Strong And Simple As A 'Shadow On The Ground' You may not recognize the name James Hand, but that's just because you've never heard anything like him. The 57-year-old Texan has been in hidden away in country music scene for years, and if his third album Shadow of the Ground shows his age, critic Ken Tucker says it's just that Hand doesn't care what you think.

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Strong And Simple As A 'Shadow On The Ground'

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

James Hand is a 57-year-old Texas country singer, whos just released his third album called, Shadow On The Ground. It was co-produced by Ray Benson, long-time leader of the band Asleep at the Wheel, and Lloyd Maines, who played in Joe Elys band and produced some of the Flatlanders albums.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says James Hands Texas-based music doesnt sound like the country coming out of Nashville these days.

(Soundbite of song, Dont Depend On Me)

Mr. JAMES HAND (Singer): (Singing) You had to know the day you met me, the kind of man I am, one to always rain, seldom face and never gives a damn. You put too much trust in what you must have surely been able to see, you knew from the start, its her, not you in my heart, so dont depend on me

KEN TUCKER: Middle-aged and without patience for the niceties of image or excuses, James Hand cuts to the chase on most of the songs on Shadow On The Ground. That song, Dont Depend On Me, is a simple declaration of facts. Its sung simply, but the message, as written by Hand himself, is devastatingly blunt. You knew from the start, he sings to a woman hes involved with, its her not you in my heart. So dont depend on me for anything that true love was meant to give. Wow, what a charmer, huh?

(Soundbite of song, Mona Lisa)

Mr. HAND: (Singing) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you, for that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile. Is it only cause youre lonely they have blamed you? Or for that Mona Lisa sadness in your smile? Is you smile to tempt a lover

TUCKER: The thing is James Hand is charming. Take that version of the Nat King Cole hit Mona Lisa. It partakes of the Mexican country rhythms the singer grew up with in Central Texas, and the arrangement, combined with Hands fluid phrasing, can at least for a little while, make you forget Nat King Coles indelible version, which is no small achievement. This is the kind of pop-music cover that no one else with a country-music record contract is making these days. Its out of time, out of hand.

(Soundbite of song, Dont Want Me Too)

Mr. HAND: (Singing) You didnt want me when you had me or you never would have left, and I still dont know why you did, now all I can do is make a big fool of myself, acting like a love-drunk oh love you done me bad and the part that made me sad, is that Im still in love with you. Oh, I shake my head and I wonder why, why, why? I want someone that dont want me too

TUCKER: Thats a very typical and very good example of the sort of honky-tonk music James Hand has spent decades playing in small-to-medium dancehalls throughout the Southwest and beyond. His phrasing on that one is pure Hank Williams, so is the sentiment in the lyric his lover doesnt want him, and more fundamentally, he doesnt want himself in the shape hes in. On another song, Floor to Crawl, Hand demonstrates a shift into a slightly higher register and a hitch in his inflections. Hes a pro at making small adjustments depending on his material. And that material is very good in this case, a song Hand wrote that allows for the maximum, howling dissolution and poignancy.

(Soundbite of song, Floor to Crawl)

Mr. HAND: (Singing) There aint a problem Ive got that the world dont know about. And when I get high in notch, theyll all want to (unintelligible) me out. But every now and then, I kick one on my kin, and at times like these, I guess there aint nobody to see, I need a floor to crawl and a wall to climb, but when (unintelligible) and the door I can hide behind. Deep holes when I fall, who knows what I might find, I need a floor to crawl and a wall to climb.

TUCKER: The steel guitar that provides the slippery floor for James Hands voice to crawl across in that song is typical of how tightly constructed this loose-limbed album is, with help from producers Ray Benson, and Lloyd Maines. Hes made his hometown outpost in Texas the center of a stark universe youre invited to visit, or not. Its up to you, because James Hand isnt changing his style for you or anyone else.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Shadow On The Ground by James Hand. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

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