Personalities | Hank Thompson | Cowboys & Playboys | Country

Hank Thompson (b. 1925) is one of the most difficult country stars to classify. His Brazos Valley Boys were for a number of years one of the most talented and revered of western-swing bands, yet Thompson was never really a western-swing performer.

He recorded a number of songs that remain honky-tonk classics, but he was never just a honky-tonk singer. Nor is he associated with a particular era, sustaining an admirable level of popularity over decades.

Nashville And Back

What is beyond question is that Thompson is a living legend. Deservedly – almost inevitably – elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1989, he was still recording in his eightieth year, releasing two albums in 2005, 59 years after his recording debut. A highly distinctive stylist, he never had a great voice, but it was unmistakable and widely copied. A consistently impressive songwriter, he was uncommonly astute, too, in his choice of non-original material, turning moderate hits like ‘The Wild Side Of Life’ into all-time classics.

Born in Waco, Texas, in the heart of western-swing country, Thompson grew up instead with his ear cocked towards the sounds coming out of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He admired Roy Acuff, fellow Texan Ernest Tubb, and pioneers Jimmie Rodgers, and The Carter Family. He landed his own radio show on WACO at 16, but his career was interrupted by military service in the Second World War. After the war, he returned to Texas and recorded his classics ‘Whoa Sailor’ and ‘Swing Wide Your Gate Of Love’ for the Globe label. In 1947, he recorded for another small company, Blue Bonnet, before signing with the up-and-coming Capitol label. His first release was a hit, ‘Humpty-Dumpty Heart’. One of the musicians on Thompson’s early recording sessions was steel guitarist Lefty Nason, who created several distinctive licks that became Thompson trademarks.

Thompson briefly flirted with Nashville in 1949 and Ernest Tubb helped secure him a spot on the Grand Ole Opry. But he quickly resigned and headed back to Texas. Significantly, prior to this Thompson had been a show performer, not a dancehall singer, but, as historian Rich Kienzle puts it, Thompson had ‘done the math and realized real money was in playing clubs and dance halls’.

Living Legend

Rather than appear as a single artist with local bands – as was increasingly the case with stars, who were expected to travel greater distances than in earlier years, when scenes were more regional and nationally known country stars were few – Thompson hired a young but seasoned veteran, Billy Gray, to build a road band, a versatile dance group that could satisfy club and ballroom patrons. Within months, The Brazos Valley Boys had evolved into one of the biggest and best western bands in the country, featuring at various times the cream of western-swing players of the era, including fiddlers Keith Coleman, Bob White and Curly Lewis, and steel guitarists Curley Chalker and Bobby White.

Thompson’s easing...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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