Longform

Honky-Tonk Man

Page 3 of 9

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.

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Matt Weitz