Hank Thompson – Hank Still Does It That Way
The check for nine dollars and sixty cents was the last straw. The year was 1949, and up-and-coming country singer, songwriter, and bandleader Hank Thompson was standing on the verge of becoming one of the Grand Ole Opry’s newest stars. He’d guested on the show several times, and spent a couple months on a rival Nashville program, but his friend Ernest Tubb had finally told him, “‘You need to be on the Grand Ole Opry. You’ve had some hit records, but this’ll really season you.” When Hank got that check, though — his payment for one night’s performance — he knew the Opry was history in his book.
“That wasn’t much money for Saturday night,” Thompson confesses. Speaking by phone from Mexico, where the veteran bandleader was relaxing on vacation with his wife, his voice is warm, his tone inviting and friendly. A consummate professional, he knows quite well how to make people (even journalists) feel right at home. And he also isn’t afraid to tell it like it is — and like it was.
As for leaving the Opry, such a move was daring, to say the least. “At that time the Opry was a very big show,” says Thompson. “That was before TV had come in the forefront, so people really listened to radio, and the Opry was a household thing.” But slight as it was, the money wasn’t Thompson’s chief reason for hitting the road: He left Nashville because his lively, rhythmic, western swing-type approach didn’t gel with the kind of music prevalent on the Opry at the time.
“The Grand Ole Opry was strictly what they called back then ‘hillbilly music’ — the mountain music of Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Uncle Dave Macon,” he explains. “Which was great music, I was brought up listening to it, but it was not a thing that I could do.” Thompson did, however, know what he was capable of doing — and what he wanted to do. In his experience, “people wanted to get out and dance, have fun and laugh, clap their hands and stomp their feet.”
And he knew that a career playing such music was entirely possible back in Oklahoma and Texas, where he’d grown up and gotten his start. “There was a great opportunity for this, and there was much more money to be made playing a dance hall than some schoolhouse.” Plus, he says, “I liked the informality of the dances. You just got up and played your music.” So Thompson — who at the time was newly signed to the L.A.-based Capitol Records (and who was riding a string of hit singles that had started with “Humpty Dumpty Heart” in 1947) — left Nashville and didn’t look back.
Despite his brief moment of rebellion in Music City, Thompson’s overall reputation was and still is one of a sturdy, good-natured soul who wants nothing more than to give people a reason to smile and a chance to dance away their troubles. Throughout a career that’s spanned six decades (and counting), he’s achieved great success on that front with a style of music that mixes humor and humanity with lively dance rhythms and catchy country and/or western melodies.
Thompson is back in the limelight because Curb Records recently released his first album in a decade, Hank Thompson And Friends, a collection that mixes new versions of a few of his classic songs with some brand new material. Aside from being one of the freshest-sounding and most traditional country records to come out of Nashville in a while, it shows that, even at age 72, Thompson is not content to simply rest on his laurels.
Most of the songs are duets, and the list of Thompson’s partners is certainly star-studded: Vince Gill, Junior Brown, George Jones, Lyle Lovett, Brooks & Dunn, Delaney & Bonnie, Bekka Bramlett, Marty Stuart, David Ball, Kitty Wells, and Tanya Tucker. From new versions of classics such as “Six Pack To Go” (with Gill) and “Total Stranger” (with Lovett) to brand-new songs such as “Gotta’ Sell Them Chickens” (with Brown, a near-perfect pairing on one of the record’s standout tracks), this is no simple tribute album to a onetime great, it’s a firm collection of big-boned country that stands on its own merits in today’s contemporary market.
Thompson calls his brand of music “honky-tonk swing,” and it’s clearly a direct descendant of the western swing of Milton Brown and Bob Wills. While rural pickers and mountain string bands defined the music of the Opry and the Appalachian region, western swing was the style that pervaded the dance halls throughout the Southwest (notably Texas and Oklahoma) and on the West Coast (particularly in California) during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
Fronting a band, the Brazos Valley Boys, that sometimes reached 11 members (and included twin fiddles, steel guitar, drums, and often a trumpet), Thompson made his own mark on the western swing standard by adding some of the sharper edges of honky-tonk music — notably stronger fiddle and steel guitar lines, which were deliberately placed up front in the mix in order to cut through the dance-hall din.
“With people out there dancing and having a good time,” explains Thompson, “your noise level was going to be high. It’s not like in a theater where everyone’s sitting quietly and you’ve got good acoustics. In those old dance halls — you’re playing barns, armories, legion halls — often the facilities were not too good. Our music had to be strong enough so that we dominated the crowd, the crowd didn’t dominate us. So I said if we’re gonna do this thing, let’s do it right. I wanted to hear the sound of those fiddles and the sound of the steel. And I wanted it to have a good beat.”
He also wanted his band to be seen and heard clearly and properly — not an easy task in days when the sound systems in many of these makeshift dance halls were, as Thompson puts it, “pathetically inadequate” — two eight-inch speakers that would fold in together, a small amplifier, and a mike. As for stage lights? There were none, so bands frequently played in the dark.
Thompson, however, had a background in electronics, and he came up with a simple homemade traveling sound and light system that changed the face of live honky-tonk shows for good. He put together a string of preamps, power amps and theater speakers (“I made those cabinets myself out of 3/4-inch plywood”); for lighting, he attached three stage lights to a bar, which he then hung from the club’s ceiling.
“That all was well and good, except the other problem was, those places we played did not have adequate electricity to handle it. There might be one plug on the stage, and you’d plug in and blow all the fuses. So we used to have to carry long extensions and plug into another part of the building. There was even times we ran our equipment off a generator off the bus.”
The result made a huge difference, and it made people notice Hank and his band all the more. “That was my theory: No matter how good you are, if they can’t see you and hear you, you’re spinning your wheels.”
In further efforts at getting and holding peoples’ attention, Thompson dressed himself and his band in colorful Western outfits. “It was showbiz,” says Thompson, so he figured “let’s be showbiz people.” He initially bought his clothes from Turk the Western Tailor in Hollywood (“he was very expensive”) and Rodeo Ben in Philadelphia (“his things were nowhere near the styling and quality of Turk’s”), but then Tex Williams told him about a tailor outside Los Angeles who was making clothes with his wife in their garage. It turned out to be Nudie Cohen. After Williams, “I was the second [country singer] Nudie ever made outfits for,” Thompson says proudly.