James Hand, hailing from tiny West, Texas (the town, not the geographical direction), seemingly came out of nowhere to deliver a stellar debut with 2006s The Truth Will Set You Free, a magnificent collection of honky-tonk heartache seemingly swept by lonely winds and thoroughly encrusted with good, honest dirt.
It turns out that Hand is an old hand (pun intended), a genuine, bronco-busting, truck-driving country and western singer who’s honed his craft in rough and tumble Texas roadhouses for years. He follows his belated debut on September 8th with Shadow On The Ground, another gritty collection of hard-core, hurtin’ honky tonk.
Listeners might think they've into the wrong bar with the first few bars of "Don't Want Me To," with it's opening riff lifted straight from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." It's a trick, though, and the band quickly settles into a driving country shuffle, the kind where one can almost feel the white lines slipping beneath a big rig as the miles go by. The disc’s only cover follows, a rollicking, rhumba-rhythm “Mona Lisa.” And from there, Hand follows the likes of Hank, Lefty, and Ernest Tubb down paths worn with time and stained with equal parts spilled beer and tears.
Hand’s music is old fashioned in the very best sense – it’s as true as cool, clear water and filled with the passion and pride of a man to whom personal integrity seems as vital as air. Hand retains his dignity through the aching need of “The Pain Of Losing You” and the resigned acceptance of “Just A Heart.” He’s bittersweet but strong through “Don’t Depend On Me” and “Leavin’ For Good,” while the proudly defiant “What Little I Got Left” and “Ain’t A Goin’” are both personal manifestos of rugged individualism.
Even when he tosses off a seemingly innocuous ditty like “The Parakeet,” on the surface a slightly goofy dance-floor-filler, there’s a depth to Hand’s songs, an insight into a soul that’s seen more than its share of heartbreak and loneliness. And there’s faith at the core, too, as evidenced in the joyous, bluegrass-inflected “Men Like Me Can Fly” that closes the disc.
Co-produced by industry heavyweights Lloyd Maines (he’s played with Joe Ely and produced The Dixie Chicks and The Flatlanders) and Ray Benson (Asleep At The Wheel), Hand gets finer support from all concerned, though the emphasis is solidly in favor of straight-ahead country shuffles, not instrumental acrobatics. And above it all there’s Hand’s voice, rough-hewn and nasal with a classic country quiver that can send a shiver down the spine.
James Hand is about a real as real gets, and Shadow On The Ground is an absolutely wonderful outing that fairly oozes with honesty and integrity. Very highly recommended!