Origin: Peterborough, Ontario
Hank’s first marriage had just ended and, after finishing a fine meal at his favourite Chinese restaurant (“not too far from the railroad tracks, so you know they’re good,” he says), he received a fortune he’d never forget. “It said, ‘Do not despair for you will be happy.’ So I thought, ‘Well, that’s good,’ and ‘What does this mean?’”
Walking home down an alleyway, as is his habit, he spotted a tuba case and figured that’d be quite the instrument to play. Even though all it held was a bunch of human hair, it was enough to set Hank on fate’s path. “That put the thought in my head of a tuba,” he says, “and this was well before I started writing poetry or thinking about music at all. I just had this thought in my head that a tuba was somewhere in my future.”
That was 1976. It would be another two years before his friend Reverend Ken began putting Hank’s poetry to music. “Everyone really liked [my writing],” Hank recalls, “so I was overcome with curiosity to see the reaction of people to my poetry or lyrics or whatever. So, I found a washboard and I became Washboard Hank.”
At that point, his musical abilities at that point didn’t go beyond a few guitar chords. His skills improved, though, and a few years later while he was playing the streets of North America as one of Reverend Ken’s Lost Followers, Hank spotted what he was certain was a tuba in a snowbank. Alas, it turned out to be nothing more than a kitchen sink. But Hank was undaunted. “I picked it up,” he says, “and looked at it and thought, ‘Well, I could do this.’” He was kicked out of numerous plumbing supply stores before eventually buying 16 feet of PVC piping which he combined with the sink to create the first-ever Fallopian tuba.
Reverend Ken fell in love in Vancouver after the band played Expo ’86, so for the next 10 years, the group became Washboard Hank and the Honkers. Even though his career was booming, the act had become repetitive and Hank felt he was in a rut. So in 1997, he joined Fred Eaglesmith’s band the Flying Squirrels and spent the next four years playing every city in North America once again. But as the band grew, Hank found his washboard was competing with a “rock ’n’ roll drummer that just wouldn’t shut up,” so Hank went his own way. Then he ran into Lance Loree in Calgary, almost two decades after first meeting him while playing the streets.
While chatting, the guys discovered they were born only a day apart and a birthday gig was the order of the day. “Oh boy!” Hank exclaims. “After the first set I knew that Lance was the guy for me ’cause, well, he’s a great country and rockabilly picker, plus he’s got a great sense of humour. And y’know, I’ve played with a number of guitar players over the years and usually they can play anguish and anger really well, but they can’t play happy and funny worth a shit.”
The next year, with Ronnie Hayward on stand-up bass, Washboard Hank and the Country Squires recorded their debut album Hooray for Washboard Hank. Hank, who still occasionally sits in with Eaglesmith as “the Uncle Buck of the band,” signed a distribution deal with Eaglesmith’s own A-Major Label last year to release his album. “I was willing to sign with Fred just because I know how Fred does things, but generally, the music industry people are pretty useless,” says Hank, who’s still working to get the album released south of the border. “The distribution people seem to be typical professional music people in that they’re lazy, fucked-up assholes.”
The album is available in Canada, but for now Hank’s focusing on his 2004 New Year’s resolution to make a children’s album. With at least three other band projects underway, including the Gravestone Lickers in his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario and the Hillbilly Hotdogs out in Nova Scotia, Hank just needs to find a little free time to commit his tunes to tape before the year is out. V
It’s a chilly Saturday night in November and a few of the local folk are gathered at the pub to join friends for a pint or two. It’s pretty quiet, with only a few low conversations going on among patrons. Suddenly, a man swings open the front door – he’s got a contraption strapped to his chest that’s made from an old washboard with a conglomeration of bells, license plates and duck calls nailed to it. With a miner’s helmet on his head, he enters the pub with two other musicians trailing behind him and announces: "Hello everybody – I’m Washboard Hank!"
Lugubrious might also describe some of Hank’s early days as a busker, when he travelled from city to city, making his way from his home in Peterborough, Ontario (where he grew up working on his grandfather's farm), persevering through Canadian winters and hitting a few bad notes. One of his first indoor gigs, at the Canmore Hotel in 1979, was cancelled after the hotel owner discovered a horse’s leg under the musician’s bed. It wasn’t his.
Around that time, while busking on the streets in Calgary, Hank met Loree, who introduced him to a cousin who was playing in a bluegrass band. Hank was subsequently invited to play with the group one night in DeWinton.
"I’m still running into people who saw me play that night," says Hank, adding that he and Loree have many friends in common in their musical realm, including Hayward, whom he met in Toronto when Ronnie was playing bass in a rockabilly trio called Shotgun Shack. Hayward eventually moved to Calgary, where he and Hank played a number of street gigs together.
Given the combined talents of the three musicians, who all share the same attitude towards music , Hank says he feels privileged to be working with this group.
"I think this is the absolute purest distillation of what I want and the kind of band I want to be in. They're such great players and we all fit together." He describes the relationship as "pure caviar – with ketchup," explaining the group is unique without being too "artsy-fartsy."
Hank is a big fan of western swing, and describes his own sound as a "real salad mix of different kinds of music," including hillbilly boogie and bluegrass – stuff that cheers people up and lets them have a good time. He recalls one cold Christmas Eve on the streets in Vancouver when he and his band at the time, Reverend Ken and the Lost Followers, played for a group of street people, long after the stores closed and people went home to their warm houses and families. They played short, funny tunes that made the crowd laugh and enjoy a little happiness – if only for a brief moment.
"It probably looked like the saddest thing in the world, but to see the look on those... faces made me feel truly happy – it was probably the happiest time of my life."
Hank and Reverend Ken travelled to cities all over North America playing what Hank describes as hillbilly punk gospel, with Hank writing the songs and Reverend Ken writing the music. Driving from city to city in an old pickup truck with only a shell on top to protect their equipment and belongings, they were reminiscent of musicians of an earlier era, like Bill Monroe and Hank Williams, who travelled with no tour manager or record rep. Hank claims he still lives that way.
Washboard Hank plays a truly amazing conglomeration of bells, licence plates, duck calls, etc., and actually gets music out of it. He also plays banjo, kazoo, and dobro. If the proper plumbing supplies are available and space allows you can expect a solo or two on the "Fallopian Tuba," made out of 1 1/2" PVC pipe and a stainless steel sink. One reviewer called Washboard Hank "a cross between Jerry Lewis (not Jerry Lee) and Stompin' Tom Connors." His repertoire includes bluegrass, rockabilly, country, television themes and Oktoberfest. He can go from sensitive to manic to ridiculous in an instant. Don't blink, you'll miss something good. Hank has appeared on dozens of TV shows (Elephant Show, W5, Mr. Dressup, etc.) recently performed on C.B.C.'s Madly Off In All Directions and spent four years as a member of Fred Eaglesmith's band, doing 200 or more shows a year all over North America.
Washboard Hank is a legendary Canadian artist long under appreciated for his contributions to both the alt. country scene and the contemporary music scene in Canada.
Washboard Hank plays an amazing conglomeration of bells, licence plates, duck calls, etc., and actually gets music out of it. He also plays banjo, kazoo, and dobro, and will probably break a lot of guitar strings too. If the proper plumbing supplies are available and space allows you can expect a solo or two on the "Fallopian Tuba," made out of 1 1/2" PVC pipe and a stainless steel sink.
It is evident that Washboard Hank’s music was influenced early on by Stompin’ Tom Conners and Hank follows in that Great Canadian Tradition. One reviewer called Washboard Hank "a cross between Jerry Lewis (not Jerry Lee) and Stompin' Tom Connors." His repertoire includes bluegrass, rockabilly, country, television themes and Oktoberfest. He can go from sensitive to manic to ridiculous in an instant. Don't blink, you'll miss something good. Hank has appeared on dozens of TV shows (Elephant Show, W5, Mr. Dressup, etc.) recently performed on C.B.C.'s Madly Off In All Directions, and spent the last four years as a member of Fred Eaglesmith's band, doing 200 + shows a year all over North America. Working so steadily with Fred was letting Hank's own career slide, but he's getting it built up a bit now.
Hank currently tours with a killer band; Lance Loree (Uncle Thirsty) plays guitar, dobro and steel, sings some harmony and contributes a few stupid songs of his own. He toured with Junior Gone Wild for a couple years in the nineties and has played ten years with the rockabilly-roots band The Alien Rebels. Several years ago Hank and Lance discovered that they were born only twelve hours apart and were separated at birth. They lined up a couple shows at which to celebrate their shared birthday, and had so much fun they decided to work together more often. Since Hank left Fred Eaglesmith and the Flying Squirrels they have been touring for a week here and a month there, and it is like a birthday party every night! In Eastern Canada Ronnie Hayward sometimes joins the party, and in the west you can look for that sharp dressed Alberta bass-slapper, Mike McCafferty.
Hank holds several beer selling records across the north which some say will never be broken.