Though he's been making powerful original music for nearly four decades, James Hand has unjustly remained one of American music's secret treasures -- a local legend, modestly plying his craft in countless smoky dives and dancehalls to a slowly widening circle of admirers. What he does, he does straight from his heart, taking the hard-won lessons that life and love have taught him and pouring them into his songwriting and performing. "I don't sing like anybody," he admits with a shy, sly smile, "and I don't look like Kenny Chesney." He's right: he sings like nobody but himself, his phrasing drawing out the pain and humor of his lyrics with an unpredictable yet soulful series of tiny inflections. His songs are equally mysterious and unclassifiable. While they are noticeably rich with the influences of his heroes -- classic country architects like Hank, Lefty, and Ernest -- Hand's songs are uniquely his, imbued with equal parts gallows humor and the ability to stare unflinchingly into life's darkest corners.
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When he's not onstage, Hand has carved out a niche for himself as a horse trainer. “When it comes to horses," he says, "people act like it’s some big deal – like this whole horse whispering thing. But I’ll tell you something: you can whisper to ‘em, you can get down on your knees and act like ‘em, but the horse knows you ain’t a horse.” That offhand remark says a lot about James Hand – he knows who he is, and onstage and off he’s the same man: soft-spoken, achingly polite, and genuine.
At the unlikely age of 53, he’s about to release his first nationally-distributed album, The Truth Will Set You Free. Produced by Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson and legendary Texas producer and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines (Dixie Chicks, Terry Allen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, Jr.), the album features confident, definitive versions of twelve of Hand's original compositions -- songs that are at once refreshingly unique and classically timeless. Though he is poised at the brink of national attention, if anything, he is more humble now than ever. “The people around me really came through for me,” he says, with not a trace of affectation, “The record company, my producers, and my band. In fact, sometimes I think the only person who hasn’t been kind to me is me…”
“In over 30 years of playing country music, I have never, absolutely never seen anyone as unique as James Hand. There is no one like this artist – complex, yet simple. Simply, James Hand is country music, and he has no equivalent.” – Bob Cole, Country Music Hall Of Fame ’03, Hill’s Café, South Austin, Texas
“I started playing this kind of music when I was twelve,” Hand reflects, “When I was 13, we’d play for $15 a person and free beer. I’m 53 and I’m still playing for $15 a person and free beer. Working with horses pays about the same. It seems like my whole family all managed to find occupations that get you a slow starvin’ diet.”
Born in Waco, TX, rodeos and country music surrounded James from an early age, and quickly became part of his daily life. The classic strains of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams made their mark on him, but a more substantial influence on his performing and songwriting has been life itself. “I’ve been writing songs since I was kid – since I was ten or eleven. Just the other day I found some songs in a little bitty envelope that my grandmother, who has since passed away, had tucked away into china cabinet. And with the life I’ve lived, there’s no shortage of songs. They’ll run out of typewriter ribbon before I run out of songs.”
The songs on The Truth Will Set You Free are bathed in the bittersweet glow of James Hand’s experiences, from his early teen years
Producers Maines and Benson had never collaborated on producing a project before, yet they framed Hand’s songs perfectly, with an ideal balance of stark clarity and fuller instrumental textures. Their respect for Hand’s talents allowed James to deliver an album’s worth of disarmingly direct vocals. “You see, I’d met Ray two or three times in the course of playing, but I had never met Mr. Maines before this,” Hand explains. “Both of them have been really kind to me. In fact, when I first met Mr. Maines, I could barely talk. I had awful allergies. I was nervous that he would think I wasn’t going to be able to sing. But he just slapped me on the back and said ‘Don’t worry about it!’ To me, it’s about being friends first and music second – I’m not all about my career. I’m about being a stand-up guy…we’ll talk about music later.”
“Lloyd,” Hand continues, “was very aggressive about bringing the players in – he brought in Red Volkaert, a good friend of mine, to play lead guitar. And Lloyd played lots of rhythm guitar and all the steel. But he let me use my regular band on most of it. He understood that me and my band have been playing those songs a long while – he didn’t want to throw a curveball to anybody, especially me!”
“You probably won’t hear James on your country music station these days, but if you’re one of the folks out there who loves true, honest, down-to-earth country music songs, based on hard life lessons and affairs of the heart, then James Hand is your man.” – Ray Benson
The core of The Truth Will Set You Free are the songs, which while rich with heartache, tragedy, and sadness, are marked equally by resilience and an unyielding yearning to carry on. “I don’t know how many songs I’ve written,” says James. “And, just like having kids, you hate to point out your favorites. But I guess I’d have to point out ‘Long Enough to Heal’ as the best of all of them. I worked on it right up to when we recorded it. ‘Leave the Lonely Alone,’ ‘When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I,’ and ‘Just an Old Man with an Old Song’ are all pretty new. ‘Baby, Baby Don’t Tell Me That’ is one of the oldest songs here.”
When it comes to writing and recording songs, Hand has learned a valuable lesson from his long nights playing endless sets for dancers in honky-tonks. “You see,” he says, “there are a lot of songs, the ones you feel like you’ve put your heart and soul into, that go unnoticed out on the dancefloor. Ninety-nine percent of people want to hear something they can dance to and sing along with. If it’s too complicated, they can’t do that. Even when listening to records like this one I’ve made, people don’t want to be overwhelmed – it’s just got to be understood.”
With no artifice – just his songs, his voice, and his life – James Hand makes himself understood very easily. When he explains it, it sound so simple: “A song and an album are absolutely worthless if people can’t go home, learn it the song themselves, sing it, and know that they’ve felt that way some time or another.”
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