When Wayne Hancock sings, you know he's the real deal. Listen to one of his recordings or see him live, you'll know what I mean. His blend of eclectic roots music is juke joint swing, an energetic mix of honky tonk, western swing, blues and even big band music as genuine and earnest as the man himself.
Wayne has been writing songs and performing since the tender age of 12. By the time he turned 18, he won a major music competition called the Wrangler Country Showdown. After six-year hitch in the US Marines, he moved to Austin, Texas to begin his music career anew. There he joined up with steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines, who produced Wayne's critically acclaimed first album Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. Newsweek called it, "the most promising debut of the season."
The success of Wayne's first album, paired with constant touring, led to performances on Austin City Limits and NPR's Prairie Home Companion. When it was all said and done, Wayne had sold over 22,000 copies of Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. Not bad for a debut release on a small independent Texas label.
Critics have called him "master of hillbilly swing," but what Wayne is most proud of is his authenticity and sincerity. Both have been cornerstones in his career since the beginning. A refusal to compromise and a fierce pride of his rural and cultural roots have earned Wayne a large following.
Wayne tours the country constantly, playing gigs anywhere and everywhere he can. Wayne does his own driving, tour managing and takes care of business his own way. But the best way to get a feeling for the man and his music is to talk to him directly.
Erin Leis recently caught up with Wayne during a brief break in touring to discuss his new album Swing Time and to talk more about the driving forces behind his career.
Can you tell me a little about the musicians that play with you on Swing Time? What drew you to them as musicians?
They're the same guys that play with me on every record. I'm not sure what drew me to them. I guess I just got lucky to find them. We all have great chemistry with each other. It's very important that the band gets along. I don't have anyone play with me that's a jerk, just because they can play good. When I play with someone, I pick them for about 25% of their ability to play and about 75% of their personality. Our personalities have to be compatible so we can really get into the groove when we play.
Why did you want to record Swing Time live?
Because I wanted to show my record company that live records do sell. The record company wanted me to practice for the album, so I purposely kept it loose. We never rehearsed anything. I don't rehearse for shows period. If I don't rehearse for you on stage, why would I want to rehearse for the record and mess it up?
What kind of sound where you trying to capture in Swing Time?
I was trying to get that nice, warm sound that I get at Cedar Creek Studios. My last four albums were recorded there. Traditionally, records that are recorded live sound horrible. I wanted to avoid that. What we ended up doing was taking part of the studio equipment out of the studio and set up sections of it at the club. We set up microphones in the room, and then we did a three hour show.
Do you feel that recording live is a much more realistic way to represent yourself and your music?
Yes, then the people know what they're getting. If you hear a record of me playing live and it sounds good, chances are that's what we'll sound like when we play live for you. It works out real well. I record music with the idea that we're going to have a good time and make everyone feel better. I'm not thinking about making money and being a big star. Being a big star just ain't me.
Do you purposely try to capture a stripped-down, pre-Nashville sound in Swing Time?
I'm looking for something closer to the music I want to create. I've never used drums in the fifteen years I've been touring. I try to capture that hillbilly sound you get when you use the upright bass and guitar. The first band I ever saw do that was High Noon. I had never seen a band play like that. That was the sound I was looking for. I was looking for something that was different. When I listen to Hank Williams, I get chills down my spine. I don't get those chills when I listen to music on the radio. I play what gives me a good feeling. If it works on stage, then we don't fix it.
What are you most proud of regarding Swing Time?
The thing I'm most proud of is I shut up a lot of people up who thought I shouldn't do a live album. I think that idea is ludicrous. I'm glad I didn't rehearse the album. Rehearsing is one side of one mood in a million sides and moods of music.
What made you begin to want to write music at such an early age?
I've been playing since I was a little kid. I've always wanted to play music. It's been in my blood as long as I can remember. I grew up around music. My father played the guitar around our house. Music was just something that was always around.
Did your stint in the Marines change your outlook on life and music?
Yes, it changed my outlook quite a bit. Actually the marines were more preparation for life than anything. Once I got out of the corps, it made me want to concentrate more on my music. When you're in the Marines, you can't do anything but be a Marine. I was in for 4 years, 2 years in the Reserves. That's about 6 years gone; I had a lot of catching up to do musically.
You've been touring extensively for a long time. What drives you to do this?
I like touring. I'm not happy unless I'm out on the road. The longest I've been out on the road is about 5 weeks. I don't like to tour longer than in 2 weeks. I like to go in short spurts, then come home. It enables me to be able to tour year round. It also helps to save my voice. You have to realize, the average band plays about 90 minutes and does an encore. That's it. My first set is usually 2 hours. My second set is usually an hour and a half. I have to tour 2 weeks in, 2 weeks out, or I wouldn't have a voice left.
Do you think your willingness to tour is responsible for your large underground following?
I play the same music that I always have. I come into town and I play a two or three hour show. People always know they're going to get their money's worth. They always know the records are going to be cheap. I'm not changing. The world may be changing, but it's sort of like going home. They say you can never go home, but with us you can. Good music does exist and there are always going to be people looking for it.
Do you ever get sick of life on the road?
Touring does wear me out. But, it also fuels my desire to make more music. Playing in front of people motivates me to make my music better and to play more of it. Without touring, I don't think I'd have much interest in doing music. I prefer a life on the road to a life at home any day.
What makes the music you play your own?
I guess the fact I write songs without any outside influence, money, or things like that. It's not orientated for popularity, nor will it ever be. It exists without the support of the public majority.
How do you feel you've evolved musically over the years?
I've more or less defined my sound. Of course I'm older now and I have a lot more maturity in my voice. I was 25 or 26 when I recorded my first album. I guess I've been lucky. My albums don't stink and my first album wasn't the only good album I've put out.
I've read that you are your own manager, and coordinate all your own tours. Is it important for you to take charge?
Yes, because I'm the one that has to live with it. I found out early on in my life that record companies and managers don't have to live with anything. All they want to live with is your money. The big record labels are only in it for the money. It's very important that my music is done right. At the end of the day when it's all said and done, I'm the one who has to live with it. I don't want anyone coming up to me and saying that the record company really made a fool of you. I don't want anyone saying look at how they screwed up your songs. I would much rather be broke and in the street then have that happen. I'd rather have my songs and myself than not do it right. Brother music will always carry me in the end.
Why do you continue to play for small, intimate crowds when you could probably play at larger venues and charge more money?
Because larger crowds and larger venues aren't really what I'm about. I don't mind playing for large crowds, but the folks I play to are not the kind of people that go to stadium shows. The kind of people I play to are workers. They don't go out all night and party with the bands. They work 9 to 5. Plus, those people will be into the same styles of music 10 years from now; they won't be jumping on the next big bandwagon. I appreciate their loyalty.
Are you ever tempted to go to Nashville to make it big?
No more than I'd be tempted to rob a bank. When someone says "try to make it in Nashville" you have to realize that Nashville is the three card monte of music. You're trying to play a game that's run by money. I went to Nashville a long time ago and hated every minute of it. They didn't understand me. It wasn't worth it. I don't know why anyone would want to go to Nashville. Nashville just ends up making a lot of bands sell out and ultimately break up. And in the end, the band's fans are now out of a band and they're out of luck. Really, when you take on the responsibility of a career in music, you're taking on a lot more than you think. You're not just saying you're going to make music to entertain people. Now you're saying you're going to entertain people and carry them as far as you can carry them. If that means 40 years, then it means 40 years.
You've touched on what the audience thinks, is it important that the audience knows you stay true to yourself and to your music?
It's very important. When I date someone, I remain loyal. I don't mess around. It's the same thing with my audience. I have to stay loyal to them. It's getting harder today to find people who are loyal to anything. I don't want to end up that way. My audience has the right to know I'm not going to mess around with them. It's not in my heart to do that.
What separates you from other country artists?
The fact that I gave up a long time ago on being a big star. I drive a van, not a big fancy car. I've accepted my life as a public servant and I'm happy with what I am. That probably separates me from quite a few country artists. The other thing that separates me is that I don't have a big head. I've been doing this all my life. I've been playing since I was a child. If I haven't got a big head yet, I imagine I'm not going to get one.
As a country artist and a native Texan, where do you see the future of the roots music scene going?
That's hard to say, there's no telling where the scene is going. Just when you think you can predict it, it proves you wrong. I'd be fool if I tried to predict it. I haven't even listened to the radio in 20 years, so I have no clue!
What about in relation to the Nashville scene?
The Nashville scene is going to go where the biggest hit is. Those guys don't seem to have an inkling of talent or truth. I know of a major national band that did a live album a couple of years ago. Everyone loved it. I asked the band's manager what kind of microphone they used in the recording, because I liked the sound it made. Their manager replied by saying "we got that sound in the studio." Their so-called live album was really a studio album. Is it really worth it to mislead all these people, to make them think this is really you? When the audience finds out the truth, a band is pretty much finished. The audience feels betrayed and doesn't want to see the band anymore. It's never quite the same after that. I can only hope people and listening audiences are going to start getting tired of these kinds of situations.
After you are done with your current tour, what are your future plans?
I want to keep touring. I've got about a year's worth of touring ahead of me. I'm going to be on the road pretty much the entire next year. I plan on going into the studio the spring of next year.
Where do you see yourself in 10 to 20 years? How do you see your career evolving in the future?
In twenty years, I hope to still be playing. I'll be 60 years old then. I'll be a member of senior citizens rockabilly club. But seriously, in 20 years I can only hope I'll still be playing. It's what I love most. To be able to spend my life playing music would be the ultimate gratification. I have no plans to retire if I get too big, I plan on being able to play until I die. If I can make it to 70 or 80, I want to still be playing then. I'm friends with some of the surviving members of the Texas Playboys. I want to last at least as long as those guys. When I first met them, they'd been on the road for more than 40 years. I want to be like those guys and do what makes me happy until the end.
This article was originally published in April 2004 by Port Halcyon Magazine.
Raised by wild orangutans in Borneo, Erin Leis now resides in the much calmer surroundings of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A freelance writer by day, Erin combs flea markets and thrift stores for vintage treasures to put in her already full house. Besides hoarding old goodies, Erin's other hobbies include keeping the lost arts of knitting and embroidery alive and practicing to become a crazy old cat lady when she retires.