Longform

Honky-Tonk Man

Page 7 of 9

I said 'old pal, I need your help, I hate to be so bold, But remember when I saved your life down at the swimmin' hole?

Now I'd like to ask a favor if you can see your way I'd like to have a little loan' and then I heard him say:

'Excuse me total stranger I can't seem to recall
Are you absolutely certain that we've ever met at all?
I'd really like to help you out' as he opened wide the door
'So long total stranger, that I've never seen before.'

Thompson went on to capitalize on his technical abilities with a trio of live albums made back when country acts just didn't do live albums: the superlative Hank Thompson at the Golden Nugget (1961), Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys at the State Fair of Texas (1962), and Cheyenne Frontier Days (1962). "We were the only ones capable of doing that kind of thing," Thompson says. "Not only from the standpoint of having the venues, but also the skill and the equipment."

Thompson and the Boys had been a State Fair tradition since 1952. "I looked forward to the fair all year," Thompson says. "We'd show up in our Falstaff shirts--I believe we were one of the first country acts to get a corporate sponsorship--and we'd do three 30-minute shows a day: at 1, 6, and 8 p.m."

Both the State Fair and Cheyenne albums attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the actual event, but while Golden Nugget was superb--from the rattle of the old manual roulette wheel that starts the album off to the steady but unobtrusive background hubbub of dealers and patrons--State Fair and Cheyenne are not quite as seamless. It didn't help that they were released back-to-back, and in many ways the two "event" records signify the beginning of a decline for Hank. Capitol, which had been sold to EMI in 1955, was growing less and less interested in country.

Hank would record an oldies collection for his next album, then a collection of pop reliables like "You Always Hurt the One You Love" and "September in the Rain." While no one can turn a standard like Thompson, and the songs are delivered with professional pride and care, there's a sense of coasting throughout--not necessarily out of laziness or any of the other reasons modern pop audiences are all too familiar with, but rather uncertainty. The Beatles had landed on Capitol, and rock 'n' roll was the next big thing.

In country, it was Bakersfield all the way; western swing--which had been losing popularity ever since V-J Day--was dead, and Buck Owens was Capitol's number-one country act. In September 1964, tired of being on Brit-rock's back burner and almost 18 years to the day that Globe's "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love" b/w "Whoa Sailor" was released, Hank Thompson left Capitol after recording a Christmas album.

From there it was a lot more like the yeoman's work that his early success had allowed him to avoid: a brief stint with Warner Brothers, then a workaday association with Dot Records, and finally a deal with Halsey's Churchill Records. Although Thompson still had the old moxie--"On Tap, In the Can, or In the Bottle" went to No. 7 in 1968, followed by "Smoky the Bar" (No. 3) in 1969--further work found him straying farther and farther from his western-swing roots, diluting his sound with the very commercial influences whose seeds he had helped plant so many years and miles ago.

Still, he continued to have hits into the '80s; his last chart appearance was in 1983, when "Once in a Blue Moon" hit #82 on the Billboard country chart and stayed there for five weeks. His dilution of his sound wasn't so much a sell-out as a pragmatic business decision by a man who remembered the Great Depression and knew that you sold what they wanted to buy or you starved. No doubt late at night, bemused, he still remembered his father, who passed on in 1978, always letting him know that there was always a place for him at the garage, "just in case things got bad."

It never got that bad for Hank Thompson, and with his new duets album--the first single should be out in June, the album in August--things will probably get a whole lot better. Thompson and Mike Curb of Curb Records had tried three times before to get the project off the ground, but nothing seemed to work out until last September, when Bill Millet--a local music impresario who had been a bluegrass musician in his youth--came on board as producer. Millet had a wealth of contacts in the hot young country arena, and when he approached pal Vince Gill about guesting on the project, Gill enthusiastically said yes and asked for "A Six Pack to Go"--a song loved by both his dad and late brother.

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Matt Weitz