... I've had people follow me around with a video camera before, but not anything like this. You know, they've got them little robots that follow you around and all that kind of thing. But it's interesting. They're doing the best they can with what they've got to work with. They've even got me looking a little bit better."
If fame and demand should catapult Hand out of Texas, he says he would welcome the change.
"I got no problem with that. Matter of fact, I can't wait to leave. The house -- there ain't nobody but me here now. One of my brothers lives in Fairfield, and my other brother lives down in Waco. I'm a haunted man in a haunted house. I'm ready to go."