By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Still, he continued to have hits into the '80s; his last chart appearance was in 1983, when "Once in a Blue Moon" hit #82 on the Billboard country chart and stayed there for five weeks. His dilution of his sound wasn't so much a sell-out as a pragmatic business decision by a man who remembered the Great Depression and knew that you sold what they wanted to buy or you starved. No doubt late at night, bemused, he still remembered his father, who passed on in 1978, always letting him know that there was always a place for him at the garage, "just in case things got bad."
It never got that bad for Hank Thompson, and with his new duets album--the first single should be out in June, the album in August--things will probably get a whole lot better. Thompson and Mike Curb of Curb Records had tried three times before to get the project off the ground, but nothing seemed to work out until last September, when Bill Millet--a local music impresario who had been a bluegrass musician in his youth--came on board as producer. Millet had a wealth of contacts in the hot young country arena, and when he approached pal Vince Gill about guesting on the project, Gill enthusiastically said yes and asked for "A Six Pack to Go"--a song loved by both his dad and late brother.
With Gill on board, other acts quickly lined up: Brooks and Dunn, Lyle Lovett, Joe Diffie, Marty Stuart, and a host of others. The result is a masterful synthesis by Thompson and Millet that features old classics and brand-new material, mixing Hank's swing with the thump and twang of the other acts. Millet tried as much as possible to re-create the great sound of Thompson's Capitol recordings, using old tube technology and cutting the tracks as "live" as possible.
More impressive than the sound is the pure force of Thompson's character. Often the featured artist on star-studded endeavors such as this end up buried, sidemen on their own project, but Thompson stands his ground masterfully: "Hooked on Honky-Tonk," a new song, allows Brooks and Dunn their trademark boot-scootin' sound, but there's no doubt as to who wins the battle of alternating verses. In fact, only Junior Brown ("Gotta Sell Those Chickens," another new song) and Joe Diffie ("Been Down That Road") come close to giving Thompson a run for his money, but all the songs are delights.
"I didn't know what to expect when I walked in there," says David Ball, who does a swinging, sophisticated version of Walter Hyatt's "Get the Hell Out of Dodge"--a song about cutting your romantic losses--with Thompson. "But he's so gracious and so comfortable, that you feel at ease immediately. The song's kind of different--it's got some tricky chords--but Hank's pretty quick; he picked right up on it. He made the whole thing seem easy."
There was another, more sentimental angle to the studio work, also. "Merle [Travis]'s style fit my own type of music so well," Thompson explains, "that I got his son, Thom Bresh, to play on the album. He plays just like his dad, and he looks just like him, too, only with a beard. When I'd be sitting in the vocal booth looking out at him in the studio and hearing him play, it was just like I got Merle back again."
Bobby Garrett was another musician Hank insisted be involved with the project. "He's the best there is," Thompson maintains. "Nobody else knows my style of steel better. I had a lot of musicians play with me over the years, but Garrett and Travis--or now, Thom Bresh--were the two guys."
Bresh found the reactions of the hot young stars to Thompson amusing. "Brooks and Dunn ran into Hank in the studio, and they just turned white," Bresh recalls. "Then they got real nervous. They said, 'We didn't realize he'd be here.' They were really intimidated."
"They called him 'One-Take Hank,'" Millet reports.
Everyone who assisted with the project praised Thompson, who has never gone for much in the way of false modesty, but always credits the people behind his success. "Hank's just a nice, well-educated man," Garrett says. "He has the best way of putting words together and saying a lot with a little. He's not temperamental--he loves what he's doing, and he loves the people who love the music. I look back on my time with him as the highlight of my career."
"He's reached the point where he's universal," Ball explains. "This album has significance, because with it he's bringing all his music to a lot of younger people who may have missed it."
"Hank's not retro," Millet says. "Retro means you're trying to get back to something; Hank is that thing."
Right now things are getting better for both western swing and Hank Thompson. A revival started about the same time Hank went to Dot--led at first by acts like Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, then passed to groups like Asleep at the Wheel and Ray Condo and His Ricochets. People are taking an interest in swing, western or not (Thompson's gig two weeks ago at the Broken Spoke in Austin was well attended by hip young lounge lizards and Cocktail Nationals.)