Cindy Walker in the L.A. Times

Cindy Walker, 87; Wrote Hundreds of Songs Recorded by an Array of Artists
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff WriterMarch 29, 2006

Cindy Walker, the prolific Texas songwriter who in every decade from the 1940s to the '80s turned out country and pop hits, including "You Don't Know Me," "In the Misty Moonlight" and "Cherokee Maiden," has died. She was 87.

Walker, called the dean of Texas songwriters, died of natural causes Thursday at a hospital in Mexia, Texas, where she had lived most of her life.

Known for her romantic, sentimental, Western-flavored works, she wrote more than 500 recorded songs for an array of artists. Among them were Gene Autry ("Blue Canadian Rockies"), Roy Orbison ("DreamBaby [How Long Must I Dream]"), Bob Wills ("Cherokee Maiden," "Bubbles in My Beer"), Eddy Arnold, Ray Charles ("You Don't Know Me"), the Ames Brothers ("China Doll"), Hank Snow ("The Gold Rush Is Over") and Jim Reeves ("Distant Drums," "This Is It").

She also wrote "Barstool Cowboy From Old Barstow" for Spike Jones and the City Slickers.

Over the years, Walker, who typed her lyrics on a pink-trimmed manual typewriter, saw her songs recorded by artists as varied as Bette Midler and Michael Bublé. By the late 1980s, "You Don't Know Me," one of her best-known songs, had been recorded by more than 75 singers, including Arnold, Elvis Presley, Jerry Vale and Mickey Gilley.

This month, Willie Nelson, a fellow Texan, released "You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker," a tribute album of her songs.

"I loved her dearly and will miss her. And I'm glad that the music came out while she could still enjoy it," Nelson said in a statement.

"Cindy Walker has never written a bad song in her life," Fred Foster, Orbison's producer, told the Austin American-Statesman in 2004. "She's just this incredible bundle of talent and energy.

"The best tunes, Walker believed, "are songs with a face."

"You recognize them," she told the Associated Press in 1988. "You know them. It's like a person. They have a face that's outstanding. Other songs don't have a face; you just hear them, that's all. The really good ones are few and far between.

"Walker, who was frequently described as the greatest living songwriter of country music, was a charter member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

"Songwriting is all I ever did love," she recently told the New York Times.

The daughter of a cotton broker, Walker was born July 20, 1918, on her grandparents' farm near Mart, Texas.

Her mother, Oree, was a pianist and the daughter of F.L. Eiland, who wrote hymns such as "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand.

"Inspired by newspaper accounts of the Dust Bowl, Walker wrote her first song, "Dusty Skies," when she was 12.

In late 1940, the 22-year-old Walker accompanied her parents on a business trip to Los Angeles. They were driving down Sunset Boulevard, when she spotted the Crosby Building and asked her father to stop the car.

"I had decided that if I ever got to Hollywood, I was going to try to show Bing Crosby a song I had written for him called 'Lone Star Trail,' " she recalled in a 1988 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "My father said, 'You're crazy, girl,' but he stopped the car.

"Walker grabbed her song-filled briefcase and went inside. A few minutes later, she ran back to the car to get her mother to play the piano for her: Crosby's brother, Larry, had agreed to listen to the song.

With her mother accompanying her, Walker sang "Lone Star Trail." Larry Crosby told her that Bing was looking for a Western song to record and might like it. The next day, she accompanied herself on the guitar and sang it for Bing at Paramount Studios, where he was making a movie.

Bing Crosby, who called her "Sis," liked the song, and the unknown songwriter from Texas made her first sale.

"I'm a natural-born song plugger," Walker said in a 2004 interview. "I'm not intimidated by anyone. "To help her career, her family stayed in Hollywood, and other song sales quickly followed. Country great Wills was an early fan, recording five of her songs, including "Dusty Skies" and "Cherokee Maiden" in 1941. He also commissioned her to write all of the songs for the string of Western films he was contracted to make. In all, Wills recorded more than 50 of her works.

Walker also had a brief career as a solo artist.

When she made a demonstration record of "Lone Star Trail" for Crosby at Decca Records, company executives offered her a contract. She recorded for Decca until 1947, having reached No. 5 on the country charts in 1944 for her cover version of the standard "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again.

"In 1954, Walker and her then-widowed mother returned to Texas to be near relatives.

The three-bedroom house in Mexia where Walker lived more than 50 years was conspicuously devoid of her many awards; she said she kept them under the bed.

"I'm interested more in the last songs I write," she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997.

Walker continued to wake up most mornings at 5:30, pour a cup of black coffee and head upstairs to her small studio.

"Do you want to hear my new song?" she asked an American-Statesman reporter in February 2004. "I just got it back from my demo guys in Fort Worth, and I think it's a real good 'un.

"When it was finished playing, Walker asked, "Do I still have a hit in me?" Then she laughed heartily.

Despite her effervescent personality, Walker shunned the limelight.

She lived with her mother until she died in 1991 and said in a 2004 interview that "I miss Mama every day.

"Although it has often been reported that she never married, Walker said in her recent interview with the New York Times that she had once had "a very short-lived marriage."

She is survived by three nieces


Bakersfield Californian Article On Buck Owens

Bakersfield Californian,
March 26, 2006
Rebel pioneered own sound

ROBERT PRICE, Californian staff writere-mail: rprice@bakersfield.com

Buck Owens, a Texas-born fruit picker who made the name of his adopted hometown synonymous with a distinctive brand of country music, died early Saturday morning at his ranch just north of Bakersfield. The cause of death was heart failure. He was 76. Owens, born in near-poverty just south of the Texas-Oklahoma border and raised from the age of 8 in the Phoenix area, moved to Bakersfield at age 21, hoping to make it as a club musician. He died the multimillionaire king of a regional radio and media empire, renowned as one of country music's most influential artists and undoubtedly Bakersfield's most famous citizen.

"I bet it's twangy in heaven tonight," said country-music star Brad Paisley, who telephoned Saturday night from a tour stop in Iowa.

Owens had endured a string of medical setbacks in his last dozen years. He underwent throat cancer surgery in 1993, was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1997, suffered a minor stroke in 2004 and checked himself into a Los Angeles-area hospital in February with an unspecified illness. He had previously been treated for heart arrhythmia and lung problems.

Family spokesman and longtime Buckaroo band mate Jim Shaw said Owens was rushed to Bakersfield Memorial Hospital sometime after 4:30 a.m. Saturday but could not be revived.

Funeral plans had not been determined as of Saturday.

The father of the Bakersfield Sound had performed just the night before at his Buck Owens Boulevard dinner club, the Crystal Palace, closing his 90-minute portion of the show with his 1969 hit "Big in Vegas."

But during an unprecedented run of success in the 1960s and early '70s, Owens was big everywhere, from Japan to the White House, and from New York's Carnegie Hall to San Francisco's Fillmore West. Those who didn't know him from his string of No. 1 hits learned his name from "Hee Haw," the long-running comedy-variety show he co-hosted with Roy Clark.

Lost on many of those television viewers was the fact that Owens was an innovator who gave commercial country music a creative edge that served it well through two decades of change and growth.

"Buck was one of the greatest entertainers of the century," fellow Country Music Hall of Fame performer Merle Haggard said by telephone from Mississippi, where he is on tour. "He influenced everybody from me to the Beatles. He was recognized in rock, in country, in rockabilly and in bluegrass.

"It's a sad day in country music," said Haggard, a native of Oildale himself. "Buck was a powerful figure in the industry and just a great, great contributor to the music. In a lot of ways, he showed us the way."

In the course of things he boosted the careers of numerous singer-songwriters, among them Red Simpson, Tommy Collins, Dallas Frazier and Homer Joy, who wrote "Streets of Bakersfield," Owens' last big hit.

"I had a career 'cause he gave me one," Joy said Saturday by telephone from Dallas. "I got my break 'cause he took a chance."

Among Owens' enduring contributions to Bakersfield is the Crystal Palace, a museum and dinner club that probably represents the city's best-known tourist attraction. It's on Buck Owens Boulevard, near the headquarters of Buck Owens Productions and next to the bright yellow, 30-foot-high "Bakersfield" gateway arch that Owens commissioned as a re-creation of the city's old Union Avenue footbridge.

Owens, who fronted the Buckaroos, recorded 25 No. 1 songs, including a string of 19 in a row between 1963 and 1967. Twenty-six of his other songs made the top 10 between 1963 and 1974, and he capped his career with one last chart-topper, a remake of "Streets of Bakersfield," recorded as a duet with Dwight Yoakam in 1988.

His career slowed dramatically in 1974 when Don Rich, Owens' lead guitar player and high-harmony vocalist, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Owens stopped recording for years, turning his attention to his numerous business interests, including KUZZ radio. Owens admitted that he never really got over the death of his chief musical collaborator.

Paisley said he and his band mates had worked up an impromptu tribute to Owens that they planned to unveil Saturday night in Cedar Falls. At one point, Paisley said, they would flash a photo of Owens and Rich on the big screen alongside the title of the Owens hit, "Together Again."

"He's up there with Don Rich now," Doyle Holly, who played bass on the Buckaroos' biggest hits, said by phone from Nashville. "He lost his harmony singer too soon, but he doesn't have to replace him now. Rest in peace, chief."

The honky-tonk sound

Owens was one of the primary authors of the Bakersfield Sound, a twangy, rock-influenced interpretation of hard-core honky-tonk that emerged in the early 1960s.

The electrified, treble-heavy sound, produced in the studios of Hollywood's Capitol Records with the Fender Telecaster solid-body guitar as its instrumental backbone, was the antithesis of the Nashville Sound.

At the time, Nashville recordings featured lush orchestrations and a roster of stars backed by the same studio musicians; the Bakersfield Sound was almost tinny by comparison. Owens was proud of his independence and his music's harder edge, and he seemed to revel in the rivalry of Nashville and his "Nashville West."

Owens' distinctive "shuffle" style of music fell out of fashion in the mid-1970s. But a decade later the Bakersfield Sound enjoyed something of a renaissance, with performers like Yoakam, the Mavericks and the Derailers borrowing heavily from Owens' signature style.

Owens, who admired the work of Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, got into trouble with the Nashville establishment because of his broad interpretation of what constituted "country music" -- his rendition of Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" especially inflamed the critics.

But Owens didn't care much; in fact, like his contemporary Merle Haggard, Owens seemed to cultivate a career-long love-hate relationship with Music City.

"My problem with Nashville was simple," Owens told The Californian in 1997. "I don't like the way they do talent, and I don't like the way they cut records."

In the end, they forgave each other. Owens was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.

Hard work and big dreams

Alvis Edgar "Buck" Owens, who at age 4 nicknamed himself after the family mule, was born Aug. 12, 1929, in Sherman, Texas, a town about 65 miles north of Dallas. He was the second-oldest of four children and the oldest of two boys born to Alvis and Maicie Owens. Life was difficult, but Maicie Owens enlivened the household with her piano; gospel music echoed through the house regularly.

Owens' father, a sharecropper, intended to move the family west from the Red River region in 1937, but the Owenses' trailer hitch broke in Phoenix, and there they remained for more than a decade. Buck and his siblings worked in the fields as soon as they were old enough, and the hardscrabble life left a lasting impression on them all, Buck in particular.

"That was where my dream began to take hold, of not havin' to pick cotton and potatoes, and not havin' to be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold," Owens told biographer Rich Kienzle. "That in itself had driven me to try to find some better way of life. I remember as a kid being cold a lot, and hungry sometimes. We'd go to bed with just corn bread and milk, and I remember wearing shoes with holes in the bottom. I remember having twine for shoestrings: You take old black Shinola polish and try to make 'em look black, and that only makes 'em look worse. I remember the hand-me-down clothes.

"But most distinctly, I remember always saying to myself that when I get big, I'm not going to go to bed hungry, I'm not going to wear hand-me-down clothes. I'm not going to have homemade haircuts done by my mother; she cut our hair until we were about 12 or 13 years old. Just the fright of having to live a life through that ... although even then, I was cognizant that half the people I went to school with were just exactly like me."

Buck and Bonnie

In 1945, he met 15-year-old Bonnie Campbell at the Mazona Roller Rink in Mesa, Ariz.

"He was a pretty good roller skater," she told The Californian in a 1997 interview. "But I liked him because he played guitar."

The two dated, but Owens, who was six weeks older, was surprised nonetheless when he showed up for his daily 15-minute radio show, "Buck and Britt," co-starring Theryl Ray Britten, and there was Bonnie. "What're you doin' here?" he asked, assuming she'd come to watch him. "Singin'," she answered. He didn't even know she could carry a tune.

By January 1948 they were married and within two years they had two baby boys. Buck picked oranges; Bonnie stayed home with the kids.

But by 1951 it became evident that the marriage wasn't working. Bonnie and the two boys left for Bakersfield, moving in with Buck's favorite aunt and uncle, Vernon and Lucille Ellington. Buck arrived soon afterward, closely followed by his parents.

Dim lights, thick smoke

Buck set out to look for work in the local saloons, and it didn't take long for him to hook up with steel guitarist Dusty Rhodes and, four months later, Bill Woods and the Orange Blossom Playboys. He earned $12.50 a night, enough money to make a dent in his bills for the first time in his life.

Bonnie took a job car hopping at a hamburger joint at Union and Truxtun avenues. They remained legally married, though they were separated, because neither could afford a divorce.

At first, Owens played a hollow-body Gibson guitar. But, short on cash one day, he hocked it for $10. When he came back to get it, it had been sold. Fellow musician Lewis Talley offered him a used Fender Telecaster -- a new, innovative but not-yet-fully appreciated solid-body electric guitar -- for $30. Owens bought it, and American music was never quite the same.

That type of electric guitar, created just three years earlier by Leo Fender, gave Owens' music a distinctively raw edge that set apart both the guitarist and, more significantly, the musical flavor of his adopted city.

But fame and success were still several years away.

For years, Owens labored at the Blackboard, a rowdy honky-tonk on Bakersfield's Chester Avenue that featured many of country music's West Coast pioneers. Wednesdays and Thursdays were guest-star nights. George Jones played one night, Glen Campbell another.

The Blackboard, in fact, was the must-stop spot in Bakersfield for Bob Wills, Roger Miller, Patsy Cline, Little Jimmie Dickens, Connie Smith, Tex Ritter, Dallas Frazier, Ferlin Husky, Lefty Frizzell, Tommy Duncan, and, until he went to prison for stomping his wife to death, Spade Cooley.

It was at the Blackboard in 1956 that singer Wynn Stewart introduced Owens to Harlan Howard, the man with whom Owens would co-write such songs as "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)" and "Foolin' Around." Howard, quoted in Nicholas Dawidoff's "In the Country of Country," remembers watching Woods smoke his pipe and flirt with girls, while Owens was "working his ass off getting a menial wage."

His big break

On Aug. 30, 1957, Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson signed Owens to a recording contract. He'd known Owens for some time before that from Owens' guitar-playing sessions in Hollywood behind Tommy Collins, the Farmer Boys and others. Owens had tried long and hard to get himself a contract, but when rival Columbia Records came calling, Nelson changed his tune. Owens recorded two singles; both fizzled.

In January 1958, Owens moved to Tacoma, Wash., and took over one-third interest in 250-watt radio station KAYE, 1450 on the dial. "If you had a really good radio," he said later, "you could pick it up in the station parking lot." More importantly, he learned the radio business.

A few months later, he was back in Bakersfield, and on Oct. 9, 1958, he cut four original songs, including the ballad "Second Fiddle," in the "shuffle" style popularized by Ray Price in songs like "Crazy Arms." By the following spring, it had reached No. 24 on the Billboard charts.

But Owens remained in Washington, where in 1959 he was hosting his own live TV show on KTNT. Among the local talent was a housewife-turned-singer named Loretta Lynn. Then there was a teen fiddler from Tumwater, Donald Eugene Ulrich. Later known as Don Rich, he would become Owens' musical alter-ego and a major contributor to his best recordings.

The success of "Second Fiddle" led to another session, this one for "Under Your Spell Again." It was his first Top 10 record, in the fall of 1959. In June 1960, riding that record's success, Owens sold his share of the radio station and moved back to Bakersfield for good.

It was a great year. Harlan Howard gave Owens his share of Blue Book Music, a music publishing company that would later fetch huge returns. Don Rich, bored with college, joined Owens in December 1960. And Billboard magazine named Owens its "Most Promising Country and Western Singer of the Year," based on a poll of country disc jockeys.

The Bakersfield Sound

It seems unlikely that Owens realized it at the time, but the Buckaroos were creating an appealingly raw, stripped-down sound -- the Bakersfield Sound.

It was a hard-driving style, full of Telecaster twang, prominent steel-guitar leads and bold, dominant drums.

"The Nashville Sound was always more formulaic," said Paul Wells, director of the Center for Popular Music, an independent music archive and research center based at Middle Tennessee State University. "There was always more of a self-consciousness about trying to reach a broader audience, about trying to make new (commercial) inroads. With Buck and Merle (Haggard), they were just doing what they did. Of course they wanted to reach a broad audience, but they did it on their own terms."

Starting with "You're for Me," in 1961, Owens and Don Rich -- by now the band's lead guitar player -- put to vinyl a clean, clear sound that hit listeners, as Owens liked to say, "hard as a freight train."

"Their vocals were always up front, shoved along in two-by-four rhythm by regular doses of steel, nervy electric guitar runs, and more drums than anyone else in country music was using," Dawidoff wrote in "In the Country of Country."

"There was no thought put into it," Owens told Dawidoff. "The sound just came about. I had a big old Fender Telecaster guitar, the walls of the buildings were hard, the dance floor was cement, the roof was sheet metal. There was considerable echo in there. ... It was just the sound that people wanted."

Buck the TV star

By 1963, Owens was big enough to land guest appearances on national TV appearances -- first on ABC's "Jimmy Dean Show" and then NBC's "Kraft Music Hall."

In 1966, Owens forged a deal with two wealthy country music patrons, Oklahoma City furniture-store owners Don and Bud Mathes, to create a new, syndicated show. Dubbed "Buck Owens' Ranch," the half-hour program was taped before a Spanish hacienda backdrop at Oklahoma City's WKY-TV. Owens developed a system: Starting in 1969, he and the band would record the instrumental tracks at Buck Owens Studios in Oildale, then do the singing in Oklahoma City, with the boys "air" strumming in the background.

At its peak, the "Ranch" show was in 100 markets around the country, 52 weeks a year. It ran until 1973 -- some 295 original shows plus dozens of additional programs repackaged with new and previously broadcast performances, totaling 380 shows in all.

In Bakersfield on a late-'60s Saturday afternoon, a country-music couch potato could watch Owens' "Ranch," the Louvin Brothers' show and then Porter Waggoner (featuring Dolly Parton), culminating that evening with "Hee Haw."

"Hee Haw" eventually proved to be the undoing of the "Ranch" show.

When Owens renegotiated a new deal with Young Street Productions, which then owned "Hee Haw," the producers made him quit. They'd noticed what everybody in the band knew all too well: Owens was playing the same thing in both shows -- literally.

"It had become painfully obvious," said Jim Shaw, Owens' keyboardist. "Very often we'd do the same song on the 'Ranch' show and then 'Hee Haw.' We'd use the exact same instrumental tracks (usually recorded at Buck Owens Studios on North Chester Avenue in Oildale) and Buck would just sing them fresh at the taping. They got aggravated. They said, 'Hey, you're competing against yourself.'"

And of course they were right.

The legacy of 'Hee Haw'

"Hee Haw," first telecast on June 15, 1969, was more than enough for Owens anyway. Until he left the show in 1986 (it went on without him until 1993) the show in one way or another occupied a substantial portion of his life.

Owens signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1975. He had little success, however, and "Hee Haw" hadn't helped; although it had been tremendously profitable (he earned $400,000 per year for just 20 days of work), Owens seemed to be increasingly viewed as a overalls-wearing caricature.

"I kinda just prostituted myself for their money," he told Kienzle, the biographer. "My music, which I loved, had suffered badly and I knew what it was from: too much 'Phifft! You Were Gone.'"

The rest of his life, of course, was business. He bought KUZZ radio (named after Cousin Herb Henson, the singing TV show host who had served as general manager of the station, then at 800 AM) in 1966. A year later he purchased 107.9 FM, which he turned into KBBY, a rock station. The FM station went country in 1969, reverted back to rock in 1977 and finally became KUZZ's primary dial location in 1988.

Over the years Owens owned several radio stations playing various formats, and some of them earned him millions.

In 1999, Owens' family-owned company sold its two Phoenix stations to Jacor Communications for $142 million.

Owens dabbled in television in the early 1990s, too, with Bakersfield's KDOB-TV, Channel 45, named for his late sister Dorothy Owens, the station's original general manager. (It later became KUZZ-TV and now, no longer connected to the company, it is KUVI-TV). Today, his broadcast empire is just KUZZ AM, KUZZ FM and KCWR FM.

Another run at the big time

In 1986, a newcomer named Dwight Yoakam had his first hit with a driving revival of Johnny Horton's 1956 hit "Honky-Tonk Man." A revival of interest in Owens' music was starting to rumble.

"People would be sending me interviews from newspapers where they interviewed Dwight," Owens told Kienzle. "I kept seein' these things and he would say, 'All you guys forgot about Buck Owens. Do you know who Buck Owens is?' Then all of a sudden he releases a song called 'Little Ways,' sounded exactly like me. It started takin' off here."

The two singers met and they performed at the Kern County County Fair in 1987. Then they sang Owens' 1972 recording of "Streets Of Bakersfield" together on a 1988 CBS-TV special. They toured together that summer and for the first time in years, audiences saw Buck Owens as the honky-tonk singer he once was. The two re-recorded Owens' "Streets Of Bakersfield" and it hit No. 1, Owens' first time there since 1972.

Owens' dinner club-museum, the $6.7 million Crystal Palace, opened in October 1996. The concert hall, with its huge collection of photos and country-music artifacts, helped put Bakersfield back on the country music map.

In 2001, Owens appeared on two recordings that were nominated for the Country Music Association awards as "vocal event of the year": "Alright, I'm Wrong," Owens' tejano romp with Yoakam; and "Too Country," Paisley's tribute to tradition, featuring George Jones, Bill Anderson and Owens. Paisley's song won.

Owens was married three times, to Bonnie Campbell (1948); Phyllis Buford (1956); and Jennifer Smith (1979), and had a brief, annulled marriage to fiddler Jana Jae. He was divorced at the time of his death.

Owens had two sons with his first wife: Alan Edgar "Buddy" Owens, a country singer himself who used the stage name Buddy Alan, and Michael Lynn Owens; and one son with his second wife: Johnny Dale Owens. He also raised a stepson and stepdaughter with his second wife.

Owens gave generously to charity, especially local charities. He established a nonprofit that gave scholarships to music students at Bakersfield College's music program. For years he sponsored a Toys 4 Tots event at Bakersfield Convention Center. He hosted the annual Buck Owens Rodeo and a celebrity golf tournament that attracted people like John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., all for charity.

"The golf tournament was tremendously time-consuming," said Shaw, Owens' longtime keyboard player and company lieutenant. "The thing people may not realize is, when these people agreed to come in, Buck then owed them. He'd have to go out on the road to appear at their events. He had staff working out all the arrangements six months out of the year.

"One time I said to him, 'Gee, Buck, wouldn't it just be easier if you just wrote a couple big checks and forgot all this hassle? What's the difference?'

"He said, 'The difference is, the whole community is involved this way. Hundreds of people are getting involved and feeling like they're part of it.' He thought that was far better than just writing a check."

As significant as the community contributions were, though, it's the musical legacy that will last.

"That's the beauty of this," Paisley said. "We are left with so much. That's the great thing about a music career. It's eternal. It's up to us to make it eternal, anyway. Buck's done his part.

Copyright, 2006, The Bakersfield Californian


James hand Article from Austin American-Statesman

'The Truth' may set Hand free, but will it make him happy?By Michael Corcoran
Saturday, March 11, 2006

When you go to see an act at a record store, you're not expecting musical magic or spontaneity, but a sampler set on the way to the autograph booth. The acoustics are not great, the sun's still out and half the folks are there for the free beer.
But country singer James Hand's March 1 set celebrating the release of "The Truth Will Set You Free," the 53-year-old's first nationally distributed album, just seemed to mean more. With the packed store in full support, he turned Waterloo Records into a moving, stirring, thrilling box full of memories. Remember the '50s and '60s heyday of country music? The mournful-voiced Hand is not a throwback, but a continuation.

"We've got time for one more," the native son of "Last Picture Show" Texas said in introducing the up-tempo "Little Bitty Slip" from the new Rounder release. But when that number was over, Hand and band played another one and then another, pulling out a Hank Williams song that Hand rarely sings anymore because he's become weary of comparisons to the tragic country legend. The crowd, which ranged from couples who could've met at the old Skyline roadhouse on North Lamar to tattooed hipsters, hung on every vocal swoop and moan, cheering Hand on like a marathoner at the 20-mile mark. The lovefest ended with Hand singing an a capella yowler, accompanied only by the tears escaping from his dark, deep-set eyes.
James Hand had done a lot of living, a lot of losing to get to this point. Nobody from Waterloo even considered making the "wrap it up" sign; this true-blue honky tonk original could play as long as he wanted.

A day earlier, Hand sat in a beer joint disguised as the Willis Country Store, near his home in Tokio, about 10 miles north of Waco. Exceedingly polite, answering questions with "yes, sir" and "no, sir" and calling everyone "Mister" or "Miz," Hand often slid from jovial into gutters of gloom during a three-hour interview. Hand bore little resemblance to a 40-year veteran of country dives and dancehalls, who's on the verge of national attention for the first time.
"I don't know if I've been more blessed or cursed," Hand said, looking back at the hard life he sings so beautifully about. "But I've been diversified." He's one of those guys who taps your forearm when he throws out a good line.

In the blessed column he's got the gift for honest, direct songwriting and the voice to match. Hand was raised by a loving family, embraced by neighbors who look after him. He's got the backroads and woods of northern McLennan County as getaways for his soul. He's got Willie Nelson in his corner.

On the cursed side, Hand will tell you — tap, tap — is everything else.

"I just want to feel worthy," he said, staring down at a trio of Coors Light bottles sent over by fellow customers. "Right now, my life ain't worth a damn."

His happiest years, he said, were from 1990 to 1993, when he lived with a schoolteacher and drove a gas truck from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. for $270 a week. "The straight life suited me just fine," he said. "If they didn't sell the company, I'd still be working there."

Just as at his concerts, when he balances the moments of despair with galloping swing numbers, Hand swings the full emotional pendulum when he's just hanging out. Ol' Slim, as he's known back home, is a constant jokester who recently bought the boys at the Willis Country Store a round by announcing, "Country music's been very good to me: I made $15 last weekend." When the barflies chuckled, Hand said, "If you think $15 ain't much money, try to borrow it."
En route to Wolf's Bar in West, a favorite hangout, Hand's eyes welled up when he pointed out the farmhouse his parents built on 14 acres of land they bought in 1959. His mother passed on in 2002, his father in 2005, both from lung cancer. Hand lived with them at that house for most of his life. His loneliness thickens the air around him.

His father, a horse trainer, took a turn for the worse in early 2005, just as Hand had finished the basic tracks of "The Truth Will Set You Free," which features several re-recordings of songs from Hand's three previous, locally released albums. With the elder Hand given just a few more weeks to live, Hand headed back to Tokio, with the album 90 percent done and a block of studio time put on hold.

"I sat at Daddy's bed for 60 days in a row," Hand said, then he thought about something. "Well, I done told a lie there. There was one Sunday afternoon I came down to Austin to redo a couple vocals. I hired a policeman friend from Cleburne to drive me down because he could drive as fast as he wanted and not get a ticket."

Before he signed his deal with prominent roots music label Rounder in 2004, Hand wasn't sure he'd ever make another record. But Hand had his champions, such as KUT DJ Tom Pittman, who craved another minor masterpiece like the 1996 debut "Shadows Where the Magic Was." Pittman put Hand's farm-noir sound in the hands of Rounder label head Ken Irwin, who caught an especially frisky Thursday night set at the Saxon Pub and offered a deal.

"Ken asked me, 'How's his business sense?' " Pittman recalled, "And I told him, 'It's the worst you've ever seen.' James is even uncomfortable selling you a CD after a show. He thinks that if you give him $15, he should come over and mow your lawn."

But Hand's "aw shucks" humility is one of the reasons he's probably the most beloved figure on the local country scene since National Guard retiree Don Walser started singing at the short-lived country paradise Henry's on Burnet Road about 15 years ago.

Like Walser, Hand wears his authenticity like cologne. He's as backwoods as moonshine, able to name more rodeo clowns than former U.S. presidents. "I used to drive to West High with a shotgun in my truck and nobody thought nothing 'bout it back then," Hand said. These days that would draw a SWAT team.

Hand is so country he can introduce a song as "one of the bestest I ever wrote" without a tinge of affectation. Who else can look and sound so much like Hank Williams ("You even walk like him," Ray Price told Hand a few years back) and not come off as a wannabe? When Hand sings "Just an Old Man with an Old Song" it sounds as if he was born with that tune in 1952, the same year Hank Williams died. There's such a depth of expression in Hand's "If I Live Long Enough To Heal" and "When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I" that this music is truly his own.
"I've gotta believe that the same forces that moved Hank, also move James," Pittman said of the Hank-like way Hand's shoulders jump to the rhythm.

"I guess I've just been a haunted bastard my whole life," Hand said. He said he knew he was different in the first grade. "They made us put our heads down on a towel and take a nap," he said. "Then they'd play a lullaby and I'd just start sobbing. Nobody could tell me why."
Like Williams, who died at age 29 from drug and alcohol abuse, Hand has tried to negotiate his partying ways with God-fearing beliefs. "I pray every night," Hand said, "but I also like to drink just 'bout every night."

Other true-life honky tonk outlaws might parlay a weekend in the pokey into "doin' time," but when Hand was asked about his rumored scrapes with the law, he deferred. "Now, when I put on my hat and sing, that's the public's business," he said. "But when a door closes behind me, that's my business."

Records show, however, that Hand was convicted of possession of amphetamines in 1988 and sent to prison, where he served nine months. To not put that marketing bonanza out there is kind of like a gangsta rapper trying to pass off bullet wounds as birthmarks.

Rounder's promotional effort makes good use of Willie Nelson, whose proclamation of Hand as "the real deal" is on the back cover of every Hand CD. The two met in 1980 when a 27-year-old Hand was a bouncer at Wolf's and Nelson was showing his "Honeysuckle Rose" co-star Amy Irving around his old stomping grounds. "It was Halloween and when they came up to the door I said, 'Well, if you ain't him, you sure look like him,' " Hand said, "and Mr. Nelson said, 'I'm him.' "
The two talked music for a while, then Hand went home and got his guitar. After he played Nelson a few originals, Willie grabbed a napkin and scribbled on it, "James Hand can record for free."

Several months later, Hand redeemed the napkin at Nelson's Pedernales studio, where he laid down demos for a couple hours. Nelson has also taken Hand out on tour with him several times as the opening act.

Much more often, though, Hand plays beer joints back home, where it could be anyone playing in the corner. On such nights, when Hand's guitar struggles to be heard over the chatter, the singer sometimes introduces classics as originals, just to see if anyone's paying attention. "Here's another one that done real good for us," he said recently, then went into "Your Cheatin' Heart." His son Tracer, a former bull riding champion, fell out of his chair laughing, but everyone else just kept on yapping.

But when the crowd is enrapt in Hand's performance, such as the Waterloo appearance, the songs can be spellbinding. Every one of Hand's songs is about something that happened to him, every lyric means something, which is why he often cries when he's singing.
"I don't believe that crap about how you have to make yourself happy before you can make other people happy," he said at Wolf's, nibbling on orange crackers from the vending machine. "Until I can make people happy first, then I can't even think about feeling better about myself."

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652


Van Morrison Goes Country

Pay the Devil
Lost Highway (Due to be released March 7, 2006)
There Stands the Glass (2:16)
Half As Much (2:36)
Things Have Gone to Pieces (3:11)
Big Blue Diamonds (2:56)
Playhouse (4:14)
Your Cheatin' Heart (2:32)
Don't You Make Me High (2:47)
My Bucket's Got a Hole In It (2:22)
Back Street Affair (2:49)
Pay the Devil (3:03)
What Am I Living For (3:57)
This Has Got To Stop (4:44)
Once a Day (2:52)
More and More (2:46)
'Til I Gain Control Again (5:59)

Van Morrison Signs With Lost HighwayVeteran singer/songwriter Van Morrison has aligned with Lost Highway for the release of his next studio album, the country-dominated Pay the Devil. Due March 7, the 15-track set features the Morrison originals "This Has Got To Stop," "Playhouse" and the title cut.

Pay the Devil is rounded out by songs popularized by Webb Pierce ("There Stands the Glass"), Hank Williams ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), Conway Twitty ("What Am I Living For"), Emmylou Harris ("'Til I Gain Control"), Big Joe Turner ("Don't You Make Me High") and George Jones ("Things Have Gone to Pieces"), among others.