A BLUE STATE JUKEBOX REVIEW
by Tony Peyser
Butch Hancock's War and Peace
The Flatlanders hail from Texas and recorded their first album in 1972. It was an impassioned lesson in (to make up a word) underproduction and captured the heart of country music without the usual Nashville hokum. I gather they played maybe a dozen gigs for less than a year before the band folded up like that proverbial cheap card table. That debut album was heard by very few folks and was presumed lost. It didn't have a real release until 1990 when it fittingly came out with the title More A Legend Than A Band. The Flatlanders didn't get around to their sophomore effort, Now and Again, until 2002. A third release, Wheels Of Fortune, came out a mere two years later, which was followed that same year by a live CD of a 1972 performance in front of a small club audience. All of the sudden, the long MIA Flatlanders were inching towards being, dare I say, overexposed.
The Alamo 's dynamic trio was Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston. The triple play combination that is The Flatlanders is Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. Part of the reason there are only so few Flatlanders releases is all three of these fellows is a solo artist in his own right. I'm happy to report that Hancock not only has a new record --- War and Peace --- but it's one with a bunch of political tracks. It's also his first solo effort in nine years. Butch recently wrote me to say he was delighted that one of his new songs, "That Great Election Day," was played by Pacifica Radio's Amy Goodman the day before the recent election.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Hanock's many gifts include a Dylan-esque voice, a wide-ranging thoughtfulness and a puckish wit to boot. On Wheels Of Fortune, these opening lines from the opening track are a perfect window into his talent: "Well the sun don't sink ... it don't swim ... it don't set/Is it androids or elephants that never forget?/Have the east and the west met yet?/Baby do you love me still?" In "Damage Done" on his brand spanking new release, there's a weary tone with a vaguely Byrds sound to it. The seven verses are eminently quotable, so any one will do to explain what Hancock's been thinking: "Playing with war toys turns into a full-time occupation/I guess the less said the better about a kinder gentler nation/Cause once you've tasted power and blood it's easier to aim your gun/And fire away and walk away from the damage done." There's nothing in your face about the delivery here but the song still winds up quickly hard-wired into your memory.
In the sinister, shimmering "When The Good and The Bad Get Ugly," Hancock evokes both fellow Texan T Bone Burnett and Tom Waits: "They choose up sides ... and then they both decide/They'd rather fight than switch/But when the good and the bad get ugly/It's hard to tell which is which." In those few, well chosen words, I had visions of various atrocities at Abu Ghraib floating in my head. (Hancock should a send a copy of this song to the Iraq Study Group. Nah, he should mail 'em the whole damn album.)
In terms of a reminiscent feel, "Old Man, Old Man" is very much like "When The Good and The Bad Get Ugly." The initial lyrics adeptly set the stage: "Old man, old man ... you who gonna send to hell? You who gonna give the golden crown?/Who you gonna raise up from the ragin' fire?& who you gonna burn into the ground?" The descending melody feels like it's pulling you right down to Satan's neck of the woods where flames are roaring and pitchforks are flying --- a perfect place for Don Rumsfeld to retire to now that's he's out of a job.
Along the way here, Hancock puts his political thoughts to cool off on the window sill and tosses in a couple of songs without any topical axes to grind. "Road Map For The Blues" is a rough-hewn reminder that some of life's lessons don't need any instruction: "From the good and the bad ... to the live and jazz/And the rigmarole and the raz-a-ma-taz/Here's a cold hard fact of life ... you can use/Nobody needs a road map for the blues." Four tracks later, Hancock reflects on one of the cherished cultural images of the world with a sweetly jaundiced eye: "But the rainbow ends ... where the good times flew/And it ain't a pot of gold no more ... it's a pot of glue." You can pretty much see Hancock singing to friends on his front porch as kids and dogs are misbehaving out on the lawn. Having false illusions is something we all do and sharing these thoughts is the, uh, pot of glue that holds us all together.
There are three songs that appear late on the album which feel like Hancock penned around the same time or at least in the same state of mind. They all ring out like shout outs to Woody Guthrie. "Cast The Devils Out" is like a global, spiritual campfire song with a folk mass flair to it. It's followed by "Brother Won't You Shake My Hand?" which feels similar but it's a campfire sing-along where Hancock plugged his electric guitar into his pick-up's cigarette lighter. The lines that moved me the most here are, "Sister lift your veil and understand/Let all anger disappear ... like our little footprints in the sand ..." And if anything can turn "battlefields into buddahfields," it's this song by Hancock.
The last track --- the one that Goodman played --- is "That Great Election Day." There's leisurely talk here about conscience and peace but the real ball of wax is so darn simple: "Who's gonna be the master ... who's gonna be the slave/On that day ... on that great election day?" I played this before America's last trip to the polls and hoped with all my heart not to have to write this column from a "we'll-get-'em-next-time" point of view. I imagine Mr. Guthrie may have doffed his hat in respect if he'd gotten a chance to hear this gently rousing gem. In seeking to write a song about votes being properly tabulated, Butch Hancock has created a song --- and an album --- that truly counts.
A BLUE STATE JUKEBOX REVIEW
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