Wayne Hancock with Patrick Sweany
Friday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission: $12. Advance tickets available online at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 901-278-8663.
Wayne Hancock was difficult to get a hold of last week. The 47-year-old singer and guitarist dropped his cellphone on one of his marathon motorcycle rides through the country near his home in Denton, Texas.
"I think I saw it in pieces on the road," Hancock says after getting a new phone.
Hancock performs Friday at the Hi-Tone Café. Also on the bill is Ohio blues-rocker Patrick Sweany, a past collaborator with the Mid-South's own Jimbo Mathus and freshly minted Grammy producer of the year Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
The cellphone incident is just further proof in favor of the argument that Hancock is the hardest-driving country musician alive. He's a man most comfortable on the move, running away from his troubles and chasing a song. It's right there in his nickname, "The Train," a sobriquet he earned early in his career for his marathon sets of old-fashioned honky-tonk and Texas swing. And you can hear it in his songs about life as a touring musician ("Man On the Road") and hopping freight trains ("Locomotive Joe").
Hancock's 10th album, Ride, due out Feb. 26 on Bloodshot Records, continues the theme with the title paean to the joys of hitting the pavement on your Harley.
"Once I get on the bike and get going, I pretty much forget about everything else," the singer says.
And Hancock had a lot he wanted to forget during the making of Ride. In 2011, he and his wife of three years separated, an event that still haunts him.
"I wrote that song ("Ride") pretty soon after we split up," he says. "We're still married for now, but we're separated. If the record weren't called Ride, it'd probably be called 'Gee, I Really Miss My Wife.' "
During this time, Hancock also found himself in a renewed struggle with alcohol. He had remained sober for a dozen years before falling off the wagon in the mid-'90s. In recent years, Hancock would announce he was going to rehab before abruptly pulling up short, at one point joining a motorcycle club instead. But then, this past New Year's, Hancock recommitted himself to cleaning up.
"I just got tired of it, man," says Hancock, detailing the financial and legal toll his drinking has taken over the years. "It was just time — been there, done that. Felt like I was just wasting time with it. And smoking reefer's great, but it's against the law in most states, so I've kind of laid off that, too."
Now, Hancock is focusing his full attention on the music career that started in Texas when he was a child. Hancock's family moved around a lot as his father, a World War II veteran, chased work. But young Wayne's one constant was the guitar his father taught him to play and the old country music — Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and especially Hank Williams Sr. — on which he was weaned.
When he was 12 years old, Hancock wrote his first song, "Poor Boy Blues." Soon he was gigging in area clubs, and at 18, he won the prestigious Wrangler Country Showdown talent completion. Now known as the Texaco Country Showdown, the contest is considered the biggest of its kind in country music. A stint in the Marines followed along with several more years working the roadhouse circuit.
Then in 1994, Hancock starred alongside a coterie of Texas troubadours, including Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen and Butch Hancock (no relation), in "Chippy", a short-lived country-and-western musical about a real-life Lone Star State prostitute. The show received a short, ignominious run in New York, but it did introduce Hancock to legendary musician Lloyd Maines. The father of Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, the Lubbock pedal steel player produced Hancock's debut record the next year and has worked with him on every record since, including Ride.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Hancock says of Maines' working style, which includes cutting the entirety of Ride in a unbelievably sprightly day and a half, a pace on a par with his other records. "I don't like to spend any more time in the studio than I have to. Over-perfection ruins a lot of good music."