Hank Thompson: 1925 to 2007
October 8, 2007, was Hank Thompson Day in Texas, officially proclaimed by the governor. Headlining a fair in his birthplace of Waco at 82, Thompson sat on the outdoor stage, electric guitar in his lap. Behind him, the latest incarnation of the Brazos Valley Boys, the band he created in 1946, generated the fetching, bouncy, swing-flavored honky-tonk that became Thompson’s signature. Still actively performing, he was realistic enough to brand his later appearances his “Sunset Tour.” The sun set late that month when doctors discovered swift-moving, terminal lung cancer and sent him home. He died November 6.
If Porter Wagoner’s contributions and achievements were straightforward, Thompson’s more complex and varied legacy reflects his Lone Star roots, contrarianism, intellect and solid pragmatism. Growing up in Waco, he favored the Grand Ole Opry over the western swing then sweeping across Texas, and sang country and cowboy songs as “Hank the Hired Hand” over WACO radio every morning before heading to high school. Thompson was a lifelong radio hobbyist, and three years in the Navy gave him electronics training which he planned to parlay into a civilian livelihood. He returned to Waco in 1946 and resumed his electronics studies, but music won out after his local recording of “Whoa Sailor”, a tune he wrote in the Navy, became a regional hit. A year later, he was a Capitol artist, with “Humpty Dumpty Heart”, a remade “Whoa Sailor” and “Soft Lips” giving him a national presence.
His longtime hero Ernest Tubb got him onto the Opry cast in 1949. But Thompson was discouraged by low pay and Nashville’s musical conservatism, and not even advice from the Opry’s other Hank — Williams — dissuaded him from returning to Texas, where he realized the real money was in playing dancehalls, not honky-tonks. Embracing western swing on his terms, Thompson reinvented the Brazos Valley Boys as a tightly arranged, swing-flavored unit that gave him an instantly identifiable sound, its success actually helping to keep the swing sound alive when it was out of favor during the ’50s and ’60s. Not one bit of swing colored his biggest hit: a 1952 cover of Jimmie Heap’s ballad “The Wild Side Of Life” with its immortal line “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels,” which spawned Kitty Wells’ signature hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”. His ballad skills on tunes such as “I’ll Sign My Heart Away” were always sadly underrated.
For Hank, innovations became the norm. He was among the first stars to fly his own plane on tour. His manager, Jim Halsey, arranged for Falstaff Beer to sponsor his tours — common now, unheard of in the ’50s. Tired of subpar sound onstage, Hank built his own portable sound setup. He brought both Jean Shepard and Wanda Jackson to Capitol. His 1959 album Songs For Rounders pushed the envelope by celebrating boozing, whoring, doping, gambling and hoboing, and 1961’s Hank Thompson At the Golden Nugget made him the first country singer to record a live album.
In 1968 Hank signed with Dot Records, where he and Halsey snared a deal that gave them ownership of Hank’s masters. The Dot material, recorded in Nashville, included some respectable hits, though Thompson felt his Capitol material was superior. After his 1989 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he managed two notable albums: an under-promoted 1997 all-star effort on Curb, and the 2000 HighTone release Seven Decades, which successfully revived the zestful spirit of his Capitol years.
Thompson never considered calling a halt to performing, and his amiable stage presence never wavered, even at the final show in Waco, where a snippet of YouTube video shows him, a bit shaky, thanking the crowd “for making my life a pleasure,” a sentiment repeated in the valedictory announcing his illness and retirement.