Wade Hatton and the Texas Hat Band *
A Million Miles From Nashville *
ReRANCH Records *
Country music’s highways, byways, side trails and campfires glitter with the beauty of exceptional voices. George Jones always seems to pop up in any conversation on the subject. Gene Watson. Vern Gosdin. Sammy Kershaw got some props way back there in the ‘90s for sounding mighty reminiscent of the Possum hisownself. Move out of those world famous echelons and into a bit more of the workaday world, you find names like Dale Watson, Brian Burns, Tom Russell. It’s not always just the widely-known legends who can bring your heart to a standstill at the drop of a note. And it’s also not always just the ones who can and do make a full-time living with their songs. Now and again, if you’re looking, you’re going to trip across a vocal as pure as a woodland stream and as big as mountain air. One of those belongs to Wade Hatton. And finding the voice he’s packing is only part of the surprise. The Texas Hat Band, together now for over a decade, boasts a blend of talent that many big-time, full-time touring acts can’t touch. That’s not hyperbole, either. Do your homework on Bill Lester and Chris Campbell. Pay some attention to how quickly Wade’s wife, Glenda, picked up the drums. Grab a record, or catch a live set, but wire your jaw shut first. You’ll be stunned at the quality, depth, and power of the music. Wade and Glenda both came to the music world a bit later in their lives; Bill and Chris grew up with instruments in their hands. But the four of them together, son, they pack a wallop. Once you’re past the strength and cohesiveness of the instrumentals, you’re back to Hatton’s lead vocal. And it’s a showstopper of its own accord. Weathered when he wants it to be, cracked when it needs to be, and billowing out like a blanket of stars in a night sky when he just cuts it loose. The range itself in terms of what Wade can bring to bear it just stunning. Perhaps not unique; as noted above there’s a legacy of great voices in country music. But this one’s as good as any of those called out, and yet unique and of itself enough to bring a distinct and varied flavor to whatever’s being sung.
Hatton’s not a guy who spent his life writing songs. Listening to ‘em, sure. And he’d played around for years singing covers of Hank, George, Merle, you name it. So he knew his way around a tune. But it wasn’t until he came up with a ditty for a Texas bass fishing show that he started to think he could write a fairly decent song himself. Or at least started having folks tell him he could; he wasn’t necessarily convinced. But he started to tinker, wound up penning twenty something more bass fishin’ tunes (take that, Robert Earl Keen and your one five-pound lunker song), and eventually decided there was something there to pursue. Thus was born what became the Texas Hat Band. Bill asked Wade if he needed a bass player, Chris asked if he could be in the band, Glenda grabbed a drum kit and Robin Goodman stepped in, too, adding backup vocals and percussion.
The band made its mark, even taking home the 2007 Texas Music Awards Live Band of the Year trophy. Think about the bands blowing up in Texas five years ago, then chew on that for a second. Wade Hatton and the Texas Hat Band, playing stone country and Western swing with equal abandon, out honky-tonk’d the big name honky-tonkers. Give A Million Miles from Nashville a listen, you’ll understand why.
Every song on this record came from Wade’s pen; no covers, no overt nods to heroes of the genre or the Lone Star state. Just a Hatton and company vision of open spaces, campfires, ghosts and broken hearts. Just right. From the title track (there’s a million country singers/you can’t get no deal/playing for the tips and whiskey/a million miles from Nashville) through moonlit desert nights and heartaches by the pound it’s as country a record as you’re liable to find. Sardonic, self-deprecating humor/chagrin runs rampant (I got a double degree from Heartbroke University/With a minor in barroom brawls/If whiskey is the answer/Well then I must know it all). And there’s legitimate heartache and pathos as well. Some of it’s in the upbeat, sort of funny and generally enjoyable “A Case For the Broken-Hearted (AKA: 24 Beers Ago).” Cool song, nifty little line, and a tune that helps hide the pain by playing up to the funny bone. But just when you think Hatton might let you be comfortable as you drown your sorrows, he cuts loose with “Diamonds and Tears” and tells you while he tells himself what it’s like when your love gets left for whatever’s next:
Big rock on her finger
Got big tears in her eyes
Yeah she married for money
Now she’s paying the price
She married for money
Now I keep telling myself
That she’s paying the price
Wade and the band can also tell a story of pain and loss in a way that’ll have you humming and singing along for days the way you do when “Silver Wings” gets in your head. High praise, you’re thinking? Okay. Grant you that. Now cue up “Battered By the Bottle,” and give us a call in a week or two when you’ve just absolutely got to get a new song stuck on play in your mental jukebox. This track’s perhaps as perfect an example as one can find of how Hatton and the band work. On the one hand, Chris Campbell plays the lead guitar as if it’s a pedal steel in Bobby Caldwell’s hands. It’s just astonishing to hear the sounds Campbell coaxes with apparent ease from his instrument. And here, it’ll spin your head around while busted hearts and shattered dreams go waltzing down the shoulder of a lost highway. Add a perfect rhythm and percussion backdrop and then Hatton’s vocal channeling country’s legendary greatness on lyrics like these:
They fired him from the Opry
Hurt his drunken pride
Losing Miss Audrey
Tore him up inside
The cost was much too high
The price for worldwide fame
Battered by the bottle
Heartache and pain
Bushels of songs have been recorded about Hank. Record labels have named themselves after his ideas, artists have claimed to honor his legacy, everybody and their brother’s gotten up in arms about the fact Williams has never been reinstated to the Opry. What the Texas Hat Band does here, instead, is just take an honest look at the man and his demons and pay some beautiful, poignant tribute.
Battered by the bottle
Tattered at the seams
Lost along the highway
Of broken hearts and shattered dreams
Whiskey is the reason
But the devil’s to blame
Battered by the bottle
Heartache and pain
If that’s not Hank Williams in a nutshell, and not one of the absolute best country songs I’ve ever heard, to boot, then it must just be time to hang up the keyboard. The way it all comes together on this track, the marriage of melody and music and vocals, folks, it’s mesmerizing. No better way to say it. And it’s here, as in no other track on the record, that Wade’s voice showcases a depth of nuance and a range of sound that almost defies belief. People aren’t supposed to sing this well. And when they do, they aren’t supposed to be doing music as a side gig while day jobs pay the bills. But as with life, the greatest things are often found in the most unusual of places. Wade Hatton is a by-God treasure in and of himself. You can hear him singing his songs the third Sunday of every month along with his old friend Brett Watts down at the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth. And you can keep an eye on www.texashatband.com to find out where the whole band’s playing next. One listen, and you’ll be hooked. Listening to Wade sing while Chris coaxes impossible beauty out of his guitar will make you think, even for a brief moment in a crazy ass world, that you’ve stolen in through the back door and are getting a quick listen at God’s own honky-tonk stage. It’s truly amazing stuff, and a crime against humanity that the world knows who Rascal Flatts is but hasn’t heard of the Texas Hat Band.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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