Authenticity seems to be that elusive ingredient everyone is searching for in real country. Embedded in every real country music fan is this nagging idea that somewhere out there is a treasure trove of country music waiting to be discovered. Somewhere, someplace, there’s a lonely man plugging away in some honky tonk, sweat beading across his brow and a life’s worth of pain behind his songs, who couldn’t hide his authenticity if he tried; a true country legend waiting to be discovered.
Meanwhile an army of country artists attempting to channel that vibe through song and presentation clog the consciousnesses by only being able to re-create the envy of this authenticity at best; their scars simple cosmetic treatments without the stories to go with them, their accents effected, the fray in their voice a fraud. Hollywood casts the role over and over under the false notion that fiction is the only answer to this yearning for the authentic country legend still lurking in the shadows, when the whole time the man they’ve been looking for has been sitting right under their nose in a little town in Texas called “West”, carrying the name James Hand.
You could say he looks like Tommy Lee Jones and sounds like Hank Williams, but comparing artists with others is a tool I’ve found that only needs to be implemented when an artist lacks their own originality. I would just say James Hand is like James Hand, wholly unique, yet hauntingly familiar in the way his songs seem like they were written just for you and sound like old memories, and how his presence warms the soul. Or you could just listen to Willie Nelson who says it both succinctly and completely, “James Hand is the real deal!”
And the real deal is James Hand in the way his dark eyes seem to dam back 1,000 tears that instead come flowing out through his masterful songcraft. It is impossible to be more authentic than James Hand. But he doesn’t use the fact that his parents were rodeo folks and he spent years in that trade and trained horses for lots of his life as some country music commodity to trade for street cred. It simply was his life, and all he knew. He doesn’t use his stint in prison to bolster his bravado of how “Outlaw” he is, he uses it to show his humility as he did in an interview with NPR:
There are people in this business that play that up. “Aw man, I did this, and I did that.” Well, I want to tell you a little story about that. Everybody wants to know an Outlaw, but nobody wants to be an Outlaw. If a guy has a problem, he’s not gonna wear it on his sleeve because he doesn’t want anybody to know. If he’s an Outlaw he’s not gonna tell anybody because he doesn’t want anybody to know. The louder that people say they had a drug problem, or they went to prison, or that they’re an Outlaw, the less they probably did it, and the less that anybody with any kind of class wants to hear it.
Now if somebody asks me about it, I’ll be forthright and honest about it, yes. But if somebody doesn’t ask me about it, I don’t call a publicist and say, “Play this up.” Yeah, play this up because I went to prison and broke everybody’s heart in my family and a lot of my best friends.
A good place to get started with James Hand’s music is Rounder Records’ The Truth Will Set You Free! from 2006. It is a cornerstone of Texas country music and a proverbial lesson in country songwriting. Produced by Texas legends Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel and Lloyd Maines, and featuring Redd Volkaert and Will Indian on guitar, this is a timeless piece of Texas country music culture that culls years of songwriting from James Hand’s life and encapsulates it in his first major release.
James is currently in the studio working on a new album that will be out later this year.