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.

Thompson also got to know Elvis Presley. "A very nice, gentlemanly boy," is how Hank describes the King. "We were on a tour through the South with him and Johnny Cash, and one night we were backstage and he played some songs for me he'd written. Even backstage, while he sang, he did all the hip-shaking and gyrations. The songs were all these three-chord country songs, like Hank Williams songs, only not very good. He asked me, 'Well, what do you think?'

"I told him, 'Frankly, Elvis, that just isn't your bag. You can't do those country ballads like Roy Acuff and them--it just isn't your forte. But those blues numbers you were doing onstage, that's what you excel at, and that's what people want to hear you do.' And he said 'Yeah, but that's what I like to sing,' and I said 'Well, that's unfortunate.'"

Not everybody took to the shy kid from Memphis. "At the time," Thompson reminisces, "my band was making a lot of snide remarks about his shaking and all that, and I called them together and said, 'Look, you guys got your rights to your own opinions, but to make fun of somebody else when they're being successful isn't very wise. We're not in competition with anybody, we do our thing, and he does his.' At the end of the tour, I ran into Colonel Tom Parker, and he told me, 'I'm here to make a deal for the kid.'"

That Thompson was keeping such heady company in the '50s is no surprise. Although many have forgotten it now, he was an innovator--a bold pioneer who was changing the face of country music. The next time Reba McEntire watches her one dozen semis disgorge her gargantuan collection of light and sound equipment, she should call up Hank Thompson and arrange to take him to a nice dinner. Post-war country venues--held in suspended animation by wartime rationing--were a crude lot. "Back then, you couldn't just go out and buy a good sound system," Thompson explains. "There were theater sound systems, but my God, you couldn't take those on the road, they were too big and heavy." So Hank assembled his own PAs, using his years of radio and engineering experience.

"I put a lot of our stuff together," he says. "My theory was always that if they couldn't hear you and they couldn't see you, then you haven't accomplished anything. So I went out to this place in Hollywood and drew 'em up a design of a thing that I wanted to carry lights around; when we got to a club we'd never played before, we'd put hooks in the ceilings and hang the lights, and the next time we came through, they'd already be there." Sometimes, however, it wasn't that simple. "Some of those places only had one plug for the whole place, and their circuits couldn't handle it," Thompson says. Those gigs often saw the band's bus generator pressed into service.

The music, however, matched the effort put into its execution. After WWII, the big dance-band approach was waning, and the singer was emerging as the new pop focal point, pushed along by stars like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. As jukeboxes got ever more popular, people looked to more direct, distinctive expressions that could cut through the distractions of that environment.

In country, the leaders of this movement were artists like Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell, artists who were unmistakably themselves. Hank was one of these, but more varied: Although firmly rooted in western swing, his mix ranged through pop, hillbilly, waltzes, and beyond. At times, his band had 11 musicians, including a trumpet player.

In addition to top-flight performances, Thompson attracted top-flight talent. Lefty Nason was one of the cleverest steel guitar stylists of his--or any other--day. Longtime associate and steel player Bobby Garrett is another classic reference point for his instrument, and Keith Coleman was one of the hottest fiddle players that ever rosined up a bow.

Thompson knew how to treat talent and was secure enough to allow his people room. "Unlike many stars," Bobby Garrett says, "Hank knows a lot about music, which made him easy to talk to. It was always a real pleasure going into the studio with him."

The greatest player to sit in with the Brazos Valley Boys, however, was Merle Travis, author of such definitive tunes as "Nine Pound Hammer," "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," and "16 Tons." Thompson met Travis when he sat in for a guitar player who didn't make Hank's "Wake Up Irene" sessions in 1948, and ended up staying for Thompson's entire career on Capitol. Travis' spare but lyric style--full of the echoes of Mother Maybelle Carter--fit perfectly with Thompson's approach to his ensemble sound. "I never really liked that real fast 'butterfly' guitar," Thompson says. "To me it's distracting. Like some of those Bob Wills records: Tommy Duncan would be singing, and you've got someone like Jimmy Wyble going blublubbludittaditditdittatat"--Thompson flutters his hands about every which way, like crazed moths--"and you've got Bob hollering on top of that, and you just end up listening to everything but the song, which is why, with the exception of Merle, I really didn't use the guitar too much; I stayed with the steel and fiddles."

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