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."