By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
They're raiments an Aztec priest would envy, a bit faded with age but still arresting in their brilliance.MOne suit is blood red; with black patterns that race up and down its sleeves, it almost seems to breathe as country music legend Hank Thompson drapes it across the barstool in his home north of Fort Worth. Rhinestones wink and reflect the light where black meets scarlet.
Thompson--with more than 50 years and 78 hits in country music, one of its most brilliant artists--grins and extends another coat. This one is purple, with starbursts of gold fabric around which constellations of rhinestones swarm like fireflies.
"Heft that," he says. The jacket very nearly pulls itself from your hand; if you took one of your own jackets and filled the pockets with birdshot, it'd weigh about as much. The coat is open, revealing a rich satin lining and a simple label: Nudie of Hollywood.
Nudie--legendary tailor to the elite of country music, the man whose garish creations were one of the first signs of having "made it" in the business--was a big part of Thompson's life for a long time. "I guess I was Nudie's second customer," Thompson says. "I probably spent more money with him than anybody, except maybe Roy Rogers.
"Boy, those rhinestones are heavy," Thompson says with a hearty laugh. "You get out there on stage wearing something like that, with that Super 400 [his trademark Gibson guitar with his name inlaid on the fretboard] around your neck, and you'd need an A-frame to hold you up!" He laughs again, and while he may accommodate the curious by trotting out suits and other such signifiers of the past, it's clear that Hank Thompson--at 72, looking like a man 20 years younger--has little use for nostalgic yearnings.
He could be forgiven a bit of dwelling in the past; he and his band the Brazos Valley Boys were a post-war force in country music that could not be denied, the number-one western swing band in America from 1953 to 1966, according to both Cash Box and Billboard magazines. With the Boys backing him, Thompson kept the flame of western swing alive, at the same time mixing it with pop, hillbilly, and honky-tonk music, often executing songs with a refinement that bordered on jazz.
Thompson forged a new definition of what it meant to be a country frontman, laying the groundwork for what would become the classic Nashville sound of the '60s and early '70s. His songs--heavy on drinking, carousing, and the foibles and rewards of romance--were the soundtrack of a society tasting the freedoms of a new prosperity, one in which partying and night life were no longer strictly lowbrow pursuits. Sometimes a song is just a song, but when--in 1961's "Two Hearts Deep in the Blues"--Thompson sings, "I found you sitting there about to cry/And so was I/She just gave me the news/I could tell that you were just like me/In misery/Two hearts deep in the blues," you can hear the reverberations of social change.
Thompson is a living piece of country music history, a guy who's chased skirts with Hank Williams Sr. and given career advice to Elvis. He's racked up essential hits like "A Six Pack to Go" and "The Wild Side of Life" while dragging country music into the modern age through innovative sound and light systems, which he often designed and even built himself. His Hank Thompson at the Golden Nugget was the first live recording by a solo country artist; his Cheyenne Frontier Days and State Fair of Texas records--also recorded live--arguably are the first country concept albums, predating Willie Nelson's classic Red-Headed Stranger by more than a decade. LPs like Hank! and Songs for Rounders are signposts in the memories of countless country fans who grew up with them in the family record collection.
Most admirable about Thompson, however, is the dogged but unobtrusive way he has remained true to himself and his vision throughout his career. While mavericks like Willie and Waylon get credit for rebelling against the Nashville establishment, Thompson--seeking the same creative freedom--turned his back on the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, long before progressive country.
Although he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and still plays around 100 gigs a year, Thompson has, for the most part, been overlooked by an industry that considers Randy Travis and George Strait old-timers.
That may all be changing, as Thompson has a new album in the works--the product of four years of struggle--that features him dueting with the cream of modern country on songs both old and new. It's instructive to listen to the new album and find hotshots like Brooks and Dunn, Junior Brown, Vince Gill, and David Ball almost able to stand toe-to-toe with Thompson; it's even more so when you consider that the youngsters often struggled much harder than Hank. "I probably did more takes during these sessions than I did the whole 18 years I was with Ken Nelson and Lee Gillette," Thompson says with another big belly laugh, referring to his two producers during his "glory years" at Capitol Records.
Henry William Thompson was born in Waco in 1925, the only child of Jule and Zexia Thompson. Like many living between the wars, the family lived out in the country but didn't farm. Jule--whose Bohemian parents changed their name from Kocek when they came to America--had been a railroad engineer, then served on a battleship during World War I. When he returned home, he'd had enough of grimy, coal-burning steam technology. Sensing that gasoline would be the fuel of the future, he opened up a little shop that worked on automobiles and gas engines.
There was no musical talent in Henry William's immediate family; the closest point of inspiration was "Old Man John," Jule's oldest brother. "He'd sing the old songs, from Bohemia, in German--the waltzes and polkas and such--and I thought it was great," Thompson recalls.
Fortunately, there were new technologies that made up for the dearth of music in the house. Million-watt radio stations just south of the border--like XEMO, XEG, and XCRA--played the likes of Cowboy Slim Rinehart, Vernon Dalhart, and Utah Carroll. W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel was on both the border stations and closer channels, and young Henry William--like most youngsters then--grew up listening to the Light Crust Doughboys, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Grand Ole Opry. "In the summertime, you could go down into the river bottom on a Saturday night and get [Opry station] WSM real well," Thompson recalls.
On weekends he would also head to the town square and the Waco Theater, where he found two more guides: singing cowboy Gene Autry and an anonymous street musician. "This black dude was blind," Thompson explains, "and he'd work down there on Main Street on weekends, playing blues and religious songs and singing in a scratchy, Blind Lemon-style voice. He had a tin cup nailed to the end of this beat-up guitar, and I'd just sit around and watch him; I thought he was great. He'd do songs like "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," and one I can still remember--Dog chased the rabbit, chased it for one long mile/But he couldn't catch the rabbit, so he cried just like a child."
When he was 10, Henry William--an uncle already had dibs on Hank--got his first guitar, a $4 Vernon. He and pal Jimmy Gilliland started playing around together, and when the Waco Theater initiated a kiddies' matinee at the turn of the '40s, Thompson started winning the talent show, singing the songs he heard on the radio--"Wabash Cannonball," "Great Speckled Bird," "Walking the Floor Over You"--and going out over the airwaves with the rest of the matinee courtesy of radio station WACO. He already knew that a mechanic's labor was not for him. "I didn't like it worth a damn," he says of the garage. "All that grease...I liked playing the guitar on the radio a lot more."
It was on WACO that Henry William became Hank, and then became popular; by high school he had done "all the amateur shows" and had his own slot, Monday through Friday from 7:15 to 7:30 a.m., singing and playing guitar as Hank the Hired Hand courtesy of the fine folks at Unclaimed Freighthouse, purveyors of Unclaimed Freighthouse brand flour. "The Unclaimed Freighthouse was bigger than most of the mom 'n' pop grocery stores of the day," Thompson explains. "I'd just pick and sing and sign pictures for folks--back then, everybody knew you if you were on the radio."
He took the $5 a week the show paid and bought himself a real guitar, a Gibson J-200 acoustic flattop, on an installment plan, but didn't really think about doing music for a living. "I did it because I enjoyed it," he says. "I didn't necessarily think of it as a career, because that part of the business didn't exist as such."
Then in 1943, Hank the Hired Hand graduated from high school on a Friday, spent the weekend with his folks, then got up on Monday and did his last show. He caught the interurban, the big electric train that ran from Waco to Dallas. In Dallas he joined up with the U.S. Navy; he would not return to Waco for two and a half years.
He ended up teaching radio basics at the Small Craft Training Center in San Pedro, California. "I could've spent the war there," Thompson says, "teaching guys how to use a soldering iron and how to change tubes. But there was a war going on, and I was supposed to be a sailor. I wanted to get on with it." Although his transfer was opposed by his superiors--the bright kid from Texas was doing most of their work--he ended up assigned to a tiny fleet tug and rescue-salvage vessel in the Pacific.
As was the case with many who went off to fight, World War II was a defining time for Thompson--not so much as a warrior, but as a picker and singer. He had his trusty J-200 with him, and the sailors appreciated anybody who could entertain. He practiced constantly, for the first time writing his own songs and developing a musical personality. "At sea, there's not that much to do, and when we were in port, I'd take my guitar and go down to whatever li'l bar and sing, and we'd all get free drinks, the girls would all gang around. It was a lot of fun." Thompson was at sea a year, visiting places with history-book names like Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and the Coral Sea.
On one stop, his boat was moored in the Solomon Islands. "I was sitting on the fantail," Thompson recalls, "just playing the guitar. All these natives were hanging around selling beads and shells from these outrigger canoes, and this one kid heard me, and motioned to me to give him the guitar. I did, and he kinda held it"--here Thompson mimics a beginner's tentative holding of an instrument--"and started singing 'San Antonio Rose.' Well, he really liked it, and he offered me all his beads--the whole canoe full--and of course I said no. He paddles off, and after a while he comes back, with another canoe, just as full of shells, and there's a young girl in there, too, and she was part of the deal. He was offering me all of his worldly possessions--but I told him that I didn't think the Navy would like that, so I'd just keep the guitar."
After the war, Thompson ended up attending Princeton, the University of Texas, and finally Southern Methodist University, studying electrical engineering on the GI Bill. He was discharged in 1946 and stopped by radio station WACO to inquire after his old job. "When I left, it was all shakin' hands and 'give 'em hell,' 'God bless and good luck,' and 'your job'll be waiting for you when you get back,'" Thompson recalls. "So I asked them about my old radio show and found out it was a little different story.
"I told them I was a lot better now, and they said they'd call me. I was really disappointed, standing there on the street, and I ran into this ol' boy who told me about this new station, KWTX, right around the corner, so I went over there. The carpenters were still working on it. The manager was a guy I knew, so I did a few songs for 'em, and they were really impressed."
One of the songs that caught the attention of the radio people was "My Brazos Valley Rancho," a song Thompson had written on gold-embossed Navy stationery aboard the tug. "When they heard that, they said, 'That's your theme song!' They put me on at 12:15 p.m., right between Cedric Foster, the top-rated news commentator, and Queen For a Day, the number one daytime radio show. The mail just started pouring in," Thompson says.
Soon he was getting requests for personal appearances. Although he was still solo on KWTX, he put together a band of locals and started playing schoolhouses and a few dances here and there. His dad--although he never did really think of singing as a legitimate occupation--helped him out by buying him a brand-new 1946 Chevrolet. "He paid for that car with fifteen $100 bills," Thompson recalls. "I had never seen a $100 bill before."
Hank would often stop by Shelby Music Company, a business that serviced local jukeboxes. Its owner went to Dallas every week to buy stock, and knew there was a guy from California who was looking for new country talent. So Thompson went to Dallas' famed Sellars Studios and cut his first single--"Swing Wide Your Gate of Love," b/w "Whoa Sailor"--for the small Globe label. His backup band included old chum Jimmy Gilliland and some other pickers known to Hank, performing under the moniker of the Brazos Valley Boys. Although the arrangements and instrumentation were very basic and his delivery more sincere than accomplished, the single revealed that the kernel of Thompson's musical persona was already established. Both songs were of Navy vintage, but it was clear that Hank the Hired Hand had grown up while away and was now privy to the vagaries of women and romance.
But these songs also showed what was to be his greatest asset--an implicit friendliness that allowed you to go along with a song, no matter how silly, sad, or sexy. Face it: In the hands of, say, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love" would come across as raunchy carnality; in Thompson's hands--especially the rough Globe version--the song is a request for the most innocent kind of entry. "Whoa Sailor" was inspired by Hank's experiences dating while in the Navy and established another Thompson trademark--an affinity for clever wordplay and narrative turnarounds. Both tunes have an almost sing-songy bounce that would find its best expression a little more than a year later with "Humpty Dumpty Heart," one of his best-known songs, and continued throughout Hank's career in the form of what he called his "nursery rhyme songs," some more obvious than others: "Mary Had a Little Lamb (His Love was Pure as Snow)" (1948), "Rub-A-Dub-Dub" (1953), and "Simple Simon" (1955).
"I always wrote with sort of a subtlety of humor," Thompson says. "If you take it a little lighter-hearted, it lifts it out of the straight tear-jerker."
Released in September of 1946, "Swing Wide" took off regionally. KRLD in Dallas played both sides on its Hillbilly Hit Parade; both were enormously popular in the area. When Tex Ritter came to Texas in 1947, Capitol Records had told him to keep an eye peeled for new talent. Thompson was signed to Capitol soon afterward.
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."
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."
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.
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.)
Thanks to labels like San Francisco's Joaquin, names like Billy Jack Wills (Bob's youngest brother) and Jimmy Rivers are once more out where people can hear and appreciate them. Every person who hears and likes Big Sandy or Ray Condo will eventually find his or her way to Hank Thompson, and with the help of his outstanding new album that might just be enough--at last--to get this pioneer and American legend his due.
But there's something more. If you ask Hank Thompson, he'll tell you, and he might just tell you even if you don't ask him. "I have a 'live and let live' attitude," he says, "which is not that usual around here. I let things go pretty quick, and I think a lot of that strength comes from being personally satisfied. I've always liked to be able to do what I want to do, which is why I left the Opry way back then. I did my music the way I wanted it to sound. To figure out how to please those people out there was my responsibility, and I wanted to do it without someone breathing down my neck." He looks you straight in the eye, as friendly as an uncle and as certain as a preacher. "I do it my way.
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