Plains Song

When Lubbock-born songwriter Butch Hancock steps onstage, West Texas haunts his music.

As always, Butch Hancock is doing two or three things at once. Sitting in his Austin office, dressed in cutoffs and a T-shirt from a Los Angeles guitar shop, he intently considers an interviewer’s question, while just as intently strumming an acoustic guitar he is restringing and tuning. Then, getting up from his chair, he walks to a wall of twenty cassette-tape duplicators, opens each one up, and flips the tapes over two at a time, one with each hand.

A member of the inexplicably gifted generation of Lubbock musicians that includes Terry Allen, the Maines Brothers, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hancock has been a critic’s favorite and the Texas songwriter’s Texas songwriter for the past fifteen years. Ely has recorded enough of Hancock’s material to fill an entire album, and Emmylou Harris introduced his “If You Were a Bluebird” to the mass country audience. Hancock’s remarkably broad but unified body of work has made him the best-known unknown on the folk circuit and has even won him write-ups in the New York Times—yet no major record label has ever offered him a contract.

The cassettes he is making document the six nights of shows he put on at Austin’s Cactus Cafe in early 1990. During the stand, which Butch dubbed “No 2 Alike,” he performed 140 originals, ranging from “In Another World,” the fifth song he ever wrote, to “One Kiss” and “Unknown Love,” both of which he was just finishing. Starting in September 1990, he has released one No 2 Alike cassette each month and sold them mainly by mail order. Butch expects to sell a couple thousand of each to his diehard followers.

Although he’s a word man in song and a world-class talker, the lanky, sandy-haired Hancock is not an easy interview. He answers questions with parables or long, detailed explanations that sound like thinking out loud until he gets to his summation sentence, which invariably makes it clear that he has given the subject plenty of thought. But the explanation rambles too far to make much sense on the printed page, and the summation sentence doesn’t stand on its own without the rest; quoting it alone would make him sound glib, which he definitely isn’t.

When he talks about a projected trip to Lubbock, he speaks of “reinvestigating self-history.” Then he explains his distrust of self-investigation: “It tends to get into egocentric lying to self, drifting off into reverie.” This is a man who once photographed Austin crosswalks as they were distorted by the heat of car exhaust because he felt the images would reveal important truths about the land; he still believes the photos do just that, though he can’t say what the truths are, only

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