There was a headline in an old issue of No Depression that read “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” (referencing the great Waylon Jennings tune) on a feature about some up-and-coming cowpunk. I was reminded of that line when I interviewed Wayne Hancock for this piece. He exudes confidence and respect for his elders, but his style of honky-tonk diverges a little from the traditional norm. Hancock is no flash in the pan; he’s a well-established touring musician decreed as “The King of Juke Joint Swing,” and I think he enjoys the role of being a fly in the ointment of the country establishment.
Hancock will be in town Sunday night at the Rose Bowl Tavern. Show time is 8 p.m. and advance tickets are $15. Hancock promised that each attendee would get at least twice their money’s worth, so check it out.
Hancock was kind enough to expound on such topics as his military service and life on the road, and the interview is after the jump.
Smile Politely: How much are you on the road?
Wayne Hancock: I’m on the road more than I’m at home, I think. The only time I get tired of the road is if I start playing for the money; that can get tiring. If we’re on the road for too long, like four weeks, I’d probably start hating myself pretty fast. If I were a Top 40 guy, I would hate to have to get up every day and do the same show, say the same things to the audience, have my guys stand in the same place, play the same click track, then I would hate myself. Fortunately, the big money is away from this area so there’s nobody can tell me what to do. I never sold my ass to anybody, I never sold my soul. If I was going to do it for the money, then I’m in the wrong fucking business, you know? As far as it goes for being happy in my work though, yeah, I’m really happy in my work.
SP: You don’t have to work odd jobs when you’re around home or anything like that?
WH: No, I haven’t had to do a day job in probably 14 years, man. It depends on what you’ve got to offer and whether you’re good at talking business with them. I’ve always have something to offer, but I was never good at talking business with them.I got married and I got my wife to be my booking agent, since I’ve known all these people for more than ten years. You asked me when does a guy quits working, and I did a lot of jobs for a lot of years, but it got to where I was making more at night in tips than I was working during the day. I’m happy when I’m playing music, but when I’m working for somebody else, I kill myself for what, $40 a day. It works out good for me, but if living in a car ain’t your cup of tea, maybe you need to think about doing something else.
SP: How do you feel about the state of country music and your place in it?
WH: To tell you the truth, I haven’t listened to the radio for 20 years. I can’t give you an honest answer, because the last time I listened to the radio Willie Nelson and Ray Price were on it. I play music to make people feel good, and we’re hitting some hard times man, some real hard times. We might be looking at a possible depression, and my job is to take people’s mind off all the BS. As far as Nashville and what they’re up to, I don’t give a rat’s ass. You become a product and sell yourself, and they don’t got nothing I want. No talk of big buses and getting to the next level. I feel good about the level that I’m at. The only thing I might change is my hair color; I was 29 when I started and now I’m 43. I’m going to the studio in November, and I might spend some more time on this one. Maybe I’ll spend two or three days on it, rather than banging it all out in the first day. I’d hate to spend a week on it. I think I’d be tearing my hair out by day four. The small record companies don’t pay out a lot of money, eight thousand is a lot for them, so if you want to save everybody a lot of money you get it done in two or three days.
SP: How does songwriting work for you? Could you take me through the process?
WH: I’ve written nine or ten songs in the last couple of weeks. I’ve always gone in with guys that don’t play with me and just play ‘em cold. I’ve always used really good players and they bang it out. I tend to cut records like I play music, I just go in and bang ‘em out. I play five versions of every song, which is a lot of songs when it comes down to it, and I pick out the best version of each song. I can usually bang out an album in a day in a half, except for vocals. The point is that the music should be as live on the record as it is on the stage. We should be able to play everything on the stage that we do on the record, and if I can’t, I’m a phony. I’ve got some good guys in the band, they’re all excellent players. I’ve got a four-piece now, we’ve got a steel player. We don’t have a drummer, but we always have an upright bass. What I’m doing is kind of like bluegrass, and use the rhythm section like a hi-hat. It saves a lot of space in the van.
SP: How’d you know that you wanted to be a musician?
WH: It’s funny man, I just always liked to play music. When I was a kid, I used to go around to the neighbor’s house and sing at the top of my lungs, not because I liked it, but because I knew if I screwed up one verse, they’d let me know about it. Now, that’s a weird thing to do. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time.
SP: How did you end up in the Marines?
WH: My father joined the Navy at 16, he lied about his age. My uncle was in the service, and my aunt was in the Navy Whites. My grandpa was a country doctor, and he died during the Depression, and everybody went into the military. I grew up seeing pictures of him in the South Pacific, and I thought I wanted to do that. There was some stuff going on, but that was in the ‘80s is when it was, and I did a lot of Guard duty. I was in the infantry, but I wanted to serve my country, man, it was something I wanted to do. I was in the Marines, stationed with a line company out of Coneoli (sp?), Alpha company to be exact. I loved it, but I got out because there wasn’t nothing going on, and then as soon as I got out, the shit hit the fan.
Mr. Hancock is quite a talker, and I didn’t transcribe half of our conversation. He did point out that his band will play for at least three hours on Sunday night, so if you’re looking for a good return on your investment, stop on by.
Here’s a video of Hancock playing “Tulsa” live. It’s like stepping into a time capsule: