The death of James ”Slim” Hand on 8th June, due to complications resulting from congestive heart failure, will bring feelings of great loss, not only to his family and friends, but also to the dedicated group of fans who appreciated his unique talent and irreplaceable presence on the Texas concert circuit he made his home. Some of those who truly understood his talents include Willie Nelson and the UK’s own Ags Connolly. James Hand didn’t record his first record until he was 47, in 1999, and he didn’t really tour outside his native Texas, and even in Texas he remained close to his home town of West, West Texas. However, he did tour Europe with Dale Watson in the mid-2000s, which resulted in a small but very dedicated European fan base being established.
The advent of recorded sound meant that local music and local performers from the ’20s could be heard across the United States and even the world. It also meant that music could be heard across generations. The folk boom in the late ‘50s introduced the idea that some artists could be pure and not tainted by the compromises required to make commercial music. James Hand was a later-day representative of this highly prized group of musicians. Willie Nelson described him as “the real deal”. The other word used to describe him is “authentic” and in essence this is why he is so revered by those who knew his music. Honky-tonk is not only in the DNA of country music it is part of the roots that are used to refresh the genre from time to time. Country rock couldn’t have happened without honky-tonk and neither could the outlaw movement. James Hand was the living, breathing representative of the tradition that includes not only Hank Williams but Lefty Frizell, Earnest Tubb and Ray Price.
James Hand once said of his songs “Life writes the words, I just have to remember them”. He was born into a rodeo family on 7 July 1952 in Waco, Texas and while he played music all his life, his main job was as a horse trainer with some truck driving thrown in. He lived all his life on the family ranch and while he spent some time in jail he never tried to portray himself as some kind of outlaw. He simply played the music he loved the way he wanted to. His style of cowboy hat and shirts fit his persona perfectly. Some commentators tried to link him too closely to Hank Williams but James distanced himself from such comparisons saying simply he was just being himself.
When he recorded his debut album, ‘Shadows Where The Magic Was’, he was able to pull on actual life experiences for his songs rather than simply imagine them. He was making enough waves with his belated career that he was signed by Rounder Records and released ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’ in 2006, which was produced by modern Texas legends Ray Benson and Lloyd Maines. Now his records were being released nationally James toured more and that is when his reputation began to spread. He recorded ‘Shadow In The Ground’ for Rounder Records in 2009 but then left the label. While his authenticity was what made his music so special it also kept him from developing his career beyond his home area of Texas. While he may have been tied to his own land and lifestyle this did not limit his ability to craft words that could reflect his soul to others.
James continued to release albums following his stint with Rounder Records, including ‘Stormclouds In Heaven’ a gospel album. In 2014 he was immortalised in film in the independently produced ‘Thank You A Lot’. He continued to play in and around his home base and Austin, winning an Ameripolitan award in 2015 for Honky-Tonk Male Artist. His music was also included on more mainstream media whenever an authentic honky-tonk sound was required, including ‘Here Lies A Good Old Boy’ in season 4 of ‘Breaking Bad’. Ags Connolly, whose own success helped increase the appreciation of one of his prime influences, particularly with his track ‘I Saw James Hand‘, knew James personally and posted a full tribute to him on his Facebook page. When he was asked for a quote for this obituary he simply said “James Hand was my biggest inspiration. He made me realise what country music meant, and what it meant to me’. In such simple words is the essence of what and who James Hand was.