Hank Garland

Guitarist stopped short by a car crash
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Walter Louis Garland, guitarist: born Cowpens, South Carolina 11 November 1930; married; died Orange Park, Florida 27 December 2004.

Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland was an iconic guitarist of sadly unfulfilled promise. He played on literally hundreds of country records in the 1950s and was one of the first Nashville musicians successfully to explore jazz stylings, but a devastating road accident in 1961 cut short his performing career and he spent the rest of his life struggling to regain his virtuosity.

He acquired the sobriquet "Sugarfoot" courtesy of "Sugarfoot Rag", a self-penned number, based on the old fiddle tune "Pretty Little Widow". Originally cut as an instrumental in 1949, it enjoyed only limited success. Later that year, however, a vocal version by the country star Red Foley that featured Garland's fluid guitar licks topped both the country and pop charts and sold over a million copies. It gave him his nickname and heralded the arrival of a consummate session guitarist.

As one of Music City's "A-Team" of studio musicians he played a pivotal role in shaping the popular "Nashville Sound" that saw country music evolve into something palatable to listeners beyond its core audience in the rural South. The acts who benefited from his inventive and dynamic playing included Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline, Patti Page, Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins and Conway Twitty, and he can be heard on scores of classic tracks.

He was born Walter Garland in Cowpens, a suburb of the South Carolina town of Spartanburg, in 1930. As a child he listened to the music of the now legendary Carter Family and was drawn to the innovative guitar playing of Mother Maybelle Carter. Whilst still in his early teens he joined a local band fronted by Shorty Painter and came to the attention of the country star Paul Howard.

Howard invited him to Nashville and, in 1945, he made his début on the Grand Ole Opry as a member of Howard's band, the Arkansas Cotton Pickers. Unfortunately, as a 15-year-old, Garland was working in breach of Tennessee labour laws and had to wait until his 16th birthday before he was able to pursue a full-time career. He remained with Howard for several months before joining the band of Cowboy Copas and then, from 1949, concentrated on the session work for which he is famous.

He developed a close friendship with Billy Byrd, guitarist with Ernest Tubb, and together, in 1955, they devised a short-scale neck instrument for Gibson that was known as the "Byrdland". Toward the end of the decade his enthusiasm for jazz, and for the work of the great gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt in particular, led to a series of projects in that field. Together with a number of friends he was invited to perform at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, but rioting led to the cancellation of the show. An impromptu jam session from that time was later issued as After the Riot at Newport (1989).

In 1961 he released Jazz Winds from a New Direction, an album that his fellow guitarist George Benson would later cite as a personal favourite, but it proved something of a swan-song. In September that year Garland was involved in a major car crash that left him in a coma. He attempted, in the years that followed, to regain some of his fluency, but he had lost much of his co-ordination and, although he appeared on an Opry show in 1975 and successfully played "Sugarfoot Rag", he effectively retired.

Brad Paisley, one of today's hottest country talents and himself a fine guitarist, is in no doubt that Garland's accident deprived the music industry of something special:

I can't even imagine what he would have become had he not been in that accident. You're talking about 40 years of lost innovation that could have come only from him.

Paul Wadey