As a member of the groundbreaking Flatlanders, singer/songwriter Butch Hancock helped kick-start the progressive country movement of the '70s. As a solo artist, Hancock recorded a series of country-folk albums for his own independent Rainlight label, which showcased his literate wordplay, quirky humor, and dry, Dylan-esque vocal delivery. Going the independent route certainly cost Hancock some name recognition and wider exposure, but he did earn a devoted cult following, especially in his native Texas.
Hancock was born in the west Texas town of Lubbock in 1945 and grew up on a farm, writing his first songs while driving his father's tractor. In high school, he started playing music with friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, fellow long-haired intellectuals who shared a distaste for commercial country. Hancock entered architectural school after graduation, but eventually left to return to his family's farm in Lubbock. He reconnected with Gilmore and Ely, and in 1970 the three formed a band called the Flatlanders. In 1972, they traveled to Nashville for a recording session with Plantation Records, a low-budget offshoot of the past-its-prime Sun label. When their first single flopped, their lone album, Jimmie Dale & the Flatlanders, was barely released in extremely limited quantities in 1973, and the group members gradually went their separate ways. However, when Ely became an acclaimed solo artist in the late '70s, he drew heavily from Gilmore and Hancock's songwriting catalogs, bringing Hancock classics like "West Texas Waltz," "If I Were a Bluebird" (both covered by Emmylou Harris), "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me" (covered by the Texas Tornados), and "Boxcars" to a wider audience.
Ely's recordings helped spark interest in Hancock, but Hancock returned to music on his own terms, moving to the progressive country hotbed of Austin and starting up his own Rainlight label. In 1978, he issued his first album, West Texas Waltzes and Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes, a spare, simple collection that spotlighted his impressive lyrical abilities. The double album The Wind's Dominion followed a year later, and experimented with a broader musical palette and fuller arrangements. Released in 1980, Diamond Hill featured a full backing band, and 1981's Firewater was an informal live set; both continued to build his cult reputation on the Texas roots music scene. Hancock subsequently took a break from recording for several years, pursuing his interests in photography and video, and returned in 1985 with Yella Rose With Marce Lacoutre; Split & Slide followed in 1986.
During another break from recording, Jimmie Dale Gilmore decided to return to his solo career, and thanks to the Flatlanders' burgeoning legend, his versions of several Hancock compositions once again renewed interest in the songwriter. In 1989, the bluegrass-oriented Sugar Hill label issued Own & Own, a compilation of highlights from Hancock's early albums. Meanwhile, Hancock and Gilmore toured Australia together, which resulted in the live duo album Two Roads; Hancock also issued Cause of the Cactus on his own label in 1991. Another compilation for Sugar Hill came in 1993, this one called Own the Way Over Here, and the following year, Hancock contributed songs to Chippy, a musical theater piece about a Texas prostitute co-written by Ely. In 1995 his first-ever non-compilation studio project for an outside label was released, the acclaimed Sugar Hill set Eats Away the Night, which was hailed as one of his most fully realized recordings. In the years that followed, Hancock re-released many of his old albums on CD, and also issued the new Rainlight set You Coulda Walked Around the World in 1999. He toured with the reunited Flatlanders in 2000, after which he moved from Austin to the small desert town of Terlingua; there he worked as a white-water rafting guide and returned to architecture, designing, and building his own home. In 2002, the Flatlanders issued the well-received reunion album Now Again. ~ Steve Huey