James Hand – The Essence of Country Music Authenticity (RIP)

photo: Kyle Coroneos

James Hand—often regarded as one of the most authentic voices to ever grace the medium of country music—has died. He passed away Monday morning, June 8th, after complications due to issues with congestive heart failure. He was in a Waco, TX hospital and his former wife and mother of his two sons, Kayla Allen, was by his side and holding his hand as he passed on. James Hand was 68-years old.

“Authenticity” is that elusive ingredient everyone is searching for in country music, but few can truly capture. Embedded in every true 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.

James Hand was that legend.

As Willie Nelson once said succinctly and completely, “James Hand is the real deal!” Growing up on the rodeo circuit with his parents, Hand started learning guitar and singing as a teenager, but never pursued music as a career. Instead he was a rodeo man and truck driver. Then in 1999 at the age of 47, he decided to release a proper debut album, Shadows Where The Magic Was. Immediately that authenticity of working and living for an entire lifetime before choosing to sing about it opened a floodgate of emotion and compelling stories.

47-years-old is a bit old to begin a career, but country fans in his native Texas and beyond saw that James Hand had something nobody else did. In 2006 he was signed to Rounder Records, and released The Truth Will Set You Free produced by Texas legends Ray Benson and Lloyd Maines, and began to tour regularly. Songs like “In the Corner, At a Table, By the Jukebox” left fans mesmerized and peppering Hand with Hank Williams comparisons, while the writing of “Shadows Where The Magic Was” proved he was worthy of recognition with all the great wordsmiths of music.

Hand released Shadow on the Ground in 2009 through Rounder as well. But that authenticity that made James Hand so compelling was also a burden on his soul. He never ventured far from his home in the tiny town of Tokio, TX (near the town of West) where he lived on his family’s property—horse barns and rodeo grounds in the back, with old relics of the rodeo life undisturbed in the house—Hand too sentimental to leave them behind. Stories of James getting squeamish and disappearing right before performances are told throughout the Texas tour circuit. He faced legal trouble due to abuse issues, but he didn’t use his stint in prison to bolster his bravado of how “Outlaw” he was, 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.

Later in life Hand paired with Hillgrass Bluebilly Records to release Mighty Lonesome Man in 2012, offering more classics to the country music canon such as “Lesson in Depression,” or the defiant “Old Man Henry.” In 2014, he finally recorded the Gospel album he always wanted called Stormclouds in Heaven. That same year he also starred in an independent film about himself called Thank You A Lot.

Though he no longer had the backing of a major label or a big booking agent, James Hand continued to perform throughout central Texas and beyond. He was a regular of the Austin honky tonk circuit, won an Ameripolitan award, and opened the Ameripolitan Awards as a performer all seven years since its inception.

Hand also won the admiration of newer artists, often due to the authenticity he embodied. British country singer Ags Connolly also paid tribute to Slim in 2014 with the song “I Saw James Hand.” Charley Crockett did as well by featuring him in a video for the song “How I Got to Memphis.” Crockett was inspired to record the song after seeing James Hand perform it. “I think James Hand is the greatest living Honky-Tonker, and he had me in tears with the way he was singing those lyrics. He chokes me up every time I hear him sing.”

Born James Edward Hand Jr. on July 7th, 1952, he is survived by two sons, including professional bull rider Tracer Hand.

“Our hero and friend James passed away early this morning,” a statement reads. “His sons Shane Machac and Tracer Hand and nephew Cody Hand appreciate all the love and prayers, and need them now more than ever. They are absolutely devastated and overwhelmed at this time, and wanted to ask that everyone please respect their privacy at this time as they grieve this devastating loss. We will let everyone know information regarding any memorial services or things of that nature as that information becomes available. We love you James!”

Now all that’s left is a shadow where the magic was. Rest in Peace, James “Slim” Hand.

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