Obituary: Hank Snow

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The Independent Culture
HANK SNOW, "The Singing Ranger", was the most revered and successful of Canadian country musicians.

The possessor of a distinctive nasal voice and a superb guitarist, he spent an unprecedented 45 years signed to RCA Victor; an artist-record label association unlikely to be matched. During that time he cut over 2,000 sides, some 80 albums and enjoyed 43 Top Ten country hits. His biggest hit, "I'm Movin' On", topped those charts in 1950 remaining at Number One for a record 21 weeks; its driving sound and Joe Talbot's locomotive-imitating steel guitar proving an important influence on many rockabilly acts including the young Elvis Presley.

Clarence Eugene Snow was born at Brooklyn, a small hamlet near Liverpool, Nova Scotia, in 1914. A violent stepfather led him to run away from home at the age of 12 and, after a brief spell selling newspapers and brushes, he found work as a cabin boy on a fishing schooner. His sometimes bitter memories of his childhood would later lead him to set up the Hank Snow Child Abuse Foundation; an organisation he later cited as his finest achievement.

Exposure to the records of pioneering hillbilly stars such as Vernon Dalhart and Jimmie Rodgers led him to take up the guitar and by 1934 he was performing variously as "Clarence Snow and his Guitar" and "The Cowboy Blue Yodeller" on Halifax radio station CHNS.

In 1936 and now known as Hank Snow, he signed with RCA Victor and made his recording debut in Montreal in October of that year with two numbers very much in the Rodgers style: "Lonesome Blue Yodel" and "The Prisoned Cowboy". Snow was to return to the music of his hero many times over the years, cutting at least two tribute albums and in the mid-Fifties joining his band, the Rainbow Ranch Boys, and the guitarist Chet Atkins in overdubbing a fluid sympathetic backing to a number of Rodgers's classic records. Their version of "In the Jailhouse Now No 2" even made it into the country Top Ten.

Although able to build a successful career in Canada, success south of the border continued to elude Snow; appearances in the mid Forties on radio's famous WWVA Wheeling Jamboree and in Hollywood with his horse Shawnee failing to make much of an impact. In 1949, however, following regional success in Texas with "Brand on My Heart", his version of the Jenny Lou Carson-penned "Marriage Vow" broke into the country Top Ten, unleashing a near deluge of hits over the next quarter-century.

"I'm Movin' On" spent 44 weeks on the charts in all and the song later gained wider exposure courtesy of cover versions by both Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones. He followed it with another "train song", "The Golden Rocket" (1950), and then the Latin-flavoured "Rhumba Boogie" (1951). Subsequent Top Ten hits included the oft-covered "(Now and Then, There's) A Fool Such as I" (1952), Sheb Wooley's "When Mexico Joe Met Jole Blon" (1953), "I Don't Hurt Anymore" and "Let Me Go, Lover!" (both 1954) and "The Last Ride" (1959). In 1960 his fine version of Don Robertson's revenge song "Miller's Cave" hit the Top Ten, whilst "Beggar to a King" (1961), an uncharacteristically intense ballad from the pen of J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper, followed suit a year later.

Nineteen sixty-two saw the release of another signature hit, "I've Been Everywhere", with its potentially tongue-tripping name-check of over 90 locations. Written by the Australian Geoff Mack, its rollcall of outback mining towns had to be customised for US audiences. "Hello Love" (1974), his final chart-topper, later gained wide exposure across the United States when Garrison Keillor used it as the theme for his popular The Prairie Home Companion radio show.

Snow's albums encompassed a variety of styles and subject matter from instrumentals (Country Guitar, 1957) and train songs (Railroad Man, 1963) to inspirational numbers (Sacred Songs, 1958) and artist tributes (Heartbreak Trail, 1965, a salute to the western harmony group the Sons of the Pioneers). He proved, too, an effective performer of narrations as the cuts on 1959's Old Doc Brown demonstrate and his duet work in the Fifties with Anita Carter is highly prized by both fans and critics. (A later pairing with Kelly Foxton was less successful; a combination of poor material and unsympathetic handling.)

In 1981, and despite the potential prestige of the golden anniversary association that loomed five years later, RCA unceremoniously dropped Snow from its roster. It wasn't however, to be his last recording project; a fine duet album with Willie Nelson, Brand on My Heart, materialised on Columbia in 1985.

A star of Nashville's popular radio show The Grand Ole Opry for half a century and an inveterate tourer, Snow became known both for his dazzling sequinned stage attire and for a toupee which became something of a good- natured joke amongst his fans.

Like his friend the great Ernest Tubb with whom he had entertained troops in Korea, Snow played an important role in nurturing the careers of other musicians, among them Jim Reeves, whom he recommended to the Opry, Chet Atkins, with whom he recorded several albums, the honky-tonker Garry Stewart and, most notably, Elvis Presley. In 1954 Snow had formed a booking agency with Colonel Tom Parker and was responsible for Presley's ill-received appearance on the Opry. Despite this failure the pair remained on good terms, the younger man later covering several of Snow's hits including "A Fool Such As I".

In 1978 Hank Snow was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the following year was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Nineteen ninety-four saw the publication of an acclaimed autobiography, The Hank Snow Story. Of late he had cut back on his touring schedule but continued to appear on the Opry stage and alongside his evangelist son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow.

Paul Wadey

Clarence Eugene (Hank) Snow; singer and guitarist: born Brooklyn, Nova Scotia 9 May 1914; married 1935 Minnie Aalders (one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 20 December 1999.