James Hand—Shadow on the Ground—Rounder–2009
James Hand is countrier than you. In fact, he was country before (and while and after) country was cool—the 57-year-old has been playing his point-blank honky-tonk in Texas roadhouses since he was in his teens, and now, four decades on, he is a beloved, Willie Nelson-endorsed local legend. For 35 of those years, Hand’s music was exclusive to those folks who spilled beer while scuffing across neon-bathed bar floors around West, Texas (seriously: he’s from a town called West), but in 2006, Hand signed with Rounder and released The Truth Will Set You Free, finally putting Hand on a national stage. Now the troubadour is back with his second Rounder release, Shadow on the Ground, due September 8th.
Shadow, like its predecessor, sounds like almost nothing else being released this year—it’s music that, for the most part, people stopped making around ’64, and James Hand’s records are nice complements to your Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce titles. Indeed you can hear the influence of Hand’s honky-tonk heroes—the playful grit of Johnny Horton (“What Little I Got Left”) , the careful balladry of Lefty Frizzell (“The Pain of Loving You”), and especially the heartbreak phrasing of mid-period George Jones (“Don’t Depend on Me”). But mostly, Hand appropriates Hank Williams’ soulful whine, the most obvious reference point—check out that pose he strikes on the cover of Truth, bending at the microphone in a white suit and cowboy hat, looking like Luke the Drifter himself.
The new album is again produced by the team of Lloyd Maines, who plays on every track, and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson; those boys know how to keep it real, and the recording sounds terrific. This has to be the steel guitar album of the year, so big ups to Maines, Eddie Rivers, and Cindy Cashdollar, who split the sliding duties, countering and doubling the electric guitar on nifty western swing flourishes. Hand wrote 11 of the 12 tunes—the lone cover is the Nat King Cole standard, “Mona Lisa,” rendered here as a bossa nova swing tune, quite different from the rest of Shadow, so placing it second on the tracklist doesn’t quite work. In fact, the record is backloaded with some of Hand’s best tunes, included the hard-hurting lope of “Midnight Run” and the album-closing, rafter-raising gospel beaut, “Men Like Me Can Fly.”
The years of hard singing in smoky bars can be heard in Hand’s voice—the clarity of his call has given way to a grainier instrument, and there are no songs here that feel like absolute all-timers. However, there’s no mistaking the authenticity in either Hand’s voice or songs; while some alt-country artists come off as tribute acts or impressionists, Hand is the kind of artist they’re pretending to be. His late start and relative obscurity make you wonder how much the roots/country community would celebrate if George Jones made a no-frills early-’60s style country record as genuine as this one.
A James Hand studio recording doesn’t, however, quite capture the essence of this performer—missing are the yelps of the crowd, the rattling of beer bottles, etc., so I’m hoping for a more untamed live recording at some point, which I’m sure Hand will deliver; even though he’s already a seasoned lifer, he is, in another way, just getting started. Or as Hand himself sings on “Ain’t a Goin’,” “I’m gonna play and sing until the Master calls me away/and when I’m gone, I want it wrote on the stone, ‘when he sang, he sang it all the way.’”
Steve Leftridge is a music writer based in St. Louis, MO.