On the Fringe
Waco’s Hank Thompson has never been the country icon that, say, Ernest Tubb or Ray Price was. But the hits keep coming, and so does he.
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Perhaps it’s his perpetually jovial, self-effacing demeanor, or the fact that so many of his hits were tongue-in-cheek novelties full of nursery-rhymelike lyrics, outrageous puns, or knee-slapping jokes. Or maybe it’s just that his brand of music was too happy-go-lucky for the post-war years. Whatever the reason, Waco native Hank Thompson has rarely been accorded the lofty status of Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, and other Texas country icons of the era. Only in the fifties, when he ran up a string of hits, could he claim the aura of stardom—of invincibility, even—that those men enjoyed.
Yet here he is today, 74 years old and counting, with a new CD called Seven Decades set for release this month on California-based independent label HighTone Records. HighTone markets primarily to the trendy alternative country audience, which has been warming up to Thompson for several years now. And why shouldn’t it? He knows a thing or two about “alternative” himself. His good-natured fusion of Texas honky-tonk and western swing, mixed with just enough Nashville country to satisfy radio’s powers that be, was unprecedented in his day, but its influence on George Strait, Junior Brown, and Clint Black is unmistakable. And he is one of the rare artists in any genre to hit the charts in six consecutive decades, from “Humpty Dumpty Heart” in 1948 to “Gotta Sell Your Chickens,” a duet with Junior Brown, in 1997.
So Thompson has been around. He has few illusions about launching a major comeback with Seven Decades, even though the record’s producer, Lloyd Maines, does have a well-earned reputation for achieving miracles with a small budget. The album—featuring a band handpicked by the singer and the producer and an eclectic collection of songs ranging from traditional country to loungy pop—sounds more like Hank Thompson than Hank Thompson has sounded in quite some time. That should satisfy new and old fans alike, and Thompson figures that contemporary country’s ongoing tailspin might even free up some radio airplay for him beyond the Americana stations that HighTone targets. “You tune in these big stations and you’ll hear Merle Haggard now; that wasn’t about to happen even a year or two ago,” he points out between bites of Mexican food at a restaurant near the Dallas studio where he cut the new CD. “There are a lot more small-label things on the charts.”
Thompson has always kept his eye on the business as well as his ear on the music. Born in Waco in 1925 to Jule, a railroad engineer turned mechanic, and Ilda, a housewife, he was already a local star with his own radio show when he joined the Navy in 1943. During the war he was a radioman in the South Pacific, and he studied electrical engineering at Princeton University, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas under one of the Navy’s officers’ training programs. When he returned to Waco in 1946, he began recording his own music for the independent California label Globe. “Whoa Sailor,” a cautionary tale told humorously and backed by a jaunty bar band, became a local hit in 1946 and was followed by several more songs on the Dallas label Blue Bonnet. After hearing him on a swing through Texas, country singer Tex Ritter got him a contract with Capitol Records, which released “Humpty Dumpty Heart.” He soon left for Nashville to star on a weekly radio show.
While Thompson was there, Ernest Tubb got him a shot at the Grand Ole Opry, an important step for any new country star—but it became a turning point in his career for all the wrong reasons. “I just didn’t like it,” he recalls. “I realized I’d never be able to play my style of music in Nashville. It was strictly the hillbillies, the mountain music, the bluegrass. They didn’t allow any electric instruments. They didn’t allow drums. They didn’t allow horns. And where was I gonna work up there? Down in Texas I knew all these bars and honky-tonks where I could get work, because by then I was playing dance music.” It took Thompson just one night to decide he didn’t much like playing the Opry. Not even Hank Williams could talk him out of returning to Texas.
After working with pickup bands in his early years, Thompson and guitarist Billy Gray assembled the first full-time edition of his Brazos Valley Boys. Thompson wanted a band that could play western swing in the dance halls—“That’s where the money was, not radio or concerts,” he says—but was more compact than a big band. And he wanted the emphasis to be on his own richly textured baritone rather than on the pickers. Lefty Nason, Thompson’s steel guitarist, created licks that he could play as fills or behind Thompson’s voice without being obtrusive. The twin fiddlers—including, at various times, Keith Coleman, Curly Lewis, and Red Hayes—played tremolo in the background. When Gray, who rarely soloed, left in 1953, Thompson incorporated legendary fingerpicker Merle Travis into the sound (his son Thom Bresh plays on Seven Decades). “One of the problems I used to have with bands was that everybody played all the time,” Thompson says. “But when we started this band, we’d have the fiddle play fills and everybody lay out, then let the steel come up. That kinda cleaned up the music and gave the vocalist a chance to get up there on top and stand out.” The Brazos Valley Boys were picked first in band-of-the-year polls year after year. Still, Thompson made adjustments; where once he sounded too much like Ernest Tubb, hitting the low notes hard and easing up on the high notes, he began doing just the opposite.
Everything jelled on 1952’s “The Wild Side of Life,” which spent fifteen weeks atop the country charts. The song had already been done without success by Jimmy Heap of Taylor, one of Texas country’s true hard-luck stories (he charted only in 1954, with “Release Me,” but his version was quickly surpassed by Ray Price’s). Thompson’s then-wife Dorothy talked him into recording “Wild Side” against his better judgment; the melody, lifted from the hymn “Great Speckled Bird” and “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” sounded too old-fashioned to him. “But that line about honky-tonk angels—you do it in these honky-tonks you play all the time and it’ll be perfect,” she insisted. Thompson finally agreed, putting it on the B side of “Cryin’ in the Deep Blue Sea.” But “Wild Side of Life” quickly overwhelmed the A side, and when Kitty Wells launched her own career with the answer song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Thompson’s single got a second life, lasting a total of thirty weeks on the charts.
Most of his other hits weren’t that serious. Consider “Rub-a-Dub-Dub” and “Squaws Along the Yukon,” which were both full of nonsense lyrics. Or the brazenly ludicrous metaphors of “Waiting in the Lobby of Your Heart” and “The Blackboard of My Heart.” Or the folkie “Wake Up, Irene” (inspired by the Weavers’ hit “Irene Goodnight”) and “Wildwood Flower” (a Carter family original). And with a wink and a wobble, he revisited the honky-tonks with “A Six Pack to Go.”
In 1952 Thompson moved to Oklahoma City because it was a more central touring base, and he had steadier work there, including two radio programs and The Hank Thompson Show on local TV (which he claims was the medium’s first variety show broadcast in color). Using the expertise he’d gained in college, he designed his own sound and light systems to take on the road. In 1956 he was one of the first acts to do a straight country show in Las Vegas (country artists like Eddy Arnold who’d gone there before him simply inserted themselves into the venue’s usual show with orchestra and dancers). The next year, his thematic Dance Ranch LP saluted his swing and honky-tonk inspirations. In 1959, when his producer balked at letting him cut “Cocaine Blues,” Thompson tapped another side of country’s heritage and built an album around the song to give it a reason for being; Songs for Rounders was a down and dirty gem—and one of country music’s first stereo albums. Two years later, Live at the Golden Nugget became country’s first live album by a single act.
Then it all fell apart. By the mid-sixties Thompson’s music seemed archaic alongside the soft Nashville sound and rock-influenced combos like Buck Owens and His Buckaroos. His career continued to decline into the mid-eighties, when he left the charts and wouldn’t return for more than a decade. But he never stopped working. In the early nineties he played frequently at Dallas’ now-defunct Three Teardrops, one of the first alt-country venues. More recently, his prime-time hits have been reissued. Last year Dance Ranch and Songs for Rounders were combined on one CD, while Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, the most prestigious of the alt-country labels, released Hank World, a collection of radio transcriptions from the early fifties.
Both discs will put a smile on the faces of fans who agree with Thompson’s evaluation of contemporary country. “It’s pathetic, monotonous, repetitious, and very boring,” he declares. “Alternative is just the music of the forties, the fifties, and the sixties. That was a great era not only for country music but for rock; a lot of the finest pop things came out during this time. This generation is now going back and saying, ‘My gosh, this is great stuff—nothing like what they’re putting out today.’”