Local CD review: James Hand brings emotive songwriting skills to country tradition with ‘Mighty Lonesome Man’

James Hand

“Mighty Lonesome Man” (Hillgrass Blueberry Records)

Grade: B+

We’ve written about how James “Slim” Hand is the most authentic country singer in Texas today. He’s not a traditionalist, he’s the tradition, born the year Hank Williams died to keep it alive.

What’s sometimes forgotten is that Hand is an exceptionally emotive songwriter, putting the poetry of his being to melodies that warm like a borrowed sweater. His previous album “Shadow On the Ground” was an impressive showcase of Hand’s vocals, but his new album “Mighty Lonesome Man” delves deeper inside. It’s slightly denser. The heart is heavier.

The knock that Hand is just doing ol’ Hank is invalidated by emotional tunes that say “listen to my soul.” A sad man singing sad songs, Hand writes from heartbreak — all tunnel, no light — that makes him too real for the college kids who go to the Broken Spoke to two-step. Hand might’ve had a big hit with “Lesson in Depression,” a shuffle that sounds like country radio circa 1961, but most of the rest of “Mighty Lonesome” would clear the dancefloor and cause lines at the bar.

In true honky tonk fashion, Hand and band toss moments of frivolity, wonderfully seasoned by Cindy Cashdollar on steel and Earl Poole Ball’s barrelhouse piano. “Please Me When You Can” and “Now Not Later” are romps wrapped around the story song pairing of “The Drought” and “Old Man Henry,” which take us back to “Grapes of Wrath.” Lyrically, Hand sometimes sounds like he could use an editor, but his voice of conviction never falters.

Former Johnny Cash sideman Ball, who is terrific throughout, gives Slim a hand up on “You Almost Fell,” a standout track that teeters on depression until the music takes over. After backing Hand for almost a decade, guitarist Will Indian hits the right blue notes and fiddler Alvin Crow opens the windows when things get a tad stuffy.

At some point, one assumes, James “Slim” Hand will run out of things to say. But with “Mighty Lonesome Man” he’s still finding new ways to say the old things. His songwriting well could still drown a squirrel.

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