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.

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Matt Weitz