James "Slim" Hand • July 7, 1952-June 8, 2020
"Here lies a good old boy."
James Edward “Slim” Hand, Jr., of West, a Waco native who began playing the guitar and singing before he was in his teens, performed around the state as a member of a small band when he was a teenager, and who released his first album in 1999 when he was 47, died Monday June 8th, 2020 at a local hospital in Waco, TX. Hand was 67.
"Folks, like I said before and it's still true, James Hand is the real deal,” Willie Nelson once said. A reviewer wrote Hand “sings the songs as if he has lived every minute of them."
"A song is what you do for three minutes that you hope somebody else understands," Hand told an interviewer at KWTX in Austin. "Life writes 'em, i just try to remember the words." The news of Hand's sudden death hit the country music community hard Monday, evoking responses from many of its stars like Hank Williams III. "R.I.P James Hand," Williams said. "One of a kind and honky tonk'n legend."
Hand and his authentic country sound was known around the world, he was especially popular in parts of Europe where he went on tour with Dale Watson in the mid-2000s. "The world is not as bright today with his loss," Watson said Monday. "The same dimness we had when Johnny, George and Merle passed, I can safely say fellow Ameripolitan's feel." Watson runs the Ameripolitan Awards in Nashville where James has opened every award show since its inception in 2014 and won best male Honky-Tonk Award in 2015. "His musical integrity was unmatchable," said Watson. "Rest In Peace Slim, but I don't know how you will when we are going to be playing your records loud and proud for a long, long time."
Hand was so beloved across the pond, Ags Connolly, regarded as one of the most famous country artists ever to emerge from the United Kingdom, wrote a song entitled "I Saw James Hand," in 2014. "The first time I saw and met him in London confirmed for me that I wanted to be on the side of this real and true music, whether it was popular or not," Connolly posted on social media after James’ passing. "James 'Slim' Hand was my biggest inspiration. He was also a friendly, funny, troubled, and sad genius. But if you've heard any of his music, you already knew that."
Hand, who many critics and fans feel never got his due, was attempting to make a comeback--he was in the process of recording a new album and had already been playing some of his new songs at gigs around the state. He was rumored to be going on tour with Charley Crockett the summer of 2020 who released this statement about Hand after his death. "Honky-Tonk heaven just received an embarrassment of riches. I got a lot more to say but for now lemme just leave this with you. If you play country music in Texas, you owe somethin’ to James Hand. I never had the chance to know George Jones but by the grace of the creator I had a friendship with ol’ Slim and in that way, I touched hands with the greatest. If you knew James, or if you just saw him play once, you know what I’m talkin’ about. Rest in power Tex." Crockett was such a fan of Hand, he had him star in the music video for his cover of Tom Hall's "That's How I Got To Memphis." Hand served as a mentor to other young Texas musicians including country music traditionalist Jake Penrod. "There’s a million things I want to say, but there’s no tribute I can offer that truly says what this man meant to me," Penrod said. "I wanted to be poetic, say something profound and touching, but all I can do is wipe my eyes and fight down this lump in my throat. He was- IS my hero. Every time I saw him he’d give me a great big bear hug and frequently had a joke or funny story to tell, and never failed to say, 'love ya, buddy.' He wore his heart on his sleeve, and you could hear it break every time he opened his mouth to sing. This world, my world, the Honky-Tonk music world will never, ever be the same. Rest In Peace, Slim. Love ya buddy!" In February, Hand brought Penrod on-stage from the crowd during what would end up being one of his last shows at Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin, where Hand was a regular.
It was difficult for many of Hand's closest friends to find the words to say goodbye when he passed, so they looked to Hand's many lessons and adages ("I got a million of 'em" he was known to say) for guidance and comfort. "He would often say to me, 'always tell your loved ones that you love them,'" said Michael Weinberger, one of Hand's best friends. "'You never know when it will be the last time.'"
No one knew March 15, 2020, would be the last time Hand would perform on-stage, including Jason Ballew, who regularly accompanied Hand to his shows. “James once asked me if I thought there was such a thing as an 'honorable outlaw'--I paused and said I didn't think so, but he asked 'well, do you believe there are bad cops?' I saw his point," said Ballew, a local DPS State Trooper. "From that moment on we became very good friends, but one time I referred to him as a friend and he quickly corrected me and said, 'let me tell you something, we're not close friends, we're pals, and pals are closer than friends, so don't ever call me a friend again, from now on its pal.'" "So, to honor my very close friend, I must stand corrected: Rest in peace, love you forever, pal," said Ballew. Hand, who had a colorful past with the law and addiction, ended up having many friends in law enforcement later in life including the chief of police in the town where he grew up. “My heart is heavy at the news of his passing,” West Police Chief Darryl Barton said in a Facebook post. “There is a new angel in heaven today that will certainly stand out from the rest. I will miss 'Slim' and wish I could hear him play one last time, maybe I will,” Barton said.
One of Hand's last times playing was for children at Valley Mills Elementary School--he sang and read books for the kids during a Dr. Seuss Day celebration in early March. "We are so sorry to hear of the passing of Mr. Hand and we are thankful and blessed he was able to visit our campus," Principal Chris Dowdy said.
Perhaps Hand's final public performance was for "Gordon Collier and Friends, Stronger Together", a KWTX Food for Families concert event, on May 16. With the help of local musicians like Hand and Billy Joe Shaver, around $125,000 was raised for Central Texas food pantries during the COVID-19 pandemic. "James Hand was real," said Shaver. "God be with him." Hand's funeral service was held 11:00 a.m. Friday, June 12, 2020, at St. Mary's Catholic Church of the Assumption in West. He is buried by his family near West.