Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Butch Hancock article in The Rocket (Seattle), January 1994

By Peter Blackstock

It’s kind of an eyesore from the outside, this humble cottage industry that Butch Hancock calls home, a few yards from the antiquated streetcar tracks on a mostly deserted block in the middle of downtown Austin. Huge planks of plywood hide the graffiti that covered the abandoned storefront before Hancock moved in a couple years ago. Above the boards is a modest but intriguing sign, painted by Hancock, that depicts a city skyline as seen through a rearview mirror, along with the name of the establishment: “Lubbock Or Leave It.”

It’s an amusing but ironic phrase: Although Hancock left Lubbock for the culturally greener pastures of Austin a couple decades ago, there’s no doubt his old hometown still holds a special place in his heart. After all, it was in Lubbock that Hancock hooked up with the Flatlanders, a now-legendary revolving assemblage of musicians which included Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The Flatlanders released an album in the early 1970s (reissued in the UK in 1980 as One Road More, and more recently on Rounder in 1990 under the title More A Legend Than A Band) that’s now considered a classic document of West Texas folk music.

Hancock moved to Austin in the mid-’70s and released his first solo album in 1977 on his own label, Rainlight Records. He followed it up with a steady stream of self-released records that chronicled the development of a songwriter sometimes referred to as “The West Texas Dylan.” Such comparisons often have become bad omens for promising songwriters, but Hancock can’t be cursed by the “New Dylan” tag because he’s already delivered the goods to be placed in such company. (Never was that more evident than the first week of February in 1990, when Hancock showcased his own material for six straight nights at Austin's Cactus Cafe and never repeated a song.)

Yet his impressive catalog of original material is only the most salient example of the creativity that radiates from this fascinating person. If Hancock isn’t jotting down song ideas or drawing sketches in one of the little notebooks he constantly carries around, he’s probably occupied with a camera. His photographs have been published in magazines and on the album covers of his peers, and have been been the subject of feature exhibits.

Nowadays, his photos frequently can be found on display at Lubbock Or Leave It, which not only is Hancock’s residence but also houses an art gallery, a tape duplication business, a store selling the music and merchandise of his peers, and a spacious studio room occasionally used for live performances. The multi-purpose setup is an ideal physical manifestation of Hancock’s do-it-yourself-and-do-everything ethic. And that includes simple manual labor -- he remodeled the place himself.

Such a task was old hat to Hancock; as he puts it, “I’ve done my share of hammerin’ and nailin’.” A student of architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock just before the heyday of the Flatlanders, Hancock spent a couple of years in the ’70s doing construction work in the Texas Panhandle town of Clarendon. Shortly after moving to Austin, he took a job remodeling an old train station into a house. His early days in Lubbock also included many a turn in the seat of a tractor, an occupation chronicled in the title and content of his debut solo album, West Texas Waltzes and Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes.

Such experiences are an integral part of Hancock’s character and have provided the wellspring from which his creative juices flow. “I literally wrote a lot of songs on the tractor,” he recalls. “On this old International Harvester we were pulling the terracing machine with, second gear at two-thirds throttle was about the key of G. So you could change gears, or speed up and slow down, to change the tune.”

The gears turning inside Hancock's mind mesh in perfect harmony when it comes to such seemingly disparate activities. “I just look at it as all one whole thing that’s completely related,” he explains. “My drawings and my photos are completely intertwined, at least in my brain, with my songs. I don't look at myself as a songwriter, or as a musician, or as a photographer; those are just part of what I do. And if I’m a tractor driver one year, then I’m a tractor driver, but that’s just part of what I do.”

“I never have understood the concept of just being a songwriter to crank out songs, because you’ve got to go out and get the experience and write from that. Otherwise, you just start imitating bad imitations of other imitations.”

These days, Hancock’s musical career is busy enough that it leaves little time for hammerin’ and nailin’ and tractor drivin’. But it hasn’t kept him from continually challenging himself with new experiences. In recent years, most of those experiences have involved international touring. In 1987, Hancock was one of a handful of Austin musicians who participated in a two-week tour of the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program. In 1990, he and longtime pal Gilmore spent a month in Australia, where they played several shows and became enlightened to the art and culture of the indigenous Aboriginal tribes. (A live CD culled from shows on that trip was released in 1992 by Caroline Records.)

Among the more interesting endeavors Hancock has pursued in the past couple of years has been a series of “river-rafting concerts” on the Rio Grande, which divides Texas and Mexico. In coordination with with a West Texas travel outfit called Far Flung Adventures, Hancock and a couple of river guides take small groups of rafters on a three-day, two-night trip that includes campfire concerts by Hancock amid the walls of the river’s towering canyons. If you seek truly “Unplugged” music, this is the ultimate experience.

But enough about river trips, art galleries, tractor driving, architecture and the like. Ultimately, Hancock’s most significant contribution to the world has been his songwriting. His melodies and arrangements are generally pretty simple, but as a lyricist, Hancock has few, if any, peers in contemporary music.

Take, for instance, the barroom wisdom of “Firewater (Seeks Its Own Level)”: Perched on your back was a loudmouth vulture/ Y’all were talkin’ back and forth about the counter-counterculture/ Smoke was hangin’ heavy, everybody had to breathe it/ Your hands were on the table but your thoughts were underneath it.

Or the rambling stream-of-unconsciousness that drives “Cause You Never Compromise”: There was a goat on the ladder and a man on the trumpet/ A boy on the bass drum and buddy he could thump it/ A woman in a window and a monkey and a man on a chain/ I shook my head and the wind blew through my ears/ I looked away and heard the music disappear.

Then there’s the timeless beauty of his love songs, such as “If You Were A Bluebird”: If I were a highway, I’d stretch alongside you/ I’d help you pass byways that had dissatisfied you/ If I were I highway, I’d be stretchin’/ I’d be fetchin’ you home.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Several of Hancock’s best songs (including the aforementioned “Bluebird” and “Firewater”) are included on Own & Own, a two-CD set issued by Sugar Hill in 1991 and culled from the seven albums Hancock released on his own Rainlight Records label between 1978 and 1987. (None of those original albums have been issued on CD, but cassette copies are available by mail-order through Lubbock Or Leave It, 406 Brazos St., Austin, TX 78701.)

The real treasure of Hancock’s discography, however, is No 2 Alike, a 14-cassette, 140-song series documenting the aforementioned six Cactus Cafe concerts in February 1990. It’s sold only as a “tape-of-the-month club” -- you send $12 each month for an hourlong tape until all 14 have been delivered. It’s the definitive Hancock recording in terms of both quantity and quality: In addition to dozens of previously unreleased songs, the series also features the best versions of many Hancock classics.That’s due in part to a remarkable cast of guest performers -- Gilmore, Ely, Townes Van Zandt, Alejandro Escovedo, David Halley, Jesse Taylor, plus more than a dozen others -- and partly to the studio-quality sound of the recording.

In addition, several of Hancock’s songs can be found on albums by other artists. Both Ely and Gilmore have included handfuls of Hancock tunes on their solo albums; his credits also have recently turned up on discs by Emmylou Harris, the Texas Tornados and Flaco Jimenez.

In truth, however, Hancock’s catalog seems to have gone criminally unrecorded by a country music industry that too often relies on Nashville tunesmiths writing in office cubicles rather than seeking out folks who compose songs on tractors. To be fair, though, part of the reason Hancock hasn’t had a parade of hits is that he generally shies away from publishing deals, preferring simply to let the artists seek him out if they want to record his material.

“I’ve been real lucky just to retain control of my songs as I have,” he says. “Maybe the trade-off is that I haven’t had those one or two medium-sized hits or haven’t had songs on the charts or anything. But, you know, if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen.

“And if it doesn’t, well, so what?”

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