Honky-Tonk Man

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.