It’s a bit odd it took so long for Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Bloodshot Records to hook up. It seems a match made in hillbilly heaven. On one hand, you have a singer/songwriter who doggedly preserves the traditions of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell-era barroom country, and on the other you have a label dedicated to preserving the revivalist bent of alt-country, from rock revivalists The Yayhoos to latter-day Patsy Cline-style chanteuse Kelly Hogan. Still, it took Hancock’s fourth record, A-Town Blues, to make the marriage. Weird, but hey, that’s the music business. With that all said, A-Town Blues doesn’t mark much of a departure for Hancock, but that’s not surprising. Ever since his 1995 debut, Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Hancock’s records are pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Each has a stripped-down instrumentation of guitars, pedal steel, and upright bass. All four spotlight Hancock’s anachronistic vocals, a hillbilly moan so lost in time his records sound more at home on scratchy Gramophones than new-fangled CD players. And thankfully, each album is chock full of well-written country tunes that fit stylistically between Hank’s “Mansion on the Hill” and Lefty’s “Look What Thoughts Will Do.” Unfortunately, that means one Wayne Hancock album can replace another Wayne Hancock album with little difficulty. For the purist, this may be a gold mine, but for those of us raised on Hank and Lefty, it can get sort of tedious after a while. Sure, it’s all good, and A-Town Blues is as good as all the others – especially thanks to the bare bones production and hot licks of legendary steel guitarist Lloyd Maines – but hey, ya heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times. The standard country, and by both’s very nature, Hancock themes are all over this records. There are songs about the road (“A Man Of The Road”), tunes warning off too much alcohol (“Miller, Jack & Mad Dog”), train songs (“Track 49”), and love songs (“Happy Birthday Julie”). Hancock performs each with aplomb and humor, making each tune enjoyable if, again, a bit repetitive. His jumpy, uptempo style fits best on rockers like “Life’s Lonesome Road,” and he does a wonderful take on the Jimmie Rodgers classic “California Blues” – completely with a wild mid-song yodel befitting of the Singing Brakeman – that doesn’t quite equal Merle Haggard’s version, but is head and shoulders above Alejandro Escovedo’s. A-Town Blues is another top-shelf effort by the man Hank Williams III considers one of the best songwriters in country music, even if there isn’t one whit of experimentation or stylistic departure. Then again, one reckons if Wayne Hancock decided to do techno or Radiohead-style electronica rock, hell… that might be one of the signs of the apocalypse.
Bloodshot Records, 3039 Irving Park, Chicago, IL 60618; http://www.bloodshotrecords.com