The first time I ever heard James “Slim” Hand, it was just in conversation at the dusty bartop in Tokio, TX at, what else, the Tokio Store. Tokio was one of our favorite early 00’s haunts. Just outside of West, it was the type of building that dots the landscape of the Lone Star State that looks as likely as it is home to a good time as it is to be scheduled for demolition in the morning. The entire structure kind of leaned to 10 o’clock. Now, mind you, the Hand family is well known in northern McLennan County and I had heard OF Slim Hand long before this first encounter. But, the first time I encountered the living legend, “Real Deal” man himself was while ordering a round during a karaoke night at Tokio Store. He wasn’t in his Nudie type get-up. Just a regular guy hanging out at the bar. But the aura was strong and the vibe was thick. His first album, at the age of 47, was still fresh enough to be considered a new release at the time of our meeting.
Slim Hand was an iconic troubadour. He had the hard scrabble life of a rodeo cowboy, a poet’s soul, a dash of Shaver-esque orneriness and enough Hank Sr. swagger to make non-believers of ghosts change their minds. Throughout the 00’s, Hand’s indelible imprints on traditional country were continually recognized. Once Austin found him, it wasn’t long before the Americana world at large began to embrace him. But, he was most often happy to just be the guy sitting at the bar in Tokio.
That guy sitting at the bar wrote songs of longing and lonesome that were full of the most vivid slices of real life imaginable. The protagonists in his songs were real people. The lyrics informed by real experiences. Hand pushed them all out in the world with unmatched authenticity. A true hardcore troubadour singing his seemingly simple songs with 1950’s instrumentation and arrangements. People loved it. During a time that was ramping up trucks, beer and bonfires, Hand was singing about heartbreak, divorce and dying.
One of the young artists who latched on to Hand’s mission was Charley Crockett. Which brings me to the reason for this article. Crockett released an album of Hand’s songs today titled 10 For Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand. And as Crockett recounts in the spoken album intro he first encountered Hand through a photo at Dallas’ venerable All Good Cafe. Crockett’s passion for this style of music, the care he crafted his cover versions and the manner in which he delivers them are a testament to the influence of James Slim Hand. This record is a great jumping off point for those unfamiliar with these songs, a fresh take on the songs for those of us who witnessed Slim Hand sing them with tears in his eyes more than once and hopefully a launching pad for others to discover some true roots music.
I can’t recall the last time I saw Slim Hand perform. Memory tells me that it was at Saxon Pub a few years back. But, something tells me it may have been somewhere else. That’s the thing about the music of Slim Hand, it’s timeless. Generations of my family are buried in small, country cemetery not far from Tokio Store. The last time I was out there visiting, I noticed a mound of flowers, mementos and even a pair of boots about 20 yards from my where my grandfather lay. I ambled toward them and sure enough, it was Slim Hand’s final resting place. I paid my respects, hopped in the truck and cranked The Truth Will Set You Free as I pointed my truck south on a bumpy country road. Slim Hand put a smile on my face even during the saddest songs. Now, Charley Crockett is determined to make others have the same experience.