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