Album Review: James Hand — Mighty Lonesome Man
James Hand spent most of his career as Texas’ best kept secret. These days, the 60-year old might be one of its best exports. New record Mighty Lonesome Man (his first in three years and first for Hillgrass Bluebilly Records) is another collection of traditional country that sounds as though it dates back decades.
Hand, although not the most technically skilled singer, is an expressive and powerful one. His plaintive baritone channels Sun-era Johnny Cash on a frenetic cover of “Get Rhythm” and quavers its way through Ray Price-esque ballads like “Years I’ve Been Loving You.” He’s backed by a collection of top-notch musicians on Mighty Lonesome Man, with Earl Poole Ball (Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins) delivering stellar piano on “Favorite Fool” and the footstomper “Now Not Later” and Cindy Cashdollar contributing lap steel and Dobro, while the shuffling “Lesson in Depression” showcases fine pedal steel work by Gary Carpenter.
Though Hand has always been an astute writer, Mighty Lonesome Man includes some of the strongest songwriting of his career: “Old Man Henry,” by far the longest track on the album at over five minutes, is a stunning story song about a man’s struggle to save his land, and “The Drought” conjures up a scene so vivid you can almost taste the dust as Hand grits out, “For the past six weeks in a row/Not a creek or river flowed/Nothing but the driving wind and the choking heat and dust/I’ve watched all my fields be stripped of all their yields/And I spit upon the ground in my disgust.”
It’s a shame that it took so long for Hand to become known outside of Texas (it wasn’t until Rounder Records released The Truth Will Set You Free in the mid-2000s that Hand’s music was nationally distributed). But with Mighty Lonesome Man, he’s sure making up for lost time.
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