One of the greats of country music is gone. Henry William "Hank" Thompson died at the age of 82 on Tuesday night at his home in the Fort Worth suburb of Keller after a short bout with aggressive lung cancer. With 29 Top 10 Country hits from 1948 through 1975, and over sixty million records sold, he earned induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and into the Nashville Songwriters HOF in 1997.
As a youngster, Thompson won radio station WACO's talent show so often that after awhile he was banned from competing, though they kept him around, first as a guest singer and then as a weekly show host (for which position he was dubbed Hank the Hired Hand).
His first single, 1946's "Whoa Sailor," came from recent experience: he served in the Navy during World War II as a radioman (the Navy also enabled him to study electrical engineering at Princeton). After country star Tex Ritter heard Thompson, he recommended him to Capitol Records, which the following year inaugurated a fruitful two-decade relationship.
Thompson hit the top of the charts for the first time in 1952 with "The Wild Side of Life," in the process giving us the immortal line "I didn't know God made honky-tonk angels" and prompting Kitty Wells to respond with her great song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."
Thompson was a pure Honky Tonk singer, but his band, formed in 1950 after he decided that playing dancehalls would be lucrative, drew strongly on Western Swing. It was a winning combination: As Thompson sang with suave assurance and winking wit, the Brazos Valley Boys swung hard behind him. Billboard named his backing band, long led by guitarist Billy Gray, the No.1 Country Western Band for 14 consecutive years. Thompson's Capitol recordings were further enlivened by the fact that, starting in 1953, friend and labelmate Merle Travis frequently contributed lead guitar.
Thompson's clever (but never pretentious) phrasemaking is epitomized by "(I've Got a) Humpty Dumpty Heart," one of the wryest treatments of heartbreak to ever hit the country charts (it reached #2 in 1948). Thompson also recorded many classic drinking songs (some of them originals, with the 1966 compilation A Six Pack to Go chock full of them -- and sporting a classic LP cover to boot. Often the lyrics are incredibly depressing (try the cover "Bubbles in My Beer"), but the buoyant arrangements counteract that. Similarly, the bitterness of "I Wouldn't Miss It for the World" and the resentment of "Lawdy, What a Gal" are made bearable by their upbeat music. Both are found on 1958's Dance Ranch, which mixes in some fine instrumental covers of jazz favorites, including Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball." So had the previous year's Hank!, with such favorites as "Don't Be That Way" giving trumpeter Dubert Dobson some spotlight time and with Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much" utterly charming in Thompson's rendition.
His 1961 LP At the Golden Nugget marked the first time a single country artist recorded a concert album for commercial release. With Travis again contributing lead guitar, it's a classic that includes one of the hottest and most joyous versions of "John Henry" ever recorded. For that matter, Travis's classic "Nine Pound Hammer" never sounded jazzier, complete with trumpet, and a Travis-fired rendition of "Steel Guitar Rag" that riffs as hard as the Count Basie Orchestra ever did.
As is often the case with classic country artists nowadays, his catalog is a mess, at least if you're looking for CDs, but At the Golden Nugget is not only on iTunes, it's only $7.99. And the fine 20-song Vintage Collection (which IS still on CD), with many of the hits from his peak Capitol years, is a mere $5.99 there.
Hank could also do heartbreak as well as anyone, when he felt like it, as shown by his 1961 hit -- "Cast a Lonesome Shadow," complete with strings. But after rock began dominating the charts and country producers tried to compete with the slicker Countrypolitan sound, this side of his style overpowered the rest (coinciding with his departure from Capitol) and Thompson lost his swinging distinctiveness, at least on record, though many of the songs are still worth hearing.
Eventually his old style came back into style. The swing revival was tailor-made for him -- just a few years ago I had the pleasure of being part of a packed plaza outside Lincoln Center in New York City as he and the Brazos Valley Boys entertained swing dancers, and while many in the band sported white hair under their cowboy hats, they were still plenty hot. In 2000 he made an excellent comeback album of new material for the Hightone label, Seven Decades. Fittingly, his final performance came in his hometown of Waco this past October 8, proclaimed Hank Thompson Day by the Texas governor and the Waco mayor. Thompson had been scheduled to go on tour soon.
Hank's wife Ann requests that, "in lieu of flowers, a donation in Hank's name be made to The Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, 1701 Bridge St., Brady, TX 76825, or to your favorite charity." A "celebration of Hank's life" will be held on November 14 starting at 2:00 PM at Billy Bob's Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth, Texas. - Steve Holtje
Purchase Hank's music thru Amazon Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who last year recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.