Longform

Honky-Tonk Man

Page 4 of 9

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matt Weitz