Hank Thompson – Hank Still Does It That Way
Throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s and ’70s, Hank Thompson & the Brazos Valley Boys were one of America’s most popular country dance bands. Ironically, this was a time when the popularity of many western swing bands (Wills’ included) was tapering off. Thompson, though, was willing to take his music anywhere he had fans, and this contributed to his success. Not only did he play regularly throughout the West, he toured all over the country — from the Trianon Ballroom in Oklahoma City, where he set up residency in 1951, to dance halls in New Jersey, Minnesota, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. — and around the globe. Since he was never a regular on the Opry or any other barndance program, this extensive touring helped Thompson gain his solid international following — one that still holds up today, as he continues to play some 100 dates a year.
Thompson was born in Waco, Texas, and first performed as a teenager on a local station as Hank the Hired Hand. A stint in the Navy during WWII helped him hone his skills both as a writer and entertainer (“I made a point to write songs so I’d have some new things to do for the guys”). When he returned, he studied at Princeton (certainly one of the few well-known country singers, if not the only one, to have done so), Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas at Austin, and eventually wound up playing again on another Waco radio station. He soon picked up a band for some live gigs; they recorded a few songs for two local labels, Globe and Blue Bonnet. When Capitol got wind of Thompson’s songs (via Tex Ritter), they signed him.
During his heyday on Capitol (19471965), Thompson’s hits included “Humpty Dumpty Heart”, “Whoa Sailor”, “Swing Wide Your Gate Of Love”, “The Wild Side Of Life”, “Six Pack To Go”, and the Jack and Woody Guthrie song “Oklahoma Hills”. While Thompson had enjoyed a respectable string of hits in the late 1940s, it was his 1952 recording of “The Wild Side Of Life” that really boosted his career.
Written by William Warren and Arlie Carter, the song had been wildly popular on jukeboxes back in Texas with a version by Jimmy Heath & the Melody Masters. Thompson’s wife at the time, Dorothy, suggested he record it. Thompson was initially against the idea — as was his producer, Ken Nelson — mostly because the melody was the same as two other popular songs, “The Great Speckled Bird” and “I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes”. Still, since it had been so popular in Texas, they tried it as a B-side. It soon shot to Number One and stayed there for 15 weeks.
On top of that, the song soon became a legend, because before the year was out, Kitty Wells had recorded an answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” — which became the first single by a female artist to sell over a million copies. The impact of Wells’ song, in fact, was so big that record companies began paying much more serious attention to women artists (among them Wanda Jackson, whose career Thompson personally helped get off the ground).
After his Capitol tenure, Thompson moved to Warner Bros. for a couple years (where he recorded the crafty and all-too-often overlooked album Where Is The Circus) before jumping labels again — this time to Dot, where he stayed for 12 years. His hits during the 1960s and ’70s included “Mark Of A Heel”, “He’s Got A Way With Women” (“and he just got away with mine”), “The Older The Violin, The Sweeter The Music”, “Smoky The Bar” (a song about crying in a barroom that’s also a pun on Smoky the Bear), and “On Tap, In The Can, Or In The Bottle”. Many of these show Thompson and his producers experimenting with the Nashville Sound, but the songs themselves are frequently as strong as his 1950s Capitol classics. (The CD collection The Best Of Hank Thompson, 1966-1979 covers much of this ground.)
The idea for Hank Thompson And Friends, Thompson’s first new album since 1987 (when he was briefly on the Nashville label Step One), was born some ten years ago, says Thompson, from a suggestion by Mike Curb. But they continually got bogged down in red tape — getting people interested in producing and financing the project, and dealing with the labels and representatives of the various artists they’d hoped to use.
“Nothing was easy,” says Thompson. All the artists were eager to participate (“and of course I was very appreciative of that”), but unfortunately for some, “their labels wouldn’t give them release. People like Vince Gill and George Jones can pretty much do what they want to, but some of the others we had to handle with kid gloves. We finally got it all together, but we had to pull teeth all along the way.”
The album kicks off with another of Thompson’s most popular songs, “Six Pack To Go,” which was initially released by Capitol in 1959. (The original version and 19 other Thompson classics can be found on the 1996 Capitol CD Vintage Collections.) It’s a drinking song — from a day when such subject matter wasn’t taboo on country radio (as it appears to be these days) — which, along with broken hearts and unfortunate mishaps, is one of Thompson’s favorite subjects.
Do Thompson’s songs sound like tearjerkers? They’re not, which is the beauty of his approach, and what helped him stand out during an era when honky-tonk weepers were the standard. Sporting upbeat melodies and clever lyrics that twist, turn, and roll off the tongue with ease and grace, songs such as “Six Pack To Go”, “Total Stranger” and “Whoa Sailor” are immediately good-natured and even funny.
“Country music at that time seemed like it was a music of sadness,” Thompson explains. “A lot of the old songs were about disasters — ‘Wreck Of The Old 97’, ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’, ‘The Death Of Floyd Collins’. It was great music, but I thought, let’s take things a little more light-heartedly. Sure you broke my heart and left me blue and so forth, but don’t look at it all that seriously. Love comes and goes. And that’s when I started interjecting humor into the songs. More of a subtle humor — I didn’t want to just make it an irony.”
While Thompson was clearly going for a clever and comic spin when he penned songs such as “Total Stranger”, “Where Is The Circus” and “Mark Of A Heel”, it’s to his credit as a writer that none come off as mere novelty numbers. The sentiments in each and every one of his songs are very real, and it’s this complexity that gives his work a long life beyond a few simple yucks and chuckles.
In “Where Is The Circus”, Thompson communicates the emotions of a man who feels his lover has lost respect for him (“You’re like an organ grinder/I’m your monkey on a string”) to the point that others are laughing at him (“Where is the circus?” he imagines people shouting, “Here comes the clown”) — yet at the same time, he keeps listeners smiling via witty turns of phrase and a good-natured melody.
“The lyric thing was my forte,” he says. “I really concentrated on the idea of the song. Just like the song on this [new] album, ‘You gotta sell them chickens before they die and the eggs before they hatch.’ You use all your analogies to various things to bring out the point,” but, he says, it’s a simple and catchy refrain that ultimately “keeps your attention and makes you feel good after you’ve heard it.”
Kurt Wolff lives in San Francisco and can’t swing (western or otherwise) to save his life, but he knows a good honky tonk when he sees one. He’s currently writing The Rough Guide to Country Music.