Wayne Hancock may never write another flat-out classic like "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs," but don't hold that against him. Few fellow travelers on the alternative-country spectrum have so finely painted the sordid romance of the country singer's road. Since his 1995 debut, Hancock has kept making energetic and crafty honky-tonk music, giving his band free rein to ramble through rockabilly, Western swing, sawdust shuffles and cowboy ballads. His voice, with its bluesy Hank Williams drawl and jaw-dropping curlicues, is unapologetically hillbilly without ever posing or straining for effect. If his latest album, A-Town Blues, had appeared in 1951, it would have given Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell a run for the rights to the jukebox roost.
Recorded and mixed in as much time as it takes most bands to get in tune, A-Town Blues captures everything that makes Wayne the Train's gigs so charming: slaphappy bass beats, two-step teasings, pedal-steel spirals, Jimmie Rodgers yodels, jazzy Ray Price croonings and a few sly reefer references. By the album's end, he's sung himself hoarse, though even then his quivering moan can prickle your skin. Too backwoodsy to make the cover of Country Weekly, too subtle to make the cover of No Depression, Hancock may be a throwback to archival country, but as a contemporary singer and tunesmith, he's in a stone-cold-country class by himself.