Talk about success with James Hand, and he'll talk about his friends..by Carl Hoover. Waco Tribune-Herald entertainment editor.
There are no strangers when interviewing James Hand at Willis Country Store in Ross.
He knows all the guys sitting at a table in the all-purpose convenience store and bar, plus store owner Billy Willis, standing behind the counter, and introduces you to them all.
Brenda Lee is singing on the jukebox while Hand talks, and the Tokio, Texas musician confessess he often comes in and pumps the jukebox full of quarters just to listen to music like that when he is in the mood.
This is home territory for the 53-year-old Hand, who notes he lives only a few miles north of the store, in his late parents' home.
The ever-polite country singer is, characteristically, self-effacing when it comes to talk about his late-blooming career and critically acclaimed new cd, The Truth Will Set You Free.
"If I've got a moment of fame, I want it for my friends here," he said.
Hand who's called "Slim" in these parts, liberally drops names in the course of the interview. His longtime family friend Willis, who's owned the country store for 23 years; his current band of Austin musicians, Gene Kurtz, Rusty Trapps, Jim Loeessberg and Will Indian; former band members Laurel Moore, Jimmy Motis and Gary Dean Finley.
"Promise you'll put their names in. Promise me that. Shake on that,"he said, scooting his chair closer to his interviewer and holding out his hand. Promised.
After decades of toiling in countless Texas bars and honky tonks with a plaintive wail so close to Hank Williams' that it can bring goose bumps, Hand is on the brink of bigger and better things.
Like glowing features in the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American -Statesman, even the Hollywood Reporter. A record deal with national label Rounder Records, which signed Hand after hearing him at the 2004 South by Southwest Music Festival and is releasing and promoting The Truth Will Set You Free.
Help from the likes of Willie Nelson, Lloyd Maines and Ray Benson, all heavy lifters in Texas music circles. A documentary film team trailing his paths for a future feature. Upcoming appearances in Chicago and a July performance at the Country Rendez-Vous
Festival in Craponne sur Arzon, France.
Hand's reaction to all this? "If I could ever be happy, now would be the time to be happy," he said gravely.
He leans forward, almost conspiratorially, his brown eyes glowing with intensity under a white cowboy hat.
"I'm scared it's not going to happen," he said. "I'm afraid it will."
Waco-area fans have a rare chance to hear Hand live this weekend as he and his Austin-based band will have CD release parties Friday and Saturday.
Austin-area gigs have dominated Hand's schedule for several years now, but when asked why he doesn't perform more locally, the singer doesn't go beyond an enigmatic "too many fights when I play."
Hand's soul-bearing barroom weepers and mournful sounds are a bracing chaser for cuntry fans tired of what they consider paint-by-numbers country rock and the interchangeable performers ofcontemporary Nashville.
Despite Hand's similarity to Hank Williams' sound, it's not intentional or deliberate, he says, and he bristles at reviewers who see Hank in every hand mannerism.
"They say I even hunch down like Hank did when I sing," said the former rodeo rider, who works as a horse trainer between music jobs. "Well, you've got to duck a bit when you play the joints I play in."
His album, the first national release after three previous CDs, contains all original Hand compositions, and you can see its thematic territory in the song titles:"If I live Long Enough To Heal," "When You Stopped Loving Me, So did I,:" "Shadows Where The Magic Was."
Familiar stuff for those who honed their country listening on the likes of George Jones, Ray Price and Hank Thompson but new to younger audiences outside the state.
"All of this is brand new to me, but life is not new to me," Hand said.
Where he goes from here in the wider world, he's not sure, and he hints at personal demons that have sidetracked him in the past, but he knows there's still a home base to which he can always retreat.
As one of his songs on The Truth Will Set You Free has it, "In The Corner, At the Table, By the Jukebox."
Probably with his friends at Willis Country Store.
the reason why I went to such length's to post about James "Slim" Hand is I know him, have known him since the early 80's....We kinda sorta dated....We did rock the little trailer out at his mama's and daddy's...But most important.....he is a great singer...a good man and an even better friend...if you like Hank Williams, you will love James..I know everyone always calls him Slim, but he was always James to me...I have his first cd, but none of the others....I haven't been to see him play in over 20 years. The smoke in them ole honky tonks kill me...and as much as I love him I like listening to him in my truck or the house better than the smoky ole honky tonks..Although that is where you should listen to him...so you can cry in your beer to his songs...I hope he becomes a huge hit..no one deserves it more....he's a good'un.....