“But there ain’t no hard proof, just this opinion
Love lives under the Wind’s Dominion” – Butch Hancock
I was born in West Texas near Abilene during the winds of March in the year 1955. The wind there blows through the prairies into shallow canyons and red hills creating a high pitch moan, a haunting kind of constant cry. On the night I was born, some 150 miles away, in Lubbock, ten-year-old Butch Hancock was staying awake at night with his window open listening for the lonesome, restless sound of the distant boxcars. Somehow, the sound of the wind and the trains found it’s way into the songs of Butch Hancock and so many other Texas troubadours I’ve felt drawn to. It’s the sound I respond to when I hear other Texans like Buddy Holly, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Cindy Walker, and Kris Kristofferson to name a few. Butch’s music strikes a chord in me in a deeply soulful and personal way. It’s the music of the wind.
In 1956, during the April winds, word came from the New Mexico border to my home town that my father had been killed in a tragic light plane crash leaving me, my four older siblings and our Mother without our ‘Daddy.’ I’m too young to remember that night, but my brothers and sister all describe the cry of the West Texas wind. The sound of it. The lonley howl. Somewhere out there, that night, Butch must’ve been listening to the sorrow in the wind when, in later years, he wrote:
Like a fallin’ moon, like a risin’ mountain
all the days are numbered, but nobody’s counting.
Another man’s gone, one man’s opininon
They’re blown apart in the wind’s dominion.
Butch Hancock’s life is as diverse as his songs. A student of architecture, a photographer, river-rafter, philosopher, student of Buddhism and one fine singer-songwriter and guitar picker. He and his two best friends, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, have become Texas legends as they look back on nearly 40 years of music; together in The Flatlanders and as solo artists. With classic songs like “If You Were A Bluebird” and “West Texas Waltz”, Butch brings the Texas prairie together with the peaks of Tibet. He is both the contemplative who can converse like a mystic monk and a rugged cowboy who knows the road and the wilderness terrain of his native land. Today, Butch is on a solo tour across country. He stopped through Altadena California on May 19 at The Coffee Gallery Backstage.
In the interview that follows Butch Hancock reveals his songwriting craft to be something that’s practiced, proven and woven into the moments of his everyday life. While his influence from Tibetan Buddhism has always been clear in songs like “Just A Wave,” it’s unique to see how spiritually driven poets can grow in West Texas and retain that hard-edged sound of the land, the blues, the country and the Mexican flavored folk music of his time. I’ve often wondered if there was something in the water that caused so many great songwriters to grow in that part of Texas. To hear of Townes Van Zandt hitchhiking through some small town with his first album in his hand , which he gave to a very young Joe Ely, serves to keep that mystery going. But, I’d say, from my experience and from the sound of Butch’s music, it could be the lonely cry in the West Texas wind and the sound of the boxcars in those far off childhood nights that needed to work its way into the music. If so, Butch Hancock is a very good listener and messenger.
Terry: So it’s been a while since you’ve been around L.A.
Butch: Yeah. I can’t remember the last time I was out this way. I think with The Flatlanders. I’ve been busy, you know living life, raising a kid. He’s 13 now so it seemed like it was time for me to get back on the road.
Is he showing an interest in the music?
Yeah, he’s finally discovering music. He’s been listening to The Beatles, Dylan, Bright Eyes. He’s been writing stuff. His sister writes incredible songs. So, they’ve been doing a duo getting their names on posters.
How did you get started in music?
I was one of millions born in the country when guitars were everywhere and music was on the radio. I grew up in Lubbock and the local stations were kind of limited. We had the border radio which saved our lives. We’d stay up all night listening to music. I studied architecture at Texas Tech, but they let me go because I wouldn’t draw a straight line. Then I found that the study of songs and songwriting was something like putting up a building. You have to put things together that don’t necessarily go together. You have to use rhythm, melody, images, get odd sounds from strange instruments and somehow it all comes out as a song. I drove a tractor for a while and that influenced me. I’d bring a harmonica with me and work on songs. There’s not much mental work to driving a tractor.
How did you meet the Flatlanders?
Jimmy and I knew each other since 7th grade. It was two or three years before we found out each other were playing guitar. We lived across town from each other. We played a bit in high school. We met Joe around that time. We all moved in together and rented a house near Texas State campus. The place became a music house. We’d sleep on the floor. It was a great little house. One thing led to another and we ended up in Nashville. We cut an album and waited for it to come out for months and months. We finally figured they weren’t going to release it. We guessed that’s how they do things in Nashville. So, as a band, we split up after a while, but we stayed friends. It was another ten years before the album came out. Meanwhile, we started our solo careers. The album was first released in England. It was somewhere around 1980. Around 2001, we got together and discovered we could write songs together. We put together a song for the movie, The Horse Whisperer. We kept writing songs together. The first album we did in this century was Now & Again.
Did you do much work with Townes over the years in Texas?
I’ve been doing a tribute show to Townes at the Cactus Cafe every year on his birthday. He’s a great influence on a lot of writers around Texas and around the world these days. It’s one of those things, when it’s gone, you really know it. He was such a giant among the songwriters. The first time I met him he came out to my first gig in Austin. It was a noisy honky tonk and he started yelling at the people to ‘shut up and listen!’ He had met Joe before when Joe picked him up hitchhiking. He gave him a copy of his first album he was carrying with him at the time. That was our introduction to Townes. We just wore that record out. It was amazing to see someone doing the same thing we were doing. At that time, I wouldn’t say he was exactly famous, he was hitchhiking, after all. But, it was reassuring to find someone making the same kind of music.
How do you approach songwriting?
Butch: That’s a hard question. You get into the habit of translating experience into words and songs. I don’t know if I really have an approach. It seems like it’s something’s rolling around inside of me that has to come out in some way. Like art, you don’t need a real method, it’s just what you do. You write and write and sing your songs as much as you can and then some take wings and fly while others just drop by the side.
I hear a lot of Buddhism in your songs.
Yeah. My introduction to Buddhism was just out of high school. I read the book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shenru Suzuki and lots of other books like The Book of Tao and the I-Ching. There was also a lot of material floating around about the Sufis. Gurdjieff has also been a main area of study for me all these years. I spent a lot of time putting it all together, finding the common denominators in all religions. I got started on Tibetan Buddhism and found that these guys have figured out things most clearly without personifications or deities, but everything is just a part of one’s own mind. That has made more sense to me. It’s helped explain all of the others, to elucidate the secret meanings of religion, getting to the truth and seeing how to get along with other human beings. It seems like a lot of institutionalized religions have ended up with twisted aims. It ends up being a kind of you versus me and my concepts versus your concepts. But, the essence of Buddhist teaching is acceptance. It’s about drawing a bigger circle than they’re drawing around you, to be all inclusive.
Do you have this in common with the other Flatlanders?
Yeah, we do. During the early years of The Flatlanders we were referring to those ideas. It’s been a thread that’s kept me, Jimmy and Joe and other folks around us. We’re all a part of this big circle of friends. It’s been the thrust of our attention all of our lives and the music has been a vehicle to translate those ideas into words. The songs are the essence of my experience. My songs have never been too much about drinking and barrooms and stuff.
So your themes have run a bit deeper?
Well, I got this theory. I used to call it the ‘salvation pattern.’ You know, everyday even in simple conversation we’re looking for a revelation, even when people gossip, they’re wanting you to tell them something that will enlighten them. They want to see a light. I know it’s not conscious, but it’s a balancing effect in simple conversation. We come to agreement or disagreement. But, I think it’s in the physics of being human. Songwriting, performing, listening to songs, doing art, looking at art or experiencing it, we’re trying to level off the energy, to get insight. That’s the salvation pattern. It’s what you experience using words until you get to the point where you’re not using words anymore.
Yeah, there does seem to be a wordless place where even songs with lyrics can go.
I’ve been doing a lot of writing and what it’s amounting to is a book clarifying for myself my understanding of it all. Awakening to all the stuff I’ve studied over the years. Gurdjieff called it ‘esoteric Christian’ thought. But, he got most of his information from Sufis and Tibetans. It seems like so much of the institutional side of the all of this is so attached to the words, the rhetoric, but the Buddhists say you gotta go beyond words, go beyond, go way beyond. That’s it. That’s the peace we all want. The dropping away of all of the modifications of the mind. The real practice is taking this into every minute of every day. Sometimes you do it better than other times, but it’s so much more relaxing when you learn to stop all the inner-dialogue. Something happens, you get a thread and the songs come. Sometimes the song is more about a tone or a vibration without words and yet everything that goes into the song has to be copasetic with that vibration. That’s what Townes used to say, “don’t worry about the meaning; worry about the tone.” The tone is the wordless part of the poetry, the essence of it.
So other than the tour, what else new is coming up?
I have a new album coming out called, Seven Cities of Gold. Several of the songs have the Buddhist influence. I’ll do a bunch of them in Altadena.
I’ll look forward to it.
See you there.