Sunday, March 19, 2006

THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

James Hand

In 1997, horse trainer James Hand took the stage at Dallas's fabled Sons of Hermann Hall with Texas honky-tonk mainstay Tommy Alverson's band supporting him. Tall and slight and dressed in a subdued Western suit and white cowboy hat, the 47-year-old Hand tentatively strummed his acoustic guitar and started to sing.

When he did, a thrill shot through the transfixed crowd of hardened hardcore honky-tonk fans; in that instant they knew they were in the presence of the Real Deal.

A few of Hand's early songs -- "In the Corner, at the Table, by the Jukebox" and "Banks of the Brazos" among them -- have been re-recorded for "The Truth Will Set You Free," his first Rounder Records release. Even better, they're embellished by stellar playing by Redd Volkaert (Merle Haggard's guitarist), Asleep at the Wheel fiddler Jason Roberts and Lloyd Maines's pedal steel. New ones, including "Just an Old Man With an Old Song" and "Leave the Lonely Alone," are also given polished presentations.

Hand, who wrote all the songs, quit listening to Hank Williams for fear of sounding even more like him, which he does, alarmingly so. But that early date was all Hand, pure and simple, and the similarities were completely natural.

Hand's lyrics can be dark despite the bright melodies; the title tune is shattering in its deception. "When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I" and "If I Live Long Enough to Heal" say it all -- but it's not all tears in your beer. "Little Bitty Slip" and "Baby, Baby, Don't Tell Me That" are as comical as they are danceable.

-- Buzz McClain


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