He's a self-proclaimed viper of melody, a tireless road dawg prowling the back roads, dispensing a unique musical blend he calls hillbilly swing. Wayne "The Train" Hancock pretty much lives on the road, and he loves it. "Can't get enough of those diners, and those 12-hour shifts behind the wheel," he says without a trace of irony. "Driving — it just does something to you, you know? Like being addicted to some kind of a drug."
His music reflects that wanderlust, with songs like "Driving My Young Life Away," "Lonesome Highway," "Life On the Road" scattered throughout his catalog. But a few years back, some of his band members felt "The Train" was trying to live up to his '99 album Wild Free and Reckless with his antics behind the wheel and didn't want him to drive. He admits to being a bit careless on his own but swears he's more careful with his musicians.
"I've never killed anybody in my band," he proclaims. And since it's his show out there on the road, he's put himself back at the helm. "I just decided if I was gonna be payin' guys, they were going to do what I wanted 'em to do," he says recently by phone from his home near Austin. "So I got rid of everybody who didn't like my driving." He laughs with a throaty chuckle.
Hancock has always been his own man. Although his original music was influenced by the Western swing of Bob Wills (and his influences from black artists in jazz and R&B), his singing voice has been compared to Hank Williams, which used to make him nuts. When people quote Hank III calling Hancock "the Hank Williams of today," he's still less than thrilled. "I always say, 'That's a nice compliment when people say that, but could you keep your voice down a little bit?'"
Though their voices are in no way similar, Hancock wonders why he's never been compared to Wills. "Even though all the times I've called players and called parts, I've never been accused of being Bob Wills," Hancock says. "People will always accuse me of sounding like Hank Williams. I agree that we have somewhat similar voices. O' course, the older I get, the more I sound like me. I think people hear what they want to hear."
What you hear when you come to see Hancock is a nonstop performance that can last as long as three hours. "I always figured if you're gonna be up there, and you're gonna drive five, six hours to be someplace, might as well make it worth your trip," the singer says. There's no pause between songs. Hancock just keeps strumming his guitar as the band ends one song, then falls in behind him as he segues into the next, like train cars coupling together.
And then there's that "viper of melody" thing — a tag he likes so much, he made it the name of his last album. "I figured viper is someone who smokes reefer," he says, referring to the slang black jazz musicians used in the '30s to describe a devoted weed enthusiast. "So a viper of melody would be somebody who gets high off music."
But other than a few guardians of the flame, like Dale Watson, Hancock doesn't find much in country music to get high off. "Let's face it, country music's been sold out so much, there's not much really country about anything that's on country radio." He believes it may change, but he won't be around to see it. "The pendulum may swing back from where people don't give a shit how they play, and it'll be like that for 50 years, then swing back the other way where people are like 'Hey, let's learn how to play our instruments again.'"
His upbeat, twangy music incorporates swing, rockabilly, honky-tonk and jazz, and generally gets lumped under an Americana label, or if somebody listens a little harder, juke joint swing. Just don't associate him with the stuff that passes for country today. "A few people have called me country and Western," he says. "It kind of irritates me sometimes."
He's content to go his own way, racking up the miles, entertaining audiences in a nonstop journey of cross-country marathon performances. "People still ask me stuff like 'When are you gonna make it?'" He chuckles hoarsely. "'Well, I think I made it already. Oh, you mean when am I gonna make it, like big-time make it? Probably never.'"