The throwback – James Hand

James Hand’s simple songs about hard times have a dusty authenticity

(rick henson)

Texas singer-songwriter James Hand doesn’t go looking for trouble or misery. But if the songs on his latest album, “The Truth Will Set You Free,” are autobiographical — as he claims more than a few of them are — misery and troubled times have always had a way of finding him. “I’ve been like this my entire life,” says Hand, 55, whose first nationally released album for the Rounder Records label (he’s also issued three discs on his own) features a handful of tear-in-your-beer weepers with titles such as “I’ve Got a Lot of Hiding Left to Do,” “When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I” and “Just an Old Man With an Old Song.”

“People ask me why I write such sad songs, but I’m a happy guy — really, I am. I don’t search for a dark cloud, and when it don’t rain on Sunday, I don’t say, ‘Well, it’s gonna rain next Sunday.’ But that’s a good question and I’ve often wondered about it myself.”

Hand hits the area for a spate of shows next week, including Johnny D’s in Somerville Wednesday , the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton Thursday, and the Lowell Folk Festival next Saturday and Sunday . Although his repertoire includes slyly funny slice-of-life sketches such as the disc’s title track, even those are about breakups, crack-ups, and slip-ups.

As Hand admits over the phone, he’s always been drawn to “the dark side of things. Sometimes I think I’ve been living it since before I was born.”

The old-fashioned songs Hand writes and sings — about heartache, hard luck, and hard-won redemption — certainly sound as if they were written before he was born. They’re all his, but you’d swear you can hear Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and George Jones knocking around the lonely barrooms and locked back doors inside Hand’s mournful music. And it costs. “Every time I get up there to sing, part of me doesn’t come back,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you’re nothing but a charade.”

“It’s a voice for the ages,” says Rounder co-founder Ken Irwin, who first heard Hand’s self-released music through friends and was immediately floored. “I’ve always loved that period of ’50s country and that’s obviously where he was coming from. I thought, how can this still be happening? Here’s someone who is doing it now and is not a pretender. This is who he is and how he grew up and what he’s learned.”

Indeed, with a reedy drawl that sounds tailor-made for a roadhouse jukebox, an exceedingly gracious and humble manner, and the nickname “Slim” to boot, Hand is a soft-spoken throwback to a bygone age. “The Truth Will Set You Free” evokes an era when cowboy singers in fringe shook off the dust of the dirt road, held their guitars high against their chests, and brought a measure of comfort, humor, and escape to workaday folks at the bar.

One slab of honky tonk autobiography, “Here Lies a Good Old Boy,” offers a self-deprecating yet unflinching assessment of Hand’s own vices and virtues. It resonates because, just like those folks he sings for and about, Hand’s personality isn’t a professional pose.

Hand was born in a town called West, Texas, a few miles north of Waco, and says he started hearing music in his head when he was about 10 years old. He’d be playing in the woods alone when the sounds would come through the trees loud and clear, as if transmitted from an invisible radio station, and they would frighten him. When “Slim” got older, the music stopped scaring him, and he started playing what he heard, performing in smoky bars and dives in and around his hometown.

Hand eventually got his big break decades later when Irwin made a point of catching one of those shows while attending the annual South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. Hand — unsigned and unknown to all but the bar regulars — was not playing a prestigious festival showcase, just another local gig.

When the time came to record “The Truth Will Set You Free” with high profile co-producers Ray Benson (co-founder of Asleep At The Wheel) and Lloyd Maines (Dixie Chicks producer and Dixie Chick Natalie’s dad), bad luck struck and then got worse.

“My mama was ill when we started and she passed away,” recalls Hand. “And then daddy became ill at the end [of recording] and he passed away.” Hand postponed the recording sessions indefinitely to be by his father’s side. “It was a tough time, but the label gave me all the latitude I needed. They were very kind.”

“When you have an artist who’s so emotive and so close to his feelings, you just have to wait until he’s in a place where he can do his best,” Irwin says. “We figured, if he could wait after 53 years, then we could certainly wait a few more months.”

Since those dark days, life has brightened for Hand. He’s getting ready to make another album and plans are underway for a European tour next year. There’s even a documentary about his life in the works. But despite the higher profile that comes with critical acclaim and a growing international audience, Hand insists he’s never far from his roots or his modest beginnings as a long – distance trucker, bouncer, horse trainer, you name it.

“I’ve done every conceivable thing you can imagine to put on the back of a country album, and some stuff that you don’t want on the back of a country album,” Hand says with a chuckle. “I’d say 90 percent of what I write about was suffered first hand. If somebody said to me that we’re going to write a song about bungee jumping off the Empire State Building, then I’m going to be pretty helpless because, first, I’ve never done it. And secondly, I’m not going to.”

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