James Hand,
The Truth Will Set You Free
(Rounder, 2006)

Though he lives and works in Texas, James Hand is a hard-core honkytonk artist who sounds a whole lot more like Hank Williams than like Ray Price. In 1956, with his influential recording of "Crazy Arms," Price created a rhythmic honkytonk-shuffle sound that, though radically innovative in its time, has come to define Texas-style traditional country music. In his early days, however, Price roomed with Williams in Nashville, and his own first recordings were dead-on Hank impersonations, catching with echo-chamber precision Hank's tortured vocals and stark, blues-inflected hillbilly melodies. If you were to hear them today, you'd say those records sound like ... James Hand.

Ordinarily, when a modern artist is compared to Hank, the observer means to stress that something of Hank's approach, attitude and gift has been carried over (Billy Joe Shaver is the usual recipient of remarks like this), not that the performer is channeling Hank. Hearing Hand, however, you could easily believe that somebody recently uncovered some long-lost Hank 78s and is just now introducing them to the world. Hand inhabits Hank's haunted world of pain, loss and death, from which escape never lasts longer than a few hours of a drunken evening in a gin joint. Along with Leonard Cohen, who would honor Hank's songwriting genius in his own mordant "Tower of Song," Hank Williams wrote, sang and recorded some of the most nakedly despairing songs you could ever bear to hear.

The Truth Will Set You Free is a good album, and Hand is a good writer and vocalist, even if one just about entirely defined by his influences. I have sometimes wondered if pure honkytonk, which barely survives in current Nashville (and then in watered-down form), will one day become a genre of its own, as bluegrass (in its initial incarnation no more than a passing strain of commercial country) did, and thus survived. If honkytonk were to become a genre of its own, no one would complain if its performers leaned too close to Hank or Lefty Frizzell or Webb Pierce or Ernest Tubb or Rose Maddox or whatever founding father or mother, any more than young bluegrassers take offense when someone points out that they owe an audible debt to Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs or the Stanleys. Innovation within a genre whose very reason to exist is to carry on a tradition is always a subtle and tricky maneuver.

In other words, if you are able to think of Hand's honkytonk classicism as equivalent to its bluegrass counterpart, you should have no trouble enjoying what the man is doing: reviving and preserving a music that hasn't been heard in this unapologetic a voice in more than half a century. In particular, his "In the Corner, At the Table, By the Jukebox" will tell you what we've all been missing.

by Jerome Clark
13 May 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.