By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It took over 30 years, but country music has caught up with Hank Thompson. Thompson--a longstanding force who, with his Brazos Valley Boys, revolutionized postwar country music by blending Western Swing with honky-tonk--has been something of an anachronism since the ascendancy of Nashville slickness. Now, however, the growing taste for real country--fueled by the Americana movement--has provided Thompson with a chance to re-assert his genius.
Primarily a collection of duets featuring the cream of modern country pop, Hank Thompson and Friends is a compelling demonstration of Thompson's talent. Although modern stars like Brooks and Dunn ("Hooked on Honky Tonk") and Marty Stuart (Thompson's old '50s hit "Green Light") acquit themselves well, their efforts pale next to the authority transmitted by Thompson, especially when you consider that Thompson earned his nickname of "One-Take Hank" during the making of Friends while his younger compadres labored over their parts for hours.
There are stand-outs, even amid the overall high quality: the funny barnyard wisdom of "Gotta' Sell Them Chickens" (with Junior Brown), the wry wit of "Total Stranger" (one of Thompson's best narrative jokes, elegantly humorous here with Lyle Lovett), and a trade-off with Kitty Wells and Tanya Tucker on a medley of "The Wild Side of Life/It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" (Thompson's "Wild Side" was a monster hit in 1952, and "Angels" was Wells' reply to that ditty; both are classics).
Other old confederates dot the album; Delaney Bramlett played with the house band at the legendary Palomino club in California and credits Thompson with teaching him how to lead a band; he appears here--reunited with ex-wife Bonnie--on the old blues standard "Dry Bread," which harkens back to the music Thompson absorbed as a child growing up in Waco. Guitarist Thom Bresh--son of influential country guitar stylist Merle Travis, a longtime friend of Hank's--appears throughout the album, as does steel guitarist Bobby Garrett, who played with Thompson for years and delivers perhaps the most finely tuned version of that instrument's "Brazos Valley sound." There are new songs here also: Bill Mack's "I'll Still be Here Tomorrow" and "Sobering Up," another variation of a Thompson trademark, the good-natured nightlife rumination.
Remarkably similar to his classic sound of years ago, yet full of modern bite and verve, Friends would be a fitting memorial to one of country music's most important talents--if not for the unmistakable feeling that Thompson is far from finished.