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 that they are there. “There’s still life going on in the rocks and the trees and the hills,” Butch declares. “It’s sort of reincarnation, but it’s more omni-incarnation. And it’s not new-agey, it’s ancient.”

Talk like that sometimes seems a little too much to digest, but Butch’s real gift is that when he sits down to write about those subjects, he is able to recast them into earthy tunes like “Fools Fall in Love.” The life going on in those rocks and trees and hills is conveyed in a finely delineated borderland love story like “Leo y Leona.” The weary western ballad “Only Born” somehow evolved out of his meditations on eternal recurrence, while “Real World Kid,” a new one with a good shot at anthem status, captures the oppressive weariness of mainstream American politics. (“We got a vice president who can hardly read/We got another president we hardly need/I don’t know how they got elected, but they did.”)

And it’s pretty near impossible not to warm up to a guy who writes an ongoing saga like “Split and Slide,” a piece of slapstick storytelling that bounces words off each other for the sheer delight of seeing what happens when they collide. Amidst a comical overload of puns and alliteration, the characters Split and Slide wander into the song for no apparent reason, then drift back out. When he wrote “Split and Slide II,” Butch borrowed characters from previous songs of his, as well as from Townes Van Zandt’s “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold.” Butch is now working on “Split and Slide III,” which he envisions as a marathon narrative for live performances featuring several artists. To introduce a performer, Butch would do five minutes of “Split and Slide,” using the artist’s characters and imagery. Before the next act, Butch would do five more minutes of “Split and Slide,” and so on.

Butch started writing songs back in the heyday of the sixties’ folk movement,  when he was driving a tractor near Lubbock for his father, an earth-moving contractor. He still calls his musical style—singsong talking blues with pinched nasal vocals—“tractor music.” To Butch, his songs invoke the rhythms of life on the High Plains, and when you hear him moan “Wind’s Dominion” or chortle through “West Texas Waltz,” the description makes perfect sense.

Hancock has favored the Bob Dy-lan/Woody Guthrie guitar-and-harmonica setup from the beginning, inflecting his country-folk melodies with bluegrass and a dab of early rock and roll. But it took him a couple of false starts before he got serious about music. First, he took stabs at architecture school at Texas Tech in between trips to San Francisco, where he concentrated on photography. Eventually, Hancock joined with Ely and Gilmore to form the Flatlanders in Lubbock in 1971. The novel folk-country outfit headed off to Nashville “to become rich and famous,” Butch recalls. Instead, the Flatlanders wound up with one album (which was unreleased until last year) and a standing ovation at the 1972 Kerrville Folk Festival. Then they promptly broke up.

Butch moved to Clarendon, where he did construction work. By 1973, he was living in Austin, where he began to make music again while doing carpentry and redesigning a train station in Seguin, among other projects. In the mid-eighties, he

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