By Jeremy Miles
Country-singing gynaecologist Hank Wangford knows a thing or two about survival in the face of adversity. Not only does he sing heart-rending songs about love and loss but back in the days when he was a general practitioner he used to be Keith Richards’ doctor.
“Erm, that must have been medically quite challenging,” I venture.
Hank, or at least his alter-ego, Dr Sam Hutt, niftily nudges the subject into a wider sphere. We continue our discussion, Hippocratic oath and patient confidentiality unsullied.
We were talking as Hank prepared for his latest tour with his excellent band The Lost Cowboys, including a show at Wimborne’s Tivoli Theatre tomorrow night.
These days when he’s not touring, Wangford hangs up his ten gallon hat and becomes Dr Sam working as an expert in women’s sexual health. He runs regular clinics, lectures young NHS doctors and has helped establish a pioneering family planning project in Romania.
Back in the late sixties, though, Sam Hutt was a serious counter-culture figure – a fully qualified doctor whose long hair and enlightened attitude attracted a list of patients that included The Rolling Stones among others.
“I was a rock ‘n’ roll doctor. I was The Who’s doctor, I was the Pink Floyd’s doctor. People like that used to say ‘Dr Sam’s a good bloke, go and see him. You won’t get any drugs from him but he’ll see you’re all right.’ “They liked me because I wasn’t judgmental and probably seemed a little alternative. They felt free say to me ‘My nose is really sore’ and I’d say ‘Are you snorting lots of coke? and they’d say ‘Yes’ and I’d say ‘Well you’re a silly bugger then’.”
They also liked the fact that Sam was into homeopathy – “I’d give them little white powders even though it wasn’t cocaine.”
Curiously perhaps back in those days Sam was not in the slightest bit interested in country music. Soul and R&B was his bag. But one day Keith Richards turned up at his London surgery with an American musician friend, Gram Parsons. A near legendary member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons would leave a lasting impression.
“He picked up my guitar and played a song called An Empty Bottle, A Broken Heart and You’re Still on my Mind and that was it. The penny dropped. Suddenly I understood. It was a real Road to Damascus moment for me, completely life-changing.”
Dr Sam became a close friend of the fascinating but dangerously self-destructive Parsons, who was destined to die in September 1973 after overdosing on drugs and alcohol at Joshua Tree in the Californian desert.
The self-styled “grevious angel” was, he admits: “An infuriating, lovely bloke. Completely self-centred but very talented and charismatic.”
Sam now believes that Parsons saw his role in life to turn people onto country music.
“That’s what he did with Keith Richards and The Stones, that’s what he did with Emmylou Harris and that’s what he did with me. I think my task now is to do the same thing for other people.”
So Hank Wangford was born, a country musician with sad eyes, a heart that has been broken one too many times.
“I don’t take myself seriously,” he says. “ How can you with a name like Hank Wangford? But I take the music absolutely seriously.”
Tomorrow’s Tivoli gig will find him playing material from his excellent new album Whistling in the Dark delivered with the help of musicians that include steel guitar wizard BJ Cole, former Ducks Deluxe and Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, singer-guitarist Reg Mueross, drummer Mike Pickering and bassman Kevin Foster.
Hank says the album champions the need for optimism in the face of gloom. That no matter how tough things are a sense of humour helps you survive.
“My songs are about sadness, separation and revenge,” he says, adding that when he’s penned a particularly bitter and twisted lyric he takes great pleasure from it. “Mainly the pleasure is because I’m glad I don’t feel that way. I’m glad that I’m writing about a character.”