Remembering Tompall Glaser: An Outlaw Just Beyond the Spotlight
Tompall Glaser, one of the original and most confrontational Nashville outlaws, passed Tuesday morning after a long illness, according to the singer's nephew. The flannel-throated Glaser, whose upraised middle finger to the Music Row establishment was even bigger than Willie's or Waylon's, was 79.
A singer, writer, producer, publisher and hellraiser of some repute, Glaser's biggest claim to fame was his inclusion on 1976's groundbreaking Wanted! The Outlaws alongside Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, the first platinum-selling country album. But while Nelson and Jennings would go on to huge stardom, Wanted! would be the high point in Glaser's tumultuous and uneven career.
I was lucky enough to see a show at the Gregory Gymnasium on the University of Texas campus in May 1976, with Jennings as the headliner, his wife Jessi Colter, and Glaser as the couple's outlaw partner in crime. Jennings' band backed all three artists, and Glaser laid down blistering renditions of his hit "Put Another Log On the Fire" as well as deeper cuts like the ever-popular "T For Texas."
Glaser didn't steal the show, but he certainly held up his end.
Born in Spalding, Nebraska in 1933, Glaser formed Tompall and the Glaser Brothers with brothers Jim and Chuck, an act that featured tight sibling harmonies and eventually snared a regular radio program in the late 1950s. Marty Robbins heard the Glaser Brothers on radio and signed them to his record label, but they had little success with Robbins. While the brothers backed up Robbins on some of this sessions (Jim Glaser is one of the backup singers on Robbins' signature hit, "El Paso") and tour dates, he sold their contract to Decca Records in 1959 and the brothers relocated to Nashville.
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They quickly came to the attention of Johnny Cash, who used them as an opening act on his tours and on some of his recordings. After half a decade of scuffling around Nashville making their living as studio backup singers and sidemen, recently deceased legendary producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement, who also worked frequently with Cash, produced a Glaser Brothers album. While it went nowhere, it did include the Tompall/Harlan Howard tune "Streets of Baltimore," which was already a hit for Bobby Bare and earned Tompall Glaser his first serious money from the Music Row crowd.
Tompall and his brothers were a rowdy, argumentative bunch, and by 1973 they were pursuing individual careers; Tompall inherited the Hillbilly Central studio, ground zero for the Outlaw Movement, in the breakup. At about the same time, Tompall released a single of the Bob Wills standard "Faded Love" that was one of the first indicators of what would become known as the outlaw sound.
Working out of Hillbilly Central in 1973, Waylon Jennings dropped what is now considered one of the first albums of the outlaw period, Honky Tonk Heroes, which was constructed around the songs of Billy Joe Shaver and the sounds of Jennings' road band, the Waylors. When Jennings' usual RCA producer balked at recording an album of material by an unknown writer like Shaver, Jennings turned to Tompall as co-producer. Along with some of the work Bobby Bare was doing, Honky Tonk Heroes was a milestone album in the breaking of the Nashville studio/recording system, a true watershed event in the music business.
In 1974, Glaser finally achieved his highest popular peak with the release of Tompall Glaser Sings the Songs of Shel Silverstein. The album contained the tongue-in-cheek and highly un-PC tune, "Put Another Log on the Fire." Topping out at No. 21, it would be Glaser's highest-charting single.
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At Waylon Jennings' insistence, in 1976 Glaser was included on Wanted! The Outlaws, which proved to be the shot heard 'round the world for country music. Suddenly everyone went outlaw, which meant rocking hard, keeping it lyrically real, and fueling the movement with mountains of cocaine and bales of marijuana.
Glaser eventually fell out with the coked-up Jennings and with MGM. Jumping to ABC, he delivered two highly polished, almost genre-less albums to little fanfare before rejoining his brothers for another go. Their 1981 release Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again) earned them the highest chart position of their careers, climbing all the way to No. 2. But before long, the brothers had split up again.
Tompall would take one more stab at a solo career with 1986's Nights on the Borderline, which went nowhere. Shortly after, he sold his studio and seemed to withdraw from the hunt for stardom. Over the years, there have been a few repackage releases of Glaser's early material. At the request of Hank Snow, the brothers reunited for a performance in 1990 at a tribute to Snow. The old magic was still evident.
In spite of his failure to achieve stardom, Glaser left a significant mark on country music, not the least of which are the amazing performances by the Glaser Brothers, considered by many to be the finest harmonizers in the history of country music.
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