Count on Wayne Hancock's "Viper of Melody"

For Wayne "The Train", hillbilly swing is a public service

Wayne Hancock is not afraid to make bold statements.

"I hate to say in interviews that the other stuff people listen to is trash," Hancock says in a grizzled drawl that would make Tommy Lee Jones envious. "I know it's probably not fair to say that. You know, everybody has what they like and that's fine. I just think that it's very one-sided right now—with the ignorance of radio stations refusing to play anything except what they're told to play. I'd just say it's time for a revolution."

More often than not, he gets labeled as a throwback, and it's easy to understand why. His high-octane brand of no-frills honky tonk has earned him endless comparisons to the architects of the genre, particularly his childhood idol Hank Williams. To call Hancock a throwback, though, is to deny the fact that this breed of men never really went away in the first place. Sure, he's paying homage to country and western, western swing, and rockabilly, but his presence and appeal as a performer is rooted very much in the present.

"I think people are getting sick of the glitz and the money of show business, and maybe they're wanting something different," Hancock says. In this case, he's talking specifically about folks in some of the towns he'll be playing on his current tour—Knoxville, Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland, Detroit—places in need of some good times and a sympathetic voice.

"This is soul music and it makes you feel good," he explains. "I don't talk about what's on the TV or what's in the news. I don't bring that up at my shows. I myself don't have the biggest bank account. I come off a tour and have to pay my bills like everybody else, and hope we have enough money to make it to the next tour. So I'm in the same boat a lot of these other people are in. I used to work, doing hard labor and digging ditches, stuff like that. Of course, I wasn't as good at that as I am a singer, but I've been down that road. I've done it. And I feel like we're a blue-collar band. I tell you one thing these people can count on—whatever they pay for their ticket price, they're gonna get about four times what they paid for."

Hancock is not lacking for confidence, nor should he be. After touring the country for 15 years, often playing more than 200 shows annually, he has lived up to his nickname as "The Train," and his band has become a well-oiled, if not squeaky clean, machine.

The current incarnation of that band, in particular, seems to have met with Hancock's notoriously high standards. He tended to collaborate with outside musicians on past studio albums, but decided to cut his new disc, Viper of Melody, with no one but his three fellow road warriors—Izzy Zaidman (lead guitar), Huck Johnson (upright bass), and Tony Locke (steel guitar). There's never been a need for drums in Hancock's band.

"Viper of Melody—it sounds like a reefer album, but it's not about reefer," Hancock says with a chuckle, referring to the Jazz Age slang of "viper" for "joint." He's given up drinking, but he still likes a toke. "It's a play on words, maybe, but mainly it's a song I wrote because I consider myself a viper of melody as a musician. On this record, it's the kind of music where you can get it right the first one or two times, because it's not the sort of format where every guy has to play every note correctly for it to work. We go by the melody, and in general, we'll just do five takes of each song in the studio. Out of those, we select the best ones, and that's how we make a record.... In this case, it took a day and a half."

Hancock is all about simplicity. He's looking forward to Viper of Melody's April release on Bloodshot Records, especially the vinyl version, but he knows full well that he pays the bills and makes his mark as a traveling musician rather than a recording artist.

"My job is to play music," he says. "I'm not here to be the star or to relive Hank Williams' days or Ernest Tubb's or anyone else's. I'm here to entertain. That's all. To entertain and provide this service, you know? Just think of us like the electric company or the water company. We provide good music.... You know, the music business is struggling, the economy's going to hell in a hand basket. But hey, you can always count on me."