Longform

Honky-Tonk Man

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The music, however, matched the effort put into its execution. After WWII, the big dance-band approach was waning, and the singer was emerging as the new pop focal point, pushed along by stars like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. As jukeboxes got ever more popular, people looked to more direct, distinctive expressions that could cut through the distractions of that environment.

In country, the leaders of this movement were artists like Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell, artists who were unmistakably themselves. Hank was one of these, but more varied: Although firmly rooted in western swing, his mix ranged through pop, hillbilly, waltzes, and beyond. At times, his band had 11 musicians, including a trumpet player.

In addition to top-flight performances, Thompson attracted top-flight talent. Lefty Nason was one of the cleverest steel guitar stylists of his--or any other--day. Longtime associate and steel player Bobby Garrett is another classic reference point for his instrument, and Keith Coleman was one of the hottest fiddle players that ever rosined up a bow.

Thompson knew how to treat talent and was secure enough to allow his people room. "Unlike many stars," Bobby Garrett says, "Hank knows a lot about music, which made him easy to talk to. It was always a real pleasure going into the studio with him."

The greatest player to sit in with the Brazos Valley Boys, however, was Merle Travis, author of such definitive tunes as "Nine Pound Hammer," "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," and "16 Tons." Thompson met Travis when he sat in for a guitar player who didn't make Hank's "Wake Up Irene" sessions in 1948, and ended up staying for Thompson's entire career on Capitol. Travis' spare but lyric style--full of the echoes of Mother Maybelle Carter--fit perfectly with Thompson's approach to his ensemble sound. "I never really liked that real fast 'butterfly' guitar," Thompson says. "To me it's distracting. Like some of those Bob Wills records: Tommy Duncan would be singing, and you've got someone like Jimmy Wyble going blublubbludittaditditdittatat"--Thompson flutters his hands about every which way, like crazed moths--"and you've got Bob hollering on top of that, and you just end up listening to everything but the song, which is why, with the exception of Merle, I really didn't use the guitar too much; I stayed with the steel and fiddles."

Often Merle--who died in 1983--would travel with Hank and the Brazos Valley Boys, performing solo, then joining the band as a guest artist during Hank's portion of the show, when the band would do songs uniquely suited to Travis, like "John Henry" or his own "Nine Pound Hammer." The two were so close that they referred to each other as "brother," and when Thompson and his first wife Dorothy amicably divorced and she married Travis, the two would joke about being "husbands-in-law."

During the '50s, Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys had a lengthy string of hit singles--including "The New Green Light" (with its masterful opening line double entendre "I turned your hole card...upside down"), "The Blackboard of My Heart," and "Squaws Along the Yukon"--and put out a series of classic LPs. Perhaps the greatest of these was 1958's Songs for Rounders, the ultimate expression of his beer-drinking, skirt-chasing, good-timing musical alter ego. On the cover Thompson--hat pushed back on his head four-in-the-morning style--is playing cards with a couple of dancehall girls in feathers and satin. A chair is tipped against the table, in the middle of which a bottle of whiskey sits. The songs inside live up to the outside: a ripping "Deep Elem" (a.k.a. "Deep Ellum Blues") that features a saxophone pushing the song forward, "Cocaine Blues," whose tale of coked-up murder and death is the equal of any gangsta's boast. The happy sot who drifts through so many Thompson pieces reappears in "Teach 'Em How to Swim" ("If I can't drown my sorrows/I'll teach 'em how to swim"), and the narrative turnaround animates "Total Stranger:"

Now I was down upon my luck and the jobs were hard to find I was sort of short on cash and my bills were way behind

So I went to see my lifelong friend an oilman now by trade I figured as how he'd help me out with this fortune he had made

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Matt Weitz