Honky-Tonk Man

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"'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.

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Matt Weitz