There are plenty of people who attribute a reactionary, narrow-minded attitude towards country music and the folks who play it (and listen to it), but while it's not often acknowledged today, hillbilly music in the 1920s through the '50s was strongly informed by R&B and jazz, and blues, boogie, and swing were all key components of the country & western vocabulary during the music's formative days. Wayne Hancock is a guy who lives for the music of country's rough and tumble days in the '40s and '50s, so none of this is news to him, and while elements of jazz and blues have been a part of all his albums, he brings this side of the music into clearer focus on his sixth studio album, Viper of Melody. Hancock is a master of classic honky tonk, and tunes like "Working at Working," "Driving My Young Life Away" and "Throwin' Away My Money" conjure up the shade of Hank Williams as effectively as anyone alive, but there's just a little less grit in Viper of Melody than in his previous sets, and a greater emphasis on the swinging side of traditional country. The sly and slinky title tune practically defines the nexus between classic jazz and country, "Tropical Blues" and "Freight Train Boogie" are great examples of how blues and its variants made their way into Nashville, and the opening number "Jump the Blues" finds Hancock pledging to "make the hard times swing," a notion as relevant today as it would have been in the '30s. Hancock can effortlessly write tunes in the classic idiom without sounding as if he's drowning in nostalgia for an era he never knew (this is a man who can use the word "hep" and sound like he means it), and his rough but sweet vocal style is the perfect complement for the music. And as usual, Hancock has some gifted accompanists helping to bring this music to life (Izak Zaidman on electric guitar, Anthony Locke on steel guitar and Huckleberry Johnson on doghouse bass), and with producer Lloyd Maines at the controls, they put down Viper of Melody in less than two days, and it sounds as lively and as honest as a vintage 78. Before generic boundaries ruled popular culture, there were two kinds of music -- good and bad. Wayne Hancock offers just a bit of a history lesson on Viper of Melody while showing he can play the good stuff as well as anyone on the bandstand today.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming