When we think of legendary Texas band, The Flatlanders, we tend to regard them as the band that launched the careers of Texas music icons Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The third member of the band, Butch Hancock sometimes gets overlooked by comparison. Given that Hancock wrote four of the songs on the Flatlanders fabled ‘One More Road’ album, whereas Gilmore wrote three and a further co-write and Ely wrote none, it’s fair to say that Hancock’s part in that celebrated band has sometimes been understated. After the initial demise of The Flatlanders, Hancock continued to write songs throughout the 1970s which were used by both Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe Ely. In fact, Hancock contributed eleven songs to Ely’s first three albums. Nevertheless, it was Hancock’s own debut LP ‘West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes’ that singled him out as a truly original and innovative artist.
‘West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes’ was released in 1978 on Hancock’s own Rainlight Records. Its sparse sound of just acoustic guitar and harmonica confer upon it an unrefined earthiness that chimes perfectly with Hancock’s songs of dusty dirt roads and dry land farms. The record recalls the spirit of Woody Guthrie by both celebrating the locality (‘Texas Air’) whilst also lamenting the hard and sometimes desperate struggles of its people (‘Dry Land Farm’ and ‘Just One Thunderstorm’). Despite this, the album is anything but the dry and earnest folk record that the Guthrie influence might suggest. The track ‘West Texas Waltz’ is an energetic celebration of Texas life and culture full of shrewd observations and wry humour whilst ‘Dirt Road Song’ outlines the shortcomings of the rural dirt road with an affection that may on the face of it seem paradoxical, but equally, it beautifully captures a love of something you can acknowledge to be flawed or inadequate, but that still seems somehow right.
‘West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes’ is an album about hardship and struggle, but also a celebration of heritage and home. Butch Hancock’s brilliantly constructed songs bring to life the trials of Texas rural life, whilst at the same time expressing a strong collective fondness for the place itself. Hancock is no sentimentalist though. Songs like ‘They Say it’s a Good Land’ and particularly ‘I Grew to be a Stranger’ are quite scathing about those that would threaten his homeland and its way of life. Like his great influence, Bob Dylan, Hancock is not afraid to comment, expose, or shine a light through his songs. Indeed it is part of what makes this such a wonderful album.
Butch Hancock has recorded many fine albums in the years subsequent to ‘West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes’. A strong argument can be made for ‘The Wind’s Dominion’ being his finest achievement, but the sheer rawness, sharpness and impact of his debut solo outing, for me sees it claim that title by a margin as fine as Texas dust. It is an album that tips no wink to prevailing fashions or sounds. It is just Hancock belting out folk songs to his own self-accompaniment. It is folk music, both of its time, but also timeless, which is why it still sounds equally great now as it did on its release over 40 years ago.