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.

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,

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