Hank Snow: 1914 to 1999
When I was in junior high, my nearly total musical passion was soul music. But for a couple of years there, between spinning 45s of the Staple Singers, O’Jays and Spinners, I would also regularly play a scratchy old LP that belonged to my folks, called The Best Of Hank Snow. I would sit cross-legged on our living room floor and play the album on our unwieldy record player (a “Motorola Hi-Fidelity Stereophonic” job), singing along to “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” and “I’m Movin’ On”, over and over and over. One evening, after picking up and moving the needle back dozens of times, I even managed to write down all the lyrics to that road-song masterpiece, “I’ve Been Everywhere”. I was disappointed to discover that, even with the words right in front of me, I couldn’t keep up with Snow’s highway-speed delivery.
Hank Snow died December 20, 1999, at his home north of Nashville. He was 85. Maybe because he was such a notoriously clean liver, maybe because he was already 35 (an old man!) when his career took off, or maybe because he was such a crooner (and one with jug-handle ears, no less), Snow has never enjoyed the legendary status of recording contemporaries such as Hank, Lefty and The Possum.
That shouldn’t be, for by nearly any standard you care to name, Snow excelled. He was a prolific artist — in his autobiography, he estimates that, between 1936 and 1985, he recorded more than 1,000 sides — and he was a successful writer, too, with more than 150 songs to his credit. His music, which besides honky-tonk featured elements of everything from rumba and calypso to pop to boogie and even, eventually, outlaw country, showed him to be a synthesizer of the first order. It showed him to be a significant musical influence too: His signature hits were important links in the chain from Jimmie Rodgers to, say, Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
His earliest American recordings anticipated elements of rockabilly, and they served as prototypes for the Nashville Sound as well, both in terms of Snow’s singing (think Marty Robbins, or post-“Danny Boy” Ray Price) and their means of production. Additionally, Snow was a remarkably astute music-biz figure who, among other accomplishments, played a key role in the early development of Elvis Presley. And he was a guitar picker accomplished enough to record several instrumental albums with Chet Atkins.
But it is his singing that I will always remember. At first brush, his nasal croon could sound a bit brittle and easily mimicked, but you needn’t listen long before it was clear Snow possessed rare dexterity with lyric, melody and rhythm. With enunciation that was damn near pristine, he bounced playfully in and around the beat on uptempo numbers such as “Rhumba Boogie,” “The Gal Who Invented Kissin'” and “Music Makin’ Mama From Memphis”. On romps such as “I’m Movin’ On” and “The Golden Rocket”, he managed a cathartic synthesis of Jimmie Rodgers’ country blues (his first obsession) and the smooth crooning style associated with the popular music of the WWII era.
His finest ballads, in fact — I’m thinking particularly of “(Now And Then, There’s) A Fool Such As I”, “Let Me Go, Lover”, “Beggar To A King”, and the absolutely perfect “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” — always contained more than a small portion of pop in their phrasing and emotional feel. Like Bing Crosby, Red Foley and other more obvious masters of the croon, Snow managed to make you feel pain or joy without ever appearing to break a sweat, something like the musical equivalent of knocking out your opponent with both hands tied behind your back. Perhaps unique to Snow was his ability to croon sweetly without ever losing a bit of twang.
Snow’s easygoing persona hid his early years as a victim of child abuse, not to mention the decades he struggled professionally, first in Nova Scotia — the most successful Canadian in the history of country music is not Shania Twain — and then in here in the United States, before going Top Ten with “Marriage Vow” in 1949, the first of his 85 charting country singles.
I snagged my parents’ copy of The Best Of Hank Snow for my own collection sometime during my undergraduate years and was somewhat embarrassed to see that, back then, I had identified my very favorites on the album’s back cover with a written accolade that dates precisely my initial Hank Snow obsession: “Dynomyte!” (sic). Today I play CDs, but I still sing along and I still can’t keep up with the fast ones. Hank Snow always made it sound so easy that I don’t think I’ll ever quit trying.