Hand’s ‘Stormclouds in Heaven’ posts to The Alternate Root magazine Oct. 28

28 Oct

Nearly 11 years ago when country/bluegrass singer and songwriter James Hand first sang on stage at the Broken Spoke he launched his music career.

So performing there Sept. 26 felt a bit like a homecoming for the 61-year-old Waco native who promoted his sixth album, Stormclouds in Heaven.

   Hand wrote all the gospel-inspired songs on the 14-track CD released to the public Oct. 14 with a party at Waterloo Records in Austin.

With songs like “Why Oh Why,” “Devil Ain’t No Quitter,” and “No One Ever Dies,” Hand explores ethereal territory as a songwriter who reflects on a hard-won life.

Ameripolitan James Hand 2

Hand’s Austin friends who performed on the album include: Cindy Cashdollar on steel/dobro; keyboardists Floyd Domino and Earl Poole Ball; fiddlers Jason Roberts and Beth Chrisman; with Kevin Smith on stand up bass and bassist Speedy Sparks on the electric; drummers John McGlothlin and Lisa Pankratz; Brennen Leigh on mandolin; and Jerry Mac Cook on lead guitar.

At the Broken Spoke Hand sang “Mighty Lonesome Man,” the title track off his last album released in 2012 and nominated just this month in the country genre for The Independent Music Award.

He first visited the Broken Spoke when he was just 18 years old, but Hand did not perform there until one night in 2003. That night he sat in on stage with Alvin Crow and began his professional career at 52 years old.

Today he remains close friends with Broken Spoke founders James and Annetta White, though Hand has made a name for himself in country music.

“It’s the premiere spot in Austin and I’d had a little success around home, so these people asked me if I wanted to get up and sing. At first I said ‘No,’ because Alvin Crow was playing. I thought ‘man, I can’t get up there with Alvin, because you just don’t do that.’ To this day I can’t believe Alvin did it. Somebody must have twisted his arm or something. The first thing he said to me was ‘Don’t sing somethin’ that everybody don’t know.’”

Hand sang “Fraulien,” a 1957 single by Bobby Helms, also recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1969.

“I started singin’ when I was about 11 or 12. Some of the songs I don’t even remember learnin’ but I did. Then I started writin’ some. It just kind of went from there. But, if it hadn’t been for James and Annetta, the only people who would have heard me was friends,” he said. “It was a great honor. Mr. White just took a chance on me.”

Hand grew up in Waco listening mostly to the classics of country music. Some fans today compare Hand’s voice to the late great Hank Williams.

He returned to the Broken Spoke a little bit later that same year and Dale Watson invited him up on stage to sing, Hand said.

“Then Mr. White asked me if I’d like to play there, I said ‘Of course.’ It just dumb-founded me. There’s no kinder, no more gracious man,” he said.

Spoke James Hand1

Hand also held his 2006 CD release party for The Truth Will Set You Free, as well as his 2009 CD release party for Shadow on the Ground at the Broken Spoke. Asleep at the Wheel bandleader and vocalist Ray Benson and steel player Lloyd Maines co-produced the albums released by Rounder Records featuring 12 of Hand’s original songs.

“Mr. White was very gracious. He opened up early for us, let us set up all the stuff, and he even let us film a music video in there,” Hand said.

“I think the only thing he hasn’t done for me is just to pitch the key to me when he when walks out the door. What he’s done for me he’s done for everybody who plays the Broken Spoke. He’s the most honorable man.”

Hand said Mr. White has never met a stranger. He treats everyone like a celebrity, whether it’s Gov. Rick Perry or any number of famous country entertainers who visit or who perform at the Broken Spoke.

“Mr. and Mrs. White are good friends, truly good friends of mine. Most people who have heard of me, heard me at the Broken Spoke. It was a big honor. Mr. White just took a chance on me, he really did,” he said.

White and Hand also share a love of horses. As a young man, Hand had trained horses.

“One time White called the house and talked to Daddy. He asked ‘Where’s Slim?’ Then Daddy said ‘He’s down at the barn.’ So Mr. White asked: ‘What’s the number down at the barn?’ Daddy said: ‘We ain’t got no number down at the barn.’ Daddy hollered out the door to me and then he said to Mr. White: ‘that’s the number.’”

When Hand had the chance to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, White offered to loan him his father’s vintage Nudie suit. Today that same suit sits inside a glass case on display in the dining room of the Broken Spoke.

“He was going to let me take it. He said ‘I don’t care what that thing’s worth. Wear it.’ As it turned out, we didn’t go, but that showed me something about his character,” Hand said.

“When they offered me that suit to wear, I felt like that really elevated me to a special spot.”

Hand finally performed at the Grand Ole Opry, but he did not have a chance to ask White about his offer to loan the Nudie suit again.

Still, Hand feels indebted to White for all he’s done for him over the years.

“He’s invited me to his house on his birthday. I told him once, ‘Mr. White if you need your car washed at 2:30 in the morning, just call me, and I would,” Hand said.

“I still think my claim to fame in Austin is Mrs. White will kiss me on the cheek.”

When Hand performs at the Broken Spoke, he fills the place to capacity. White gets up on stage to sing a couple of Gene Autry songs with Hand and to deliver his world famous Broken Spoke speech.

“He’s a showman. When Mr. White has someone roll that wheel across the floor, it’s his show. It’s his show and rightfully so,” Hand said.

Now that Hand has performed around the country at other venues, he has never forgotten where his career began.

Hand has given White a few of his own favorite records to play on the vintage jukebox at the Broken Spoke including one by William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell and another by Hank Snow.

“I gave him those records because I was always late,” Hand said. “Or I was late sometimes.”

Hand has not performed at the Broken Spoke since 2013.

“Then I started going to other places and festivals and things like that,” Hand said.

“Mr. White has had certain people who play on Friday and Saturday nights who have been with him forever. It’s like somebody trying to steal Rip Van Winkle’s pillow. It’s been there so long, you can’t mess with it, you know? But if he asked me right now to be there tomorrow morning to mow the grass, I would and I don’t say that about everybody.”

Hand said that White helped him out of some tough spots in the early days of his career.

“There were a couple of times that I didn’t have enough money to really pay the band. Mr. White just put it in my hand. You can’t beat that,” Hand said.

Hand said people began to hear his music thanks to performances at the Broken Spoke. He treasures his memories of playing there over the last 10 years.

“Whenever you look up to the front and see Mr. White in that red shirt with that yellow tie and a couple hundred people dancin’ that’s just about the pinnacle. Everybody having a good time, you know. No trouble. Really, anybody who hasn’t worked there should be there very adamant about trying to work there,” Hand said. “If nothin’ else, just walk through there to say hello.”

Hand respects the fact that the Broken Spoke has survived nearly 50 years in Austin and the encroachment of other businesses along South Lamar.

“When you see what’s happened now, it tells you somethin’ about what people think about him, about his manner. The fact that the Broken Spoke is like an island surrounded (on South Lamar) should tell you somethin’ about Mr. White’s manner, his integrity. I can’t think of another place around it that would still be standing. It’s only because of his magnitude with people.”

Hand always knew he always wanted to sing, but he never dreamed of becoming a country star.

“I never dreamed of becoming whatever a star is. I never think much of that. I think everyone is pretty much equal. It don’t matter who you are, or if you’re out there trying to make a living in the country music business. That’s all it is. Some people are more accessible than others. That’s a fact of life. I’m grateful for it and I’m glad that I got the chance to do what I got to do,” he said.

“The difference is, I’m 61 now and I didn’t get started until I was about 54. So I’m about the same as I’ve always been.”

Hand said he doesn’t feel that he reinvented himself in his 50’s.

“I don’t know about that. It would kind of be like Dr. Frankenstein drunk trying to put someone back together,” he said. “Though, I guess it’s going well.”

He said years ago when the Whites sponsored Blue Christmas at the Broken Spoke and Hand played Santa Claus, he handed out donated toys to needy children. Hand slept in his van out front of the Broken Spoke all night long just so that he wouldn’t miss getting up on time the next morning.

“I’ve been up a lot of mornings, but I haven’t got up. I knew that if I wasn’t already there, I knew that if I went somewhere else I wouldn’t make it up,” Hand said. “I was glad to do it. It was an honor to do it for the kids and for Mr. and Mrs. White.”

At the first Ameripolitan Music Awards held in Austin last fall, Hand was nominated for the “Best Honky Tonk Male” award.

The Broken Spoke won the award for the “Best Venue” in the United States. The awards show sponsored by Dale Watson, recognized genres of roots music including: honky tonk, rockabilly, outlaw, and Western Swing.

“I was just thrilled that the Broken Spoke won Best Venue,” Hand said.

He said that the Broken Spoke remains one of the best places in the world that supports live country music.

To paraphrase a James White analogy, Hand compared the Broken Spoke to America’s favorite sandwich.

“The reason I think it’s so important to keep the Broken Spoke alive, is because it’s like a hamburger. A hamburger has got lettuce, tomato, pickles, and a hamburger patty and mayonnaise and mustard. The more you try to frill it up, or put somethin’ on it, or add this or take somethin’ away, it destroys the integrity of it,” Hand said.

At the same time, the Broken Spoke remains a one-of-a-kind place, Hand said. It draws people from all walks of life and creates a single-minded focus group intent on enjoying the Texas dance hall tradition.

“The thing about couples dancin’, you don’t see that hardly anywhere. Because first of all, people know when they go in there that’s what it is. They dress nice and they talk nice and they act nice. They’re respectable. There are places that you don’t hardly get to see that much. You do but they are few and far between,” he said.

“The gist of is, people want to be part of something good. That’s what they want to do. They want to go where they’re happy and to be around happy people. If it wasn’t that way, it (the Broken Spoke) wouldn’t be there. That’s all there is to it.”

The dancers dance so close to the stage at times that they say “hi” to the musicians, he said.

“Any musician will tell you. If they’re dancin’ they’re listening. That’s what you’re there for, to give people something to dance to and to have a good time and not play some kind of crazy songs that there is no way for anybody to keep a step to.”

Hand doesn’t dance, but he does enjoy watching people who do. Actually, he has tried to learn how to dance – once.

“People who dance there really know how,” Hand said. “I can’t dance at all. Not a lick. I tried to get Annetta’s daughter, Terri, to show me how. She took about two steps with me and she said ‘That’s it. Impossible.’ I told her the reason I slipped around on the floor so much is that I had linoleum on the bottom of my boots to keep ‘em slidin’ like that,” Hand said.

“Terri’s a good teacher. She recognized that I couldn’t do it pretty quick. It’s just like trainin’ a horse; some can, some of ‘em can’t.”

Country music at the Broken Spoke remains the common denominator. Broken Spoke musicians who perform there understand that concept.

“Mr. White isn’t going to let anyone in there to play who doesn’t play mainstream country, sort to speak. I’ve never seen anybody play in there who didn’t play country music. I’ve never seen Mr. White not give somebody a chance – maybe in the front room, maybe in the side room or whatever, but he always gives everybody the chance,” he said.

“You don’t get that very often. You don’t, especially around here. There are so many people singin’ and playin’ as it is.”

The food at the Broken Spoke tastes like comfort food for country folks, he said. His favorite thing on the menu is the chicken fried steak.

“They have the world’s best chicken fried steak. It’s been in Texas Monthly everywhere that you can read about it. I’m sure Mr. White has got a secret recipe that he won’t give out,” he said.

“It’s big and it’s good and it’s not flavored up. I don’t eat much before I sing because I get full, but I’d make sure to eat fair amount of it before I left, for sure.”

There isn’t much that White could ask of Hand that he wouldn’t do for his friend, he said.

“If Mr. White called and asked me to stand outside selling popcorn with a red apron on, with a pair of cymbals on my knees, jumpin’ up and down, that’s what I’m gonna do,” Hand said.

“Not ‘cause I’m tryin’ to impress somebody, but because that’s just the kind of friend that he is. Like I said, when I didn’t have any money to pay the band, he did. He wanted to give me his Nudie suit to wear to the Grand Ole Opry; Mr. White has been kind to me the whole time, just wonderful.”

Hand said that the Broken Spoke feels like home; performing there always feels like a homecoming.

“The hardest thing for me to do when I quit playin’ at the Broken Spoke is to quit tappin’ my foot. That’s what I like about it, everything — The Tourist Trap and everything. You don’t know how that makes me feel when I go in there and I see a picture of me with Mr. White,” he said.

“And of course I need to go by there to see that picture of Roy Rogers,” he said.

Hand said life is good these days. It’s been two years since he released his critically acclaimed album, Mighty Lonesome Man. Since then, Hand has been in high demand at venues that cater to country music fans.

“Life is good enough that I don’t want it over. It’s good enough that I’m thinkin’ I’ve got better things in front of me than behind me,” he said. “It’s like this, it’s my honor and my privilege to be here with y’all. I’m not trying to be somethin’ I’m not. It means more to me that I’m here with y’all, more than you know,” he said.

Please see the posting at The Alternate Root by following this link: http://www.thealternateroot.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2762:jamesh-sih&catid=198:heavy-rotation&Itemid=253

 

 

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