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One of the true geniuses of country music, Thompson's affable baritone has carved out a Mount Rushmore-size career since his first recording: "Whoa Sailor" b/w "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love," done for the tiny Globe label in 1946. Two classic country songs on your very first single is a pretty heady start, but Thompson kept up the pace throughout his career, bridging the gap between older artists like Floyd Tilman and what would end up becoming the classic country of the '60s and early '70s. In 1952 he had a monster hit with "The Wild Side of Life," originally recorded by an obscure band of Texas honky-tonkers, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters. Not only is "Wild Side of Life" a classic barroom ode, but it inspired another enduring, definitive honky-tonk song: Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels," written as a reply.
Classic Thompson songs abound: "A Six Pack to Go," "Hangover Tavern," "Humpty Dumpty Heart," "Green Light," and countless others. He played the State Fair of Texas for 14 years in a row and became as big a symbol of that event as Big Tex; he even went so far as to record an album that re-created the sounds and atmosphere of the Fair and was one of the first country artists to feature live recordings, something of a Thompson trademark: Witness his classic Live at the Golden Nugget. Although most think of him as a honky-tonker, Thompson's swing background, his skills as both a picker and a leader, and the acuity of backing band the Brazos Valley Boys (country guitar god Merle Travis--author of such reference points as "16 Tons" and "Nine Pound Hammer"--played with Thompson for years) made him far more than that; on instrumental numbers like "Big Beaver," he and the Boys are more country jazz than anything.
Age has only honed Thompson's edge; live, he exudes vitality, command, and--more importantly--joy. Even when playing with small combos--like he did at the Three Teardrops several years ago--he had no problem invoking the spirit and feel of his classic hits, but this show at the Sons will sport a big band, replete with twin fiddles and guest appearances and celebrating Thompson's excellent upcoming album, which features the cream of modern country lining up to pay tribute to the Master. If he has a hit off of it, Hank Thompson will have charted during each of the last five decades, reason enough to scurry on down to the Sons. If you don't, you have nobody to blame but yourself.
Hank Thompson and the New Brazos Valley Boys play the Sons of Hermann Hall Friday, April 18.