Rhythm & Roots at Club Congress
Butch Hancock: Songwriter as West Texas mystic
Recognized by his peers as one of our finest singer-songwriters.
Butch Hancock believes that a song can be anything it wants to be.
“What a wonderful playground to explore words and meaning and suggestion, the whole range of the human mind,” he said by phone from his porch near Wimberly, Texas, “’Cause you can say anything in a song. Fellini showed us with movies – you can do anything in a movie. You can make a movie that goes anywhere and does anything. The same with songs.”
Butch Hancock may not be well known among the general public, but he’s recognized by his peers, people like Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen and Emmy Lou Harris, as one of our finest singer-songwriters. His work has the timeless qualities of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Butch Hancock songs are honest, direct, imaginative, astonishingly simple, yet profoundly deep.
An engaging performer and storyteller live, Hancock will perform at Club Congress on Thursday in a concert sponsored by Rhythm & Roots.
Now 68, Hancock began writing as a youngster.
“Somewhere along the way, I got attached to a guitar and started writing songs,” he said. “At first I was writing songs while driving a tractor for my dad. There was a certain amount of mind activity that was required to do the tractor driving, the details and precise depths and widths that you plow. Then suddenly the rest of your mind is freed up. It was like a meditation for eight hours on the tractor.”
Not surprisingly, his first solo album in 1978 was titled, “West Texas Waltzes and Dust-blown Tractor Tunes.”
Since his youth, Hancock has followed a deeply personal path that includes songwriting as a spiritual practice rather than a commercial enterprise.
Heady stuff for Texas in the '60s
Despite the purported provincialism of growing up in Lubbock, Texas in the 60s, he and his friends, including fellow musicians Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, were exploring Buddhism, Gurdjieff and the Tao.
“We kinda wound up in the same circle of friends by osmosis,” he recalled. “We still had great friends in our high school days, but there was a whole gang of us interested in pursuing the depths of the question, ‘What is Truth.’
“It was some of the most profitable time of my life spiritual-wise,” he said. “In that regard, I’ve been incredibly fortunate and blessed to be in the company of the friends I’ve had all these years. It’s been a blessing to still be on that path.”
Ditch school and form a band
After dropping out of architecture college, he formed a band with Gilmore and Ely called the Flatlanders. Active for only a short period in the early '70s, the band generated a legacy that influenced the Outlaw and alt.country scenes and is still highly respected.
In turn, a major influence was the otherwise then unknown but now legendary Townes Van Zandt. Serendipitously, Ely happened to pick up Van Zandt hitchhiking through Lubbock one day. In gratitude, Van Zandt gave Ely a just-pressed copy of his first album from his backpack, “For the Sake of the Song” which they played until they wore out its vinyl grooves.
After the Flatlanders broke up, Ely was the first of the troika to achieve commercial success. In the late '70s, he was opening for the Clash in England and signed to a major label. No slouch of a songwriter himself, Ely’s albums invariable include some Butch Hancock songs, for many their first introduction to his concise, imagistic style.
Despite his relative obscurity within the music industry, Hancock has built a highly respected opus of material, like “Boxcars,” “If You Were A Bluebird,” the wry “She Never Spoke Spanish To Me,” and the still evolving “West Texas Waltz.”
Still looking for the Truth?
Along the way, Hancock’s search for “the Truth” has modified into a focus on reality itself.
“I always like to keep in mind the two truths that Buddha taught, that there is the ultimate Truth, which is invisible, and everything that is visible is just relative truth, and we live in that relative world.”
Explaining further, he said, “I like that Buddhist thing, that ultimately there is no such thing as fire. In fact, there is no such thing as even your hand. However, don’t put your hand in the fire! That is a beautiful blending of the two truths. These things don’t really exist, but we have to treat them as if they were real. We wind up living in illusions and the belief in relative truth and that gets us into a lot of trouble.”
Thus, the seemingly direct lyrics of a song like “Winds Gonna Blow You Away” work as both a country song and a deeper existential metaphor:
- Well it’s cheek to cheek and it’s face to face
- If I told ya once, I told ya twice
- East is east, west is west
- Fire is fire and ice is ice
- That wind's gonna blow tomorrow
- Just like it blow'd today
- But someday when your bones turn to dust
- That wind's gonna blow you away
Hancock has spent a lifetime trying to understand how songs work.
“All artists are kinda stuck with putting things into forms of some sort,” he explained. “Forms of songs or music, forms of painting or photographs, sculpture. The nice thing is that the form carries a less formal message to it, something in it that opens up and expands your horizon and tries to help you see the harmonies and the connectedness.”
He added, “It’s a question of how complicated can you get it and how simple can you get it. Me and Guy Clark, we’ve had hours and hours of arguments, not serious arguments, but about what is really simple about something and what is really complex about something. Sometimes it takes a very complex understanding to come up with a really simple thing.”
His writing practices include whatever works: scribbled notes, near-instantaneous bursts, sitting and waiting for the Muse.
“As far as anybody knowing how to write songs,” he said. “I have to holler ‘bullshit’ about that. I don’t think anybody knows how songs are written. You can write books about it and everything, but I think, and I hope, that it will remain an unknown. That aspect is what gives songs the life that they have and the possibility that they will come into life.
“One time Townes told me, ‘Don’t worry about the meaning of the words, the sentences and phrasing, just make sure you get the tone right.’ That word ‘tone’ just really captures the essence of what the song is. If you can hone in on the tone, and not deviate from that, you’ve got a piece that holds together.”