Hank Wangford on Norfolk and being a rock‘n’roll doctor

Country singer Hank Wangford talks to WAYNE SAVAGE about Norfolk , being lucky to be alive, being a rock'n'roll doctor and why he was wrong to hate country music.

'I don't know if you've heard of a man called Jackie Leven? Great singer and guitarist. He died last week,' says Hank, 71, when I caught up with him.

'We all loved him and then boom, he's gone. I count myself lucky because I had a heart attack 10 or 11 weeks ago. Jackie's gone and I'm wondering around talking to you.

'I had this thing called angioplasty which is like a kind of Dyno Rod they stick up through your femoral artery, up to your aorta to your heart. You put some dye in and there you lay, looking at a huge flat screen display of your own heart and coronaries. They send you the CD of it afterwards; showbiz eh,' he laughs.

Dr Sam Hutt — to use his real name — was cycling home through central London to Notting Hill after a hard day at the Margaret Pyke Centre where he specialises in sexual health care.

The idea was to leave early and head to Norwich with his partner. So much for best laid plans.

'It was a bit frustrating. So I'm late and I just got chest pain as I was going up a hill. It was relatively mild so didn't really bother me that much.'

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His GP found nothing wrong but sent him to hospital for the usual tests; the results of one blood test were through the ceiling.

'He [the doctor] said 'you ain't going to Norwich mate you've had a heart attack and I'm sending you to Hammersmith'. They put three stents in my right coronary. It's my version of the Johnny Cash triple bypass; I've had a Johnny Cash light,' he laughs.

Given the circumstances he's in fine spirits. Doctoring is clearly as much part of him as his fantastic music career to date. 'Thank you for calling it fantastic,' he laughs. 'It's kind of low key, at best I've got kind of a cult following. There are huge numbers of fans that have built up over the years, but I'm not a huge record seller; I'm not even famous.

'In a similar way there was a point where I could have settled down, had a family; but then I would have had to become a GP and forget the music. I had to say to the person I was involved with I don't want to do that and we split up.'

Which brings us to the stage name. Like a lot of people in the 1970s he moved out of the city and settled in the country; Suffolk in Hank's case where he played a lot of country music.

After his ex married his mate he found himself sat in the now non-existent White Lion in Wangford feeling really sorry himself. 'I was having a pint, almost crying in my beer. I suddenly thought Hank Wangford, what a great name for the guy who feels sorry for himself when he's got actually no right.

'I played my first gig as Hank at Bungay May Horse Fair. For a couple of years I played all over Suffolk and Norfolk in a lot of the country and western clubs which were deadly for us.

'When I formed the first semi-pro, little hippy band we were playing the country and western clubs round East Anglia and pretty universally they hated us because we were playing original stuff, because we were alternative.

'[Some clubs] they want to do line-dancing and hear the tunes they know. I've got nothing against them, but I don't want to be the band that plays that.'

Not originally a fan of the genre, Hank got into country much earlier after meeting Gram Parsons who'd been in The Byrds. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones send Gram with his wife to see Hank, who in the 70s was a rock'n'roll doctor to some of the band, the Who and The Grateful Dead.

He must have some stories to tell; most of which I doubt I could print even if he told me? 'You're quite right,' Hank laughs.

'Rock'n'rollers would come to see me because I'd be sympathetic, I wouldn't give them drugs but at least they could say what they like to me because I was like them if you like; we were all part of what used to be called the alternative culture.

'Typically a bloke who was saying 'my nose is sore and bleeding a lot' I'd say 'well, stop taking so much f****** cocaine you idiot,' he laughs, ''Then your nose will get better'.'

Hank packed in that part of his life and worked in the prairies of Canada for about five months; in the middle of nowhere but surrounded by country music. 'I used to play with a little country band in the village I was working in and that was it, the conversion was complete.

'I came back [to the UK] and I was then writing my songs much more in a country style. It suited the songs, I'd found a way to do it. It was fantastic discovering country was actually very soulful music and not all a bit soppy.

'Before country I was into soul and R&B; I thought country was s*** so you're talking to the worst of all possible things, a convert. And you know what converts are like, we wanna convert everybody else.'

He tries to do just that alongside The Lost Cowboys, his band consisting of pedal steel guitar innovator BJ Cole, guitarist Martin Belmont, who has played with everyone from Elvis Costello to Johnny Cash, bassist Kevin Foster and drummer Roy Dodds. Their latest album, Whistling in the Dark, is out now and has received respectable reviews.

Fans in this region will be treated to some old favourites and a few surprises at this year's Maverick Festival, the country and roots music festival in Suffolk.

Hank, schedule permitting, will be back after his turn at Maverick's Thanksgiving ranch party last November. 'We're also hoping to resurrect a film which a documentarian Roger Deakin made maybe 20 years ago about Hank and his roots,' says festival organiser Paul Spencer. 'We're hoping to screen the film as part of the festival programme this year and we'll have Hank on hand to do a Q&A.'

n Hank Wangford will be appearing at Maverick Festival in Suffolk from June 29-July 1, tickets now on sale atmaverickfestival.co.uk

n Whistling in the Dark is out now.

n Further listening: www.hankwangford.co.uk