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From country to hip hop to a powerful figure in modern guitar rock, here are three acts that caught our eye at this year's 35 Denton.

A Spotlight on Three Highlights from 35 Denton: Marnie Stern, Topic, and Wayne Hancock

Wayne Hancock

Wayne Hancock is short compared to his two bandmates. “I’m gonna introduce the band here: Zach and Zach. There ya go,” he says between songs during his 35 Denton performance at Dan’s Silverleaf. Wayne delivers the line with a smirk, but that sort of no nonsense approach is native to Wayne Hancock. An immovable disciple of American Country music with a straightforward manner, he is every bit the man they call “The Train.” And now, he belongs to North Texas.

I am embarrassed to ask Wayne “The Train” Hancock exactly how he got his nickname. It seems like a story that a prepared interviewer would know. Wayne assures me that the source of the name is every bit as stupid as my question: they first called him that because it rhymed with “Wayne.” But over the course of his career, Hancock has grown into every facet of the moniker.

Wayne Hancock plays uncomplicated American Country in the vein of founders like Hank Williams Sr. and Bill Monroe. His songs move forward with all the unflagging intent of a locomotive. Wayne plays his guitar like one might hammer a sheet of plywood, punctuating each downbeat with a steady wallop across the strings. It is one reason Hancock is able to play without a drummer like Cash before him. He employs only a stand-up bassist and a lead guitarist, who plays every polished lick straight through the amplifier.

Also like a train, which will persist in moving so long as you feed it coal, Wayne Hancock is tireless. He calls this year’s 45 minute set at Dan’s “short.” That is probably because not quite a decade ago, Wayne played for nearly five hours at the same venue. About an hour before show time, the band had just completed sound check and Wayne decided that was just as good a time as any to start playing. Well after two in the morning, he was still at it, unplugged in the Dan’s Silverleaf parking lot. “I got a lot of energy, man. I love playing music more than having sex,” Hancock says. “You don’t have to buy music dinner.”

It is possible Wayne models his performance work ethic after his country music heroes, but it’s just as likely due to his six years in the Marine Corps. He was stationed in Okinawa and Hawaii. Upon leaving the military, he moved to West Dallas. “I was in a bar, a real juke joint, and a guy told me I was the first white man he’d seen alive in those parts in 40 years.” Hancock spotted a man in the corner with a guitar and asked the man if he could play it. The man handed over the guitar and Wayne started playing the blues country standard “Milk Cow Blues.” “After that,” says Wayne, “I was in like Flynn.”

Wayne didn’t settle in West Dallas long before moving to Austin to start a music career. Early on, a promoter encouraged Wayne, then in his early 30s, to go on the road with ZZ Top, an idea that Wayne still calls “the kiss of death.” The most contentious moment came during a gig in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “You haven’t lived till you’ve been booed by 20,000 people,” says Hancock. After delivering some choice words and hand gestures to the crowd, Wayne launched into one of his more popular tunes, “Thunderstorms and Neon Sings.” Wayne then watched and laughed maniacally as a real thunderstorm rolled over the crowd and began pelting them with hail. Afterword, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons called Wayne into the dressing room and asked him why he played a style of music no one understood anymore. Wayne responded, “I’m gonna be around I figure for the next 20-25 years and we’ll just educate the motherfuckers.”

The rest is well-known. Hancock moved to Austin where he established himself as a country artist of the old standard in a city that appreciates such devotion. He released nine albums over the next 18 years and elicited the highest of compliments from Hank Williams III: that Wayne resembled his hero, Hank Sr., more than any artist alive.

Wayne Hancock is not at the top of the country heap, not by a long shot. The moneymaking Nashville machine, that delights in burying the traditions Wayne Hancock labors to resurrect, still has the monopoly on country, even if they have enfeebled the very word. But Wayne is more than satisfied with his station. “I’m pretty happy,” Wayne says. “I haven’t punched a time clock in over 20 years.”

As of this year, Wayne Hancock has established himself in Denton, a move that neither he nor his management have made public, though they both confirm it. “I’m living in Denton in a trailer park,” says Hancock. It is both surprising and fortunate that such a musical asset as Wayne Hancock should land in our neighborhood. Its fortunate for him too, since he’s looking for a guitarist. “We need to spread the word,” Wayne says of the move to Denton. “We need another lead player.”

-TOPIC

Nearly three years ago, shortly after the prematurely halted Big Boi/Girl Talk show on the campus of SMU devolved into a near riot, -Topic was desperately trying to chase down Big Boi as he and his crew walked to a nearby house, tripping over hedges as he ran after the famous rapper trying to hand him a mix tape. A memorable moment, it was not event close to the boldest thing -Topic has done to get attention.

On September 7, 2011, -Topic and his collaborators, in the middle of traffic, hatched a sudden plan to open for Black Star, who was set to perform in a few hours at the House of Blues. The group had merchandise in the car, a very legitimate MC in -Topic, and apparently the composure to convince House of Blues staff that a mistake had been made and -Topic was supposed to open up the show.

In a matter of minutes, -Topic and his cohorts were on stage with 15 minutes to show the packed crowd what they had. He is mentioned in a show review by the Dallas Observer, who wrote “-Topic definitely stunned a few people” without realizing those “people” included House of Blues management. -Topic and his team, who spent their last five dollars on House of Blues Parking, ended the night $725 ahead.

-Topic, born Tommy Simpson, is an MC from Oak Cliff with a decidedly un-Googleable moniker. Despite that, he has grabbed even more attention since his show-hijacking exploits, including an electrifying 35 Denton performance at Hailey’s this past weekend. The Dallas MC with a laid-back flow has been knocking back audiences with his exuberance and solid beats. It is a craft -Topic has been developing since high school, when, he admits, the results were far from satisfactory. “My beats were all tacky techno beats,” he says.

The MC continued to hone his art. “I basically sat in a room and taught myself how to make beats,” says -Topic. “By the end of three years, I stacked up over 600 beats.” -Topic continued to work on his lyrics, on his delivery and especially on his tracks, which he produced out of necessity, since he couldn’t afford the pre-recorded ones from other producers. His work paid off, but -Topic ran into another obstacle. “At 20, I got really good, but my computer crashed. I lost everything I was working on.” He started over and, after two more years, had totaled 782 beats.

Not long after -Topic had rebuilt his catalog, he joined artistic collective Team from Nowhere in mid 2011. The collective includes music artists -Topic, Donny Domino, Kool Quise, Freddy Sans and OrinBe and visual artist Joonbug. The collective is indicative of the coalescing underground hip hop movement in Dallas, a glaring need in the city for a long time. The Team From Nowhere usually appears alongside -Topic at his shows and has released tracks as a collective.

-Topic has also released a solo work, Finally Confident, which, at 21 tracks, shows just how prolific the Dallas artist can be. The album is full of wittily crafted couplets, mostly introspective material in which -Topic reflects on how he aims to make it as the little fish in a big pond. You might consider the self-interest tiresome if not for -Topic’s age of 22, which means he has time to grow as a lyricist. Already you can see flashes of it in songs like “Sonic Rain” and the terrifying “So So Beautiful,” in which -Topic must imagine himself as the perpetrator of domestic violence to get to the truth. “I didn’t want it to be a brutal song, but the way I wrote it, it just came out that way and I didn’t want to filter it. It’s an honest song,” says -Topic.

But -Topic delights in getting brutal when it comes to BET, which takes a couple of early hits on Finally Confident. “They’re not displaying us right,” -Topic says of the television station. “They used to be about promoting positivity, now they got someone tap-dancing in a fake butt. They need people with good ideas there and things would be ok. People like good stuff. Quality is guaranteed to sell; that’s what I believe.”

It is a philosophy that could easily be applied to Dallas hip hop, which the MC believes has arrived at a critical point. “The people who actually put heart and soul into their art are starting to get pushed forward,” -Topic says. The torch of Dallas hip hop is certainly still up for grabs but that’s not to say -Topic is the one to get it. Currently, A.Dd+, who -Topic lists first among his favorite Dallas artists, is poised to take pole position. But -Topic and Team from Nowhere are part of the same, citywide movement to put artistic hip hop first. And if he is brazen enough to connive his way into a high profile gig at House of Blues, who knows just how far he can take that pursuit.

 

Marnie Stern

Marnie Stern’s personality in no way matches the aggressiveness of her music. As I am interviewing her, she is disarmingly easygoing and nearly demure about her own music. All of it is in sharp contrast to the woman I saw rocking out on stage at Dan’s Silverleaf during the final performance of 35 Denton. She is so disarming, in fact, that I don’t realize my recorder has long since run out of battery. But there is enough to discuss with Marnie as an artist without the quotes that sailed off into the night air unrecorded.

Stern is from New York City in an era when I wasn’t sure any NYC musicians actually hailed from the Five Boroughs. Anyone who believes Stern is merely parroting Eddie Van Halen has never heard Marnie Stern. I believe they have heard of her, but they have never heard her albums. If they had, they would have a hard time comparing “Transformer” with “Panama.”

Stern’s upcoming album is called Chronicles of Marnia, a title that is either clever, inevitable, or moronic depending on the perspective. It doesn’t really matter. The issue is moot from the first chord. The album is truly stunning, building on her work from In Advance of the Broken Arm, This is It and her most recent, self-titled release.

Perhaps as engaging as Stern’s frenetic guitar work is how she uses her voice. On “Year of Glad,” she utilizes several overdubs to create a chorus of strains both angelic and surrealistic. On the jaw-dropping “You Turn it Down,” she shouts out the syllables percussively. Marnie’s voice is not impeccable, nor is it the most powerful. But, as in all of her compositions, she uses it to greater affect than if it had been either. Entering Marnie Stern’s world is a menagerie of sounds that are all very basic, but fit in a collage outside the normal imagination.

The double-fretting still figures in prominently, drifting between back and foreground, sometimes adorning a song and sometimes driving it. But as with previous releases, Marnie is incorporating a way of playing the guitar she believes has evolutionary potential. She doesn’t hold the patent on the wheel, but she might on the automobile. Musical cynics are often tired of the guitars in general and so are inclined to shut down before Stern can really be given a chance. Unfortunately, they are missing out on a truly mesmerizing sound and an important artist, especially for women.

Marnie Stern is reticent to step foot into gender politics, preferring instead to see her art as a personal creation and that is admirable in its own way. P.J. Harvey similarly avoided being the poster model for feminism. But Stern becomes a part of gender politics apart from her wishing. We take notice immediately that she is holding a guitar with six strings instead of four, and playing it in a particular way that no one imagined before her.  For Stern to maintain her distance from these discussions is okay and, in a way, even more acceptable than the alternative. But it is also okay for the rest of us to be heartened by a woman who can and should inspire the public by being an artist of worth and integrity.

But in front of me, as I am obliviously holding a dud of an audio recorder, Marnie Stern is far from the personification of her peerless sound or the grand social importance I project on her. She is simply a gracious, unassuming woman cradling her very small dog named Fig, who apparently just survived a near-mortal encounter with a 72 pound poodle. But just listen to Chronicles of Marnia when it drops on March 19 and tell me I’m misguided for elevating Marnie Stern to the status of rock and roll heroine.