Finally faced with the 14 hours of No Two Alike (Rainlight), Butch Hancock's epic collection of six back-to-back 1990 performances in Austin, Texas, during which he wailed through 200 original songs without a repeat, I decided he was either the greatest songwriter I'd ever heard or the worst. When Hancock is on (and that's often), his verbal ingenuity rises to Dylanesque heights, a lightning chain of rhymes that finds wisdom as much in fecund language as in the Zen he explores convincingly on his last, self-released album, You Could Have Walked Around the World: "All of what I feel and for all I know/There is no high and there is no low/No standin' wave, no rollin' stone/No ramblin' man, no great unknown/And there is no time and there is no place/And there is no form and there is no face/Just somethin' shinin' over yonder hill/And I know not to chase it, but I know I will."
But what's maddening about Hancock is, in part, what's made him a legend. After his truncated career with Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the Flatlanders, Hancock devoted himself to painting, photography and songwriting, approaching the last pursuit the way Joyce Carol Oates tackles fiction: Write, write and write more, and you're bound to hit a classic sooner or later. You also wind up with lots of half-realized ideas and tricky-but-unsatisfying Dustbowl word games. But it's worth remembering that Hancock penned some of Gilmore and Ely's finest material, including the transcendent "Bluebird" (also covered by Emmylou Harris), and that his 1979 album The Wind's Dominion (recently reissued by Rainlight) is the Blonde on Blonde of the Texas singer/songwriter movement, a riveting folk-rock investigation of fate and finality: "Like a fallin' moon, like a risin' mountain/All the days're numbered/but nobody's countin'/Another man's god, one man's opinion/They're blown apart in the wind's dominion." With just his guitar, harmonica and stinging West Texas twang, Hancock is among the best solo performers you're ever likely to see -- hear for yourself when he plays Off Broadway on Saturday, April 3. Call 773-3363 for information.
-- Roy Kasten