Imagine for a moment, you are traveling alone. It can be anywhere you want. Anywhere in the World. You've been traveling this path for days now. This is a lonesome travel. Not an "ideal vacation" travel. I don't care your mode of transportation. You can be gliding along in a '63 Cadillac, or saddled high upon a palomino, or running on cruise control in your minivan, or walking with a pack on your back. That's entirely up to you. Imagine again, you come over a gentle hill and take in the landscape ahead of you. Nobody is in sight. Your mind fills with a strange mix of emotions: awe, emptiness, a sense of being, loneliness, purposeful, separate, grandeur, insignifigance. Now tell me, where are you? And tell me one more thing, to what are you listening?
Me? I'm in sight of the lonely little town of Austin, Nevada. It's just off of isolated Highway 50, on the Eastern edge of the Silver State. It's just a speck of a town perched on a red, dusty hill and it looks as if it was created by Hollywood set builders making the next great Western film starring Glenn Ford. This is nobody's destination. At least not on purpose. But to be sure, it grabs your attention. And to be sure, at this sight I'm listening to some good old lonesome Western Honky Tonk music. It's a unique form of music. It's American. Nobody else does it and nobody else can. The British can't do it. Nor can the French. They don't have the same history with the Manifest Destiny experience. This is the music of open plains, diesel driven roads, burnt coffee, and beer soaked hardwood floors. This is the music you listen to as you drink to celebrate hard fought memories that keep you going late at night. But it's also the music to which you drink to forget all those other memories. The memories that put you on this lonesome road in the first place.
This is the music of Wayne Hancock. And this is the title song from his 1995 debut album, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. In one breath, it's celebration; in the next despondence. It's up to you to decide which emotion. "There's a big black cloud blowin' in from the West. I've been drivin' all day, I sure could use some rest. There's a motel up ahead where I can unwind, 'cause I sure do love thunderstorms and neon signs."
Make no mistake, in a world of pretenders, Wayne Hancock is the real deal. Hancock's voice and dusty accent naturally take the listener, to paraphrase the song, to another time. What time that is, I don't know. But it's a voice from the past. A voice you used to know but can't quite pinpoint. It's a voice that says more in the one second of Buddy Holly-like hiccup or off note twang accenting the last gasp of a syllable than most artists can say in an entire album. And the band is first rate. What more does a weary traveler need? A hard slapping upright bass, country-swing guitar runs which impeccably blend that improbable mix of hillbilly and jazz, and, of course, that most lonesome of all the instruments, the pedal steel. A guitar that bends your heart as hard as it bends the gliding notes.
To note, unlike each of the previous song of the week entrants, you can go see Wayne Hancock at your local bar. He's alive, he's touring, and he's damn good.
So, give Thunderstorms and Neon Signs a quick spin and let me know exactly where your imagined solitary-travel exercise took you...and what song you are listening to. Really, I would love to know.