Twang for your buck

Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock makes a raucous stop in Chico

Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock brought his gritty brand of hillbilly honky-tonk to the Blue Room Theatre June 11.

Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock brought his gritty brand of hillbilly honky-tonk to the Blue Room Theatre June 11.

Photo By alan sheckter

Wayne Hancock and Michelin Embers, June 11, Blue Room Theatre.

The Blue Room Theatre proved to be a fine venue for music on June 11, as retro country-swing master Wayne “The Train” Hancock returned to Chico and turned the room into a swingin’ hillbilly honky-tonk roadhouse. For 2 1/2 hours, Hancock led his three sidemen through a couple of dozen twangy tales of heartache, drinking and life of the road.

The intimate theater’s tiered seating, and black walls, ceiling and floors, added to the roadhouse vibe. And stylishly dressed swing dancers—men in jeans and women in summer dresses—added to the feeling of a happy hootenanny, and brought smiles to Hancock’s sweat-beaded face.

Hancock’s world is one of grease and grit, and he plays and sings from the heart. Dressed in a blue long-sleeve work shirt and thickly cuffed denim jeans, and sporting neatly slicked-back hair, the 48-year-old Hancock was all business on stage. Admittedly suffering from a nasty cold (“I got a flu shot when I left Texas, and it worked: I got the flu,” he said at the outset), Hancock chugged from song to song, many of which had a fundamental train-like rhythm, reminiscent of Johnny Cash. Hancock’s past bouts with alcohol, including a 2011 stint in rehab are no secret, but he was on top of his game on this night.

Tossing in many songs from his own catalog as well as a number of old-timey covers, Hancock was in town in support of his latest project, Ride, the first of his nine albums ever to make the charts. Acting as bandleader, front man, rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist, Hancock appeared with twin twangy lead-guitarists Zach Sweeney and Bob “Texaco” Stafford (the latter also played trombone), as well as Jim Karrow on stand-up bass.

Hancock-penned tunes, many of which lasted only three or four minutes, included tales of the road—such as “Thunderstorms and Neon Lights,” with the lyric, “This here motel livin’ is the only life for me”—and love, such as “Little Lisa”: “Oh little Lisa, you done stole my heart/ I miss your kisses, when we’re apart.” Other songs, such as “Johnson City,” touched on both love and the road: “All I need with me’s my honey and a thousand miles of open desert road.” The long set also included such covers as Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

Hancock is a pretty fair guitar player and his Hank Williams-like voice is pleasing enough, but it’s his songs, and his delivery of them, as well as a charismatic, old-time-country persona, that combine for an irresistible package. With a sound that brings to mind folks like Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, Hancock excels in a world of country music far removed from the glitz and glamour of today’s big-name country-pop stars, such as Taylor Swift.

Notably, in a recent review with the Herald & Review of Decatur, Ill., Hancock said he didn’t even know who Swift was, adding, “I don’t know the singers people are talking about, and that’s not a swipe against them. I don’t listen to it because I can’t relate to it. … That part of the industry is a dam that only allows what it wants to pass through.”

The show, one of several music offerings at the Blue Room this year as the venerable playhouse refocuses (Chad Lewis has replaced Fred Stuart as artistic director) was produced by KZFR-FM community radio as a partial benefit for the station.

Chico’s own Michelin Embers, now featuring Scott “Ska T” Pressman (joining fellow local old-timer Steve Bragg, plus front man Johnny Meehan and CN&R writer Ken Smith on ukulele) on lap-steel guitar, provided a wonderfully appropriate opening act, offering a neat set of what they call “Western skiffle.”