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Honky-Tonk History

They're raiments an Aztec priest would envy, a bit faded with age, perhaps, but still arresting in their brilliance.

One suit is blood red, with black patterns that race up and down its sleeves. It almost seems to breathe as country music legend Hank Thompson drapes it across the barstool in his home north of Fort Worth. Rhinestones wink and reflect the light where black meets scarlet.

Thompson -- with more than 50 years and 78 hits in country music, one of its most brilliant artists -- grins and extends another coat. This one is purple, with starbursts of gold fabric around which constellations of rhinestones swarm like fireflies.

"Heft that," he says. The jacket very nearly pulls itself from your hand; if you took a standard coat and filled the pockets with birdshot, it'd weigh about as much.

"Boy, those rhinestones are heavy," Thompson says with a hearty laugh. "You get out there on stage wearing something like that, with that Super 400 [his trademark Gibson guitar, with his name inlaid on the fretboard] around your neck, and you'd need an A-frame to hold you up!" He laughs again, and while he may accommodate the curious by trotting out suits and other such signifiers of the past, it's clear that Hank Thompson -- looking, at 72, like a man 20 years younger -- has little use for nostalgic yearnings.

Not that he couldn't be forgiven a bit for dwelling in the past; he and his band, the Brazos Valley Boys, were a post-World War II force in country music that could not be denied, the number one Western swing band in America from 1953 to 1966, according to both Cash Box and Billboard magazines. With the Boys backing him, Thompson kept the flame of Western swing alive, at the same time mixing it with pop, hillbilly and honky-tonk music, often executing songs with a refinement that bordered on jazz.

Thompson forged a new definition of what it meant to be a country frontman, laying the groundwork for what would become the classic Nashville sound of the '60s and early '70s. His songs -- heavy on drinking, carousing and the foibles and rewards of romance -- were the soundtrack of a society tasting the freedoms of a new prosperity, one in which partying and nightlife were no longer strictly lowbrow pursuits.

Thompson is a living piece of country music history, a guy who chased skirts with Hank Williams Sr. and gave career advice to Elvis. He racked up essential hits such as "A Six Pack to Go" and "The Wild Side of Life" while dragging country music into the modern age through innovative sound and light systems, which he often designed and built himself. His Hank Thompson at the Golden Nugget was the first live recording by a solo country artist; his Cheyenne Frontier Days and State Fair of Texas records -- also recorded live -- are ar-guably the first country concept albums, predating Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger by more than a decade. LPs such as Hank! and Songs for Rounders are signposts in the memories of countless country fans.

Most admirable about Thompson, however, is the dogged but unobtrusive way he has remained true to himself and his vision. While mavericks such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings get credit for rebelling against the Nashville establishment, Thompson -- seeking the same creative freedom -- turned his back on the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, long before anyone had ever heard of the phrase "progressive country."

Although he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and still plays around 100 gigs a year, Thompson has, for the most part, been overlooked by an industry that considers Randy Travis and George Strait old-timers. That, though, may soon change, thanks to The Real Thing, a brand new Thompson CD -- the product of four years of struggle -- that features him trading vocals with the cream of modern country on songs both old and new. It's instructive to listen to the new album and find hotshots such as Brooks and Dunn, Junior Brown, Vince Gill and David Ball almost able to stand toe-to-toe with Thompson; it's even more so when you consider that the youngsters often struggled much harder than Hank did. "I probably did more takes during these sessions than I did the whole 18 years I was with Ken Nelson and Lee Gillette," Thomp-son says with another big belly laugh, referring to his two producers during his "glory years" at Capitol Records.

Henry William Thompson was born in Waco in 1925, the only child of Jule and Zexia Thompson. Jule -- whose Bohemian parents changed their name from Kocek when they came to America -- had been a railroad engineer, then served on a battleship during World War I. When he returned home, he'd had enough of coal-burning steam technology. Sensing that gasoline would be the fuel of the future, he opened up a little shop that worked on automobiles and gas engines.

 

There was no musical talent in Thompson's immediate family. Fortunately, there were new technologies that made up for the dearth of music in the house. Million-watt radio stations just south of the border played the likes of Cowboy Slim Rinehart, Vernon Dalhart and Utah Carroll. W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel was on both the border stations and closer channels, and the young Thompson grew up listening to the Light Crust Dough-boys, Jimmie Rodgers and the Grand Ole Opry. "In the summertime, you could go down into the river bottom on a Saturday night and get [Opry station] WSM real well," Thompson recalls.

On weekends, he would also head to the town square and the Waco Theater, where he found two more guides: singing cowboy Gene Autry and an anonymous street musician. "This black dude was blind," Thompson explains, "and he'd work down there on Main Street on weekends, playing blues and religious songs and singing in a scratchy, Blind Lemon-style voice. He had a tin cup nailed to the end of this beat-up guitar, and I'd just sit around and watch him. He'd do songs like 'Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,' and one I can still remember -- 'Dog chased the rabbit, chased it for one long mile /But he couldn't catch the rabbit, so he cried just like a child.' "

When he was ten, Thompson (then called Henry William, because an uncle already had dibs on Hank) got his first guitar, a $4 Vernon. He and a pal started playing around together, and when the Waco Theater initiated a kiddies' matinee at the start of the 1940s, Thompson began winning the talent show, singing the songs he heard on the radio -- "Wabash Cannonball," "Great Speckled Bird," "Walking the Floor over You" -- and going out over the airwaves with the rest of the matinee courtesy of radio station WACO.

It was on WACO that Henry William became Hank; by the time he was a teenager, he had his own slot, Monday through Friday from 7:15 to 7:30 a.m., singing and playing guitar as Hank the Hired Hand. Then in 1943, Hank the Hired Hand graduated from high school and caught the interurban, the big electric train that ran from Waco to Dallas, where he joined the U.S. Navy.

As was the case with many who went off to fight, World War II was a defining time for Thompson -- not so much as a warrior, but as a picker and singer. He had his trusty guitar with him, and the sailors appreciated anybody who could entertain. He practiced constantly, for the first time writing his own songs and developing a musical personality.

On one stop, his boat was moored in the Solomon Islands. "I was sitting on the fantail," Thompson recalls, "just playing the guitar. All these natives were hanging around selling beads and shells from these outrigger canoes, and this one kid heard me, and motioned to me to give him the guitar. I did, and he kinda held it" -- here Thompson mimics a beginner's tentative holding of an instrument -- "and started singing 'San Antonio Rose.' Well, he really liked it, and he offered me all his beads -- the whole canoe full -- and of course I said no. He paddles off, and after a while he comes back, with another canoe, just as full of shells, and there's a young girl in there, too, and she was part of the deal. He was offering me all of his worldly possessions -- but I told him that I didn't think the Navy would like that, so I'd just keep the guitar."

Thompson was discharged in 1946 and stopped by WACO to inquire after his old radio job. "I told them I was a lot better now, and they said they'd call me," Thompson recalls. "I was really disappointed, standing there on the street, and I ran into this ol' boy who told me about this new station, KWTX, right around the corner, so I went over there. The carpenters were still working on it. The manager was a guy I knew, so I did a few songs for 'em, and they were really impressed."

One of the songs that caught the radio people's attention was "My Brazos Valley Rancho," a song Thompson had written on gold-embossed Navy stationery aboard his ship. "When they heard that, they said, 'That's your theme song!' They put me on at 12:15 p.m., right between Cedric Foster, the top-rated news commentator, and Queen for a Day, the number one daytime radio show," Thompson says. "The mail just started pouring in."

 

Although he was still solo on KWTX, he put together a band of locals and started playing schoolhouses and a few dances. Thompson would often stop by Shelby Music Company, a business that serviced local jukeboxes. Its owner went to Dallas every week to buy stock, and knew there was a guy from California who was looking for new country talent. So Thompson went to Dallas's famed Sellars Studios and cut his first single -- "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love," backed with "Whoa Sailor" -- for the small Globe label. Although the arrangements and instrumentation were basic and his delivery more sincere than accomplished, the single revealed that the kernel of Thompson's musical persona was already established. Both songs were of Navy vintage, but it was clear that Hank the Hired Hand had grown up while away, and was now privy to the vagaries of women and romance.

Released in September 1946, "Swing Wide" took off regionally. When Tex Ritter came to Texas in 1947, Capitol Records had told him to keep an eye peeled for new talent. Thompson was signed to Capitol soon afterward. Soon, his career was accelerating at high speed; "Humpty Dumpty Heart" reached number two on Billboard's charts in 1948. In 1949, "Green Light" pushed its way to number ten. Not long thereafter, Thompson got an invitation from a radio station to come out to Nashville; it didn't quite work out, but Ernest Tubb stepped in and rescued him, giving Thompson the chance all country artists dream about, most in vain: a slot on the Grand Ole Opry.

Thompson was fine until he got his check. Rich Kienzle describes it this way in his liner notes for the 12-CD Thompson retrospective on the Bear Family label: "As Thompson left WSM, he ran into Hank Williams, at that moment the Opry's fair-haired boy. The two Hanks had met and liked each other. Now, Hank of Alabama was amazed to hear that Hank of Texas was going home.

" 'Somebody said Ernest got you on the Opry and you're leavin'! Man, this is what we all dreamed about, bein' on the Opry! '

" 'Yeah. Me, too,' replied Thompson. 'Except I can't live on those dreams. Look at this check,' he said as he showed Williams the $9 token payment. He was soon heading back to Dallas."

"I wished they had Xerox machines back then," Thompson chuckles wistfully. "I said then that I oughta frame the sonuvabitch, because I'm gonna get about a jillion questions about it later, but I had to cash the check to get out of the hotel we were in. Hell, I coulda made more on the street corner passing the hat -- with a tin cup nailed to my guitar."

The hidebound ways of the Opry -- they still didn't allow drums on stage -- were unacceptable to an innovator like Thompson, just as they would be to Willie Nelson years later. "I just didn't like the politics; that wasn't the way I did things," Thompson says now. "If I'd stayed at the Opry, I'd never have established the musical sound that I did. I think I did the right thing."

Although many have forgotten it now, Thompson was an innovator -- a bold pioneer who in the '50s began changing the face of country music. The next time Reba McEntire watches her semis disgorge her gargantuan collection of light and sound equipment, she should call up Thompson and arrange to take him to a nice dinner. Post-WW II country venues -- held in suspended animation by wartime rationing -- were a crude lot. "Back then, you couldn't just go out and buy a good sound system," Thompson explains. "There were theater sound systems, but my God, you couldn't take those on the road, they were too big and heavy." So Thompson assembled his own PAs, using his years of radio experience.

"I put a lot of our stuff together," he says. "My theory was always that if they couldn't hear you and they couldn't see you, then you haven't accomplished anything. So I went out to this place in Hollywood and drew 'em up a design of a thing that I wanted to carry lights around; when we got to a club we'd never played before, we'd put hooks in the ceilings and hang the lights, and the next time we came through, they'd already be there." Sometimes, however, it wasn't that simple. "Some of those places only had one plug for the whole place, and their circuits couldn't handle it," Thompson says. Those gigs often saw the band's bus generator pressed into service.

 

The music, however, matched the effort put into its execution. After World War II, the big dance-band approach was waning, and the singer was emerging as the new pop focal point. 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 such as Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell, artists who were unmistakably themselves. Thompson was one of those, but more varied: Although firmly rooted in Western swing, his mix ranged through pop, hillbilly, waltzes and beyond.

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 is playing cards with a couple of dance hall girls. A chair is tipped against the table, in the middle of which sits a bottle of whiskey. The songs inside live up to the image outside.

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."

The Golden Nugget, State Fair and Cheyenne albums all attempted to recreate the atmosphere of their actual events, but while Golden Nugget is 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 Thompson. Capitol, which had been sold to EMI in 1955, was growing less and less interested in country. The Beatles had landed on Capitol, and rock and roll was the next big thing.

Western swing -- which had been losing popularity ever since V-J Day -- was dead. In September 1964, almost 18 years to the day that Globe's "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love" backed with "Whoa Sailor" was released, Thompson left Capitol, tired of being on Brit-rock's back burner.

From there it was mainly yeoman's work. Although Thompson still had the old moxie -- "On Tap, in the Can, or in the Bottle" went to number seven in 1968, and "Smoky the Bar" went to number three in 1969 -- he was straying farther and farther from his Western-swing roots, diluting his sound with the commercial influences whose seeds he had helped plant many years and miles before.

Still, he continued to have hits into the '80s; his last chart appearance was in 1983, when "Once in a Blue Moon" hit number 82 on the Billboard country chart and stayed there for five weeks. His dilution of his sound wasn't as much a sellout as a pragmatic business decision. No doubt late at night, bemused, he still remembered his father, who passed away 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 CD, things will probably get a whole lot better. Thompson and Mike Curb of Curb Records tried three times to get the project off the ground, but nothing seemed to work out until last September, when Bill Millet -- a Dallas 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.

With Gill on board, other acts quickly lined up: Brooks and Dunn, Lyle Lovett, Joe Diffie, Marty Stuart and a host of others. The result is a masterful synthesis by Thompson and Millet that features old classics and brand-new material, mixing Hank's swing with the thump and twang of the other acts. Millet tried as much as possible to recreate the great sound of Thompson's Capitol recordings, using old tube technology and cutting the tracks as "live" as possible.

 

More impressive than the sound is the pure force of Thompson's character. Often the featured artists on star-studded endeavors such as this end up buried, sidemen on their own project, but Thompson stands his ground masterfully: "Hooked on Honky-Tonk," a new song, allows Brooks and Dunn their trademark boot-scootin' sound, but there's no doubt as to who wins the battle of alternating verses. In fact, only Junior Brown and Joe Diffie come close to giving Thompson a run for his money.

Everyone who assisted with the project praises Thompson, who has never gone for much in the way of false modesty, but always credits the people behind his success. "Hank's just a nice, well-educated man," Bobby Garrett, who was brought in for his steel guitar expertise, says. "He has the best way of putting words together and saying a lot with a little. He's not temperamental -- he loves what he's doing, and he loves the people who love the music. I look back on my time with him as the highlight of my career."

"He's reached the point where he's universal," David Ball, who joins with Thompson to do a swinging, sophisticated version of Walter Hyatt's "Get the Hell Out of Dodge," explains. "This album has significance, because with it he's bringing all his music to a lot of younger people who may have missed it."

"Hank's not retro," producer Millet says. "Retro means you're trying to get back to something. Hank is that thing.


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