Architect, photographer, TV producer, and singer-songwriter Butch Hancock thrives as a modern day renaissance person. "I was always advised not to spread myself too thin," Hancock told Steve Pond in the Los Angeles Times. "So naturally, that's what I've done." Hancock wore many artistic hats, but he wore none prouder than his gift as a musician, singer, and songwriter. With a dry, world-weary voice similar to Bob Dylan's, and a songwriting style filled with puns and humorous word play, his songs are wry and tender, wistful and wise. Through a series of album releases and live performances, Hancock's music reverberated throughout the Austin music scene in the 1970s, leaving its mark on the burgeoning progressive country movement. "Here in the Republic of Texas," wrote Christopher Hess in the Austin Chronicle, "ex-Flatlander, Terlingua resident, and Lubbock Mafioso Butch Hancock is a bona fide national treasure."
Hancock was born on July 12, 1945, in the small farming community of Lubbock, Texas. Isolated in the rural, western part of the state, Hancock grew up in cotton country, hundreds of miles from a major city. "If Lubbock had any woods," Hancock told Jason Gross in Perfect Sound Forever, "it would be a back-woods kind of town, but it's out there on the high, dry plains." He wrote his first songs while driving a tractor on his father's farm, and joined with high school chums Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to play music.
The three friends were united by their long hair and strong dislike of the commercial country music industry. "We got to realizing," he told Pond, "that we all knew some of the same songs and we all liked a certain kind of character of music that wasn't flashy, show-off stuff and that wasn't Nashville junk." In 1971-72, the three friends formed the Flatlanders, and while the band was short-lived, Hancock continued to write songs for his bandmates. Four of his songs, including "If You Were a Bluebird" and "Suckin' a Big Bottle of Gin," appeared on Ely's self-titled solo album in 1977. Gilmore likewise included Hancock's "99 Holes" on his first release, Fair and Square, in 1988.
In 1978 Hancock kick-started his own solo career by forming Rainlight Records and releasing West Texas Waltzes and Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes. With no more than a guitar and harmonica, Hancock recorded a dozen folksongs that captured the dry, dusty landscape consisting of dry-land farms, coyotes, and populace politics. While well received by critics, the album failed to reach a larger audience, partly because of Hancock's decision to work independently of commercial recording companies. "It's not like I disrespect the big companies," Hancock told Pond. "It's just that they're big companies, that's all."
Hancock followed West Texas Waltzes in 1979 with a sprawling double album, The Wind's Dominion, and in 1980 with Diamond Hill. In both instances, Hancock expanded the direction of his sound by using more musicians on some cuts and by adding diverse instruments on others. On The Wind's Dominion, for instance, he utilized a rock band for "Capture ...Fracture ... and the Rapture," while Diamond Hill 's title track utilized the saxophone. Hancock continued a steady series of issues during the 1980s, including the live Firewater in 1981 and Yellow Rose, a duet album with Marce Lacoutre, in 1985. Perhaps his most ambitious project, however, was 1990's No Two Alike. Starting on January 31, 1990, Hancock performed for six consecutive nights at the Cactus Café in Austin, a performance consisting of 140 songs that was then released on a series of cassette tapes. He also joined with Jimmie Dale Gilmore for Two Roads: Recorded Live in Australia, which, according to Steve Knopper of Music Hound Folk, was "more consistent than almost any Merle Haggard-Willie Nelson collaboration."
In the early 1990s Hancock began recording for Sugar Hill Records, a move that served to introduce him to a larger audience. In 1991 the label released Own and Own, a collection comprised of his earlier Rainlight material. The label released another compilation in 1993, Own the Way Over Here, followed by Eats Away the Night in 1995, the first Hancock album of new material since the mid-1980s. Filled with American imagery, the album revealed a songwriter at the top of his form.
One of the most enduring aspects of Hancock's artistry has been his ability to create lyrics filled with humor and a sense of the absurd. In "Junkyard in the Sun," for instance, he used a basic blues structure and opened with a play on words: "Give your hot dawg time to cool down / Give your watch dawg time to run ...''
While the lyrics themselves appear incongruous, the song's narrator uses them as an introduction to describe the absurd behavior of a love interest. Unlike a Bob Dylan "put-down" song, however, Hancock undercut the harshness of the song with a generous dose of humor. Songs like "Moanin' of the Midnight Train," on the other hand, revealed Hancock as a romantic, always willing to probe matters of the heart. "I feel like all my songs, even the most complex ones, are still basically simple stuff, or I wouldn't be able to do them," Hancock told Don Mcleese in the Austin-American Statesman.
In 1997 Hancock left Sugar Hill and re-established Rainlight Records by releasing You Could've Walked Around the World, his 15th album. "From the traveling blues of the title track to the rascally ribaldry of 'Naked Light of Day' and the lingering, meditative mood of 'Rollaround' and 'Circumstance,'" wrote John T. Davis in the Austin-American Statesman, "Hancock's solo performances paint the lyrical landscape with broad, vivid strokes."
In the 1990s Hancock moved away from Austin to the relatively isolated Terlingua. "It's a place where you've got a little more space and time to experience the moments," he told Davis. "Rather than rushing from moment to moment, you've got time to kind of hang with them." In 1997 he joined in "A Night on the Townes," a star-studded celebration of the late-Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. The following year he joined with the former members of the Flatlanders to record a track for The Horse Whisperer, a successful endeavor that led the band to temporarily reunite. The Flatlanders toured and then released a series of albums on New West, including Now Again in 2002, and Wheels of Fortune and Live in '72 in 2004.
As for the future, the architect, photographer, and artist has kept his options open. "Once in a while," Hancock told Pond, "you have to back off and do one thing at a time. They all kind of feed each other. There's times where one obviously takes more precedence than another one, has more of a vibe to it so you follow that for a while. In the down-times it's good to have some other things to be working on in a creative way while you're doing a re-charge on another activity."
For the Record . . .
Born on July 12, 1945, in Lubbock, TX.
Formed the Flatlanders with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, 1971-72; released West Texas Waltzes and Dust Blown Tractor Tunes on his own Rainlight Records label, 1978; issued The Wind's Dominion, 1979, Diamond Hill, 1980, and 1981: A Spare Odys sey, in 1981; released Yellow Rose with Marce La coutre, 1985, and Two Roads: Recorded Live in Australia, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, 1990; released several albums on Sugar Hill Records, including Own and Own, 1991, Own the Way Over Here, 1993, and Eats Away the Night, 1995; issued You Coulda Walked Around the World on Rainlight Records, 1997; re-united with the Flatlanders, 1998–.
Addresses: Record company—Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300, website: http://www.sugarhillrecords.com.
West Texas Waltzes and Dust Blown Tractor Tunes, Rain-light, 1978.
The Wind's Dominion, Rainlight, 1979.
Diamond Hill, Rainlight, 1980. 1981: A Spare Odyssey, Rainlight, 1981.
Firewater Seeks Its Own Level, Rainlight, 1981.
(With Marce Lacoutre) Yellow Rose, Rainlight, 1985.
Split and Slide II (Apocalypse Now, Pay Later), Rainlight, 1986.
Cause of the Cactus, Rainlight, 1987.
(With Jimmie Dale Gilmore) Two Roads: Recorded Live in Australia, Rainlight, 1990.
No Two Alike, Rainlight, 1990.
Own and Own, Sugar Hill, 1991.
Own the Way Over Here, Sugar Hill, 1993.
Songs From Chippy, Hollywood, 1994.
Eats Away the Night, Sugar Hill, 1995.
You Coulda Walked Around the World, Rainlight, 1997.
Goodman, David, Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory, Dowling Press, 1999, pp. 142-3.
Waters, Neil, editor, Music Hound Folk, Visible Ink Press, 1998, pp. 342-3.
Austin American-Statesman, October 30, 1997, p. 12; March 4, 1999, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1986.
"Butch Hancock," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 10, 2005).
"Butch Hancock Interview," Perfect Sound Forever, http://www.furious.com/perfect/butchhancock.html.com/ (June 10, 2005).
"Reissues," Austin Chronicle,http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/vol18/issue16/music.reissues.html/ (June 10, 2005).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.