By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Often Merle--who died in 1983--would travel with Hank and the Brazos Valley Boys, performing solo, then joining the band as a guest artist during Hank's portion of the show, when the band would do songs uniquely suited to Travis, like "John Henry" or his own "Nine Pound Hammer." The two were so close that they referred to each other as "brother," and when Thompson and his first wife Dorothy amicably divorced and she married Travis, the two would joke about being "husbands-in-law."
During the '50s, Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys had a lengthy string of hit singles--including "The New Green Light" (with its masterful opening line double entendre "I turned your hole card...upside down"), "The Blackboard of My Heart," and "Squaws Along the Yukon"--and put out a series of classic LPs. Perhaps the greatest of these was 1958's Songs for Rounders, the ultimate expression of his beer-drinking, skirt-chasing, good-timing musical alter ego. On the cover Thompson--hat pushed back on his head four-in-the-morning style--is playing cards with a couple of dancehall girls in feathers and satin. A chair is tipped against the table, in the middle of which a bottle of whiskey sits. The songs inside live up to the outside: a ripping "Deep Elem" (a.k.a. "Deep Ellum Blues") that features a saxophone pushing the song forward, "Cocaine Blues," whose tale of coked-up murder and death is the equal of any gangsta's boast. The happy sot who drifts through so many Thompson pieces reappears in "Teach 'Em How to Swim" ("If I can't drown my sorrows/I'll teach 'em how to swim"), and the narrative turnaround animates "Total Stranger:"
Now I was down upon my luck and the jobs were hard to find I was sort of short on cash and my bills were way behind
So I went to see my lifelong friend an oilman now by trade I figured as how he'd help me out with this fortune he had made
I said 'old pal, I need your help, I hate to be so bold, But remember when I saved your life down at the swimmin' hole?
Now I'd like to ask a favor if you can see your way I'd like to have a little loan' and then I heard him say:
'Excuse me total stranger I can't seem to recall
Are you absolutely certain that we've ever met at all?
I'd really like to help you out' as he opened wide the door
'So long total stranger, that I've never seen before.'
Thompson went on to capitalize on his technical abilities with a trio of live albums made back when country acts just didn't do live albums: the superlative Hank Thompson at the Golden Nugget (1961), Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys at the State Fair of Texas (1962), and Cheyenne Frontier Days (1962). "We were the only ones capable of doing that kind of thing," Thompson says. "Not only from the standpoint of having the venues, but also the skill and the equipment."
Thompson and the Boys had been a State Fair tradition since 1952. "I looked forward to the fair all year," Thompson says. "We'd show up in our Falstaff shirts--I believe we were one of the first country acts to get a corporate sponsorship--and we'd do three 30-minute shows a day: at 1, 6, and 8 p.m."
Both the State Fair and Cheyenne albums attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the actual event, but while Golden Nugget was superb--from the rattle of the old manual roulette wheel that starts the album off to the steady but unobtrusive background hubbub of dealers and patrons--State Fair and Cheyenne are not quite as seamless. It didn't help that they were released back-to-back, and in many ways the two "event" records signify the beginning of a decline for Hank. Capitol, which had been sold to EMI in 1955, was growing less and less interested in country.
Hank would record an oldies collection for his next album, then a collection of pop reliables like "You Always Hurt the One You Love" and "September in the Rain." While no one can turn a standard like Thompson, and the songs are delivered with professional pride and care, there's a sense of coasting throughout--not necessarily out of laziness or any of the other reasons modern pop audiences are all too familiar with, but rather uncertainty. The Beatles had landed on Capitol, and rock 'n' roll was the next big thing.
In country, it was Bakersfield all the way; western swing--which had been losing popularity ever since V-J Day--was dead, and Buck Owens was Capitol's number-one country act. In September 1964, tired of being on Brit-rock's back burner and almost 18 years to the day that Globe's "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love" b/w "Whoa Sailor" was released, Hank Thompson left Capitol after recording a Christmas album.
From there it was a lot more like the yeoman's work that his early success had allowed him to avoid: a brief stint with Warner Brothers, then a workaday association with Dot Records, and finally a deal with Halsey's Churchill Records. Although Thompson still had the old moxie--"On Tap, In the Can, or In the Bottle" went to No. 7 in 1968, followed by "Smoky the Bar" (No. 3) in 1969--further work found him straying farther and farther from his western-swing roots, diluting his sound with the very commercial influences whose seeds he had helped plant so many years and miles ago.