Honky-Tonk Man

He had 78 hits spanning five decades and revolutionized country music. Now, Fort Worth's Hank Thompson gets a new green light.

The first order of business was to recut Hank's regional hits. His small-label stuff was unadorned and really didn't swing that much, but the band that Capitol assembled to re-record numbers like "Whoa Sailor" marked the beginning of the Thompson-Brazos Valley Boys sound: twin fiddles and, more importantly, Lefty Nason, the brilliant steel guitar stylist whose fading, chiming lines--accurately described by Thompson as "Dut-dut-do-wha-aaa"--were to become an essential Thompson signifier, even after Nason's departure in the early '50s.

Now on Capitol, Thompson gained momentum: "Humpty Dumpty Heart" reached number two on Billboard's charts in 1948. "When I got my first royalty check for "Humpty Dumpty Heart,'" Thompson says, "I think it was about $2,500--I went down to the bank and cashed it and gave my Dad those fifteen $100 bills back that he'd spent on that Chevrolet." Later, "Green Light" pushed its way all the way up to No. 10 in 1949. Not long thereafter, Hank got an invitation from a radio station to come out to Nashville; it didn't quite work out, but Ernest Tubb stepped in and rescued Hank, giving him the chance all country artists dream about, most in vain: a slot in country music's combination of the Vatican and Valhalla, The Grand Ole Opry.

Hank lasted one week, until he got his check. Rich Kienzle describes it this way in his liner notes for the 12-CD Thompson retrospective on the Bear Family label:

As Thompson left WSM, he ran into Hank Williams, at that moment the Opry's fair-haired boy. The two Hanks had met and liked each other. Now, Hank of Alabama was amazed to hear that Hank of Texas was going home.

"Somebody said Ernest got you on the Opry and you're leavin'! Man, this is what we all dreamed about, bein' on the Opry!"

"Yeah. Me, too," replied Thompson. "Except I can't live on those dreams. Look at this check," he said as he showed Williams the $9 token payment. He was soon heading back to Dallas.

"I wished they had Xerox machines back then," Thompson chuckles wistfully. "I said then that I oughta frame the sonuvabitch, because I'm gonna get about a jillion questions about it later, but I had to cash the check to get out of the hotel we were in. Hell, I coulda made more on the street corner passing the hat--with a tin cup nailed to my guitar."

The hidebound ways of the Opry--they still didn't allow drums on stage--were unacceptable to an innovator like Thompson, just as they would be to Willie Nelson years later. "I just didn't like the politics; that wasn't the way I did things. If I'd stayed at the Opry, I'd never have established the musical sound that I did. I think I did the right thing."

Hank of Alabama had his own fall from grace with the Opry, but he remained good friends with Hank of Texas. "I went over to Hank's house one time," Thompson says. "He picked me up at the airport and we went up to his apartment [in Nashville], and he took out a bottle of Jack Daniel's and said, 'have a drink.' I said 'No, no, but you go ahead.' So he and I sat around talking about songs. He had these shorthand books just full of ideas for lyrics. I asked him about melody, and he said 'Aw, I don't worry about that--I'll get that later.' I don't think melody was his long suit--I think Fred Rose helped him with a lot of stuff that wasn't blues. He had good ideas--that was his charm. He could say so much with so little, just little one-, two-syllable words that told a hell of a story.

"'Let's go out to this club,' he finally said. 'It's about the only place in town for real country music, guys like Sugarfoot Garland out there jamming, we'll play a couple of songs and get all the girls we could handle.'" Thompson smiles at the memory. "It didn't turn out that way, of course--the place was pretty rough."

Thompson knew Williams well enough to see behind the myth. "Naw, no," he says, frowning when asked about Williams standing as one of pop mythology's doomed genius-angels. "He was just into his music. In fact, he never talked about anything else. He had no outside interests like hunting, or fishing, or painting, or boats. It was music and women. He never made any bones about his drinking, but he never talked about booze. He'd walk around with money in every pocket--bills just falling on the floor--but I think that's because he grew up so poor.

"He was an alcoholic, but he didn't hide a damn thing. He had two ways--when he was drinking, he was down; when he wasn't, he was stone cold sober. Sometimes he'd hold out as long as he could, and then he'd get in such bad shape that he'd have to go to the hospital. He'd tell stories on himself and just laugh like it was somebody else, like the time he got drunk and his mother--who I guess was pretty rough on him--put him in a hospital where one of the night nurses was an old girlfriend of his, and she'd smuggle him in booze and make it with him, and after three days his mama came in and said 'I don't understand it. I brought him in three days ago, and he's drunker now than when I brought him in here!' He'd tell that story and just laugh."

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