Hank Thompson

Western swing musician


Henry William Thompson, singer, guitarist and songwriter: born Waco, Texas 3 September 1925; twice married; died Fort Worth, Texas 6 November 2007.

Hank Thompson drew upon the musically diverse traditions of the Lone Star State to create a potent and enduring sound that sustained a 60-year career. As the leader of the Brazos Valley Boys, he released a string of hit records that fused the honky-tonk of the Texas dancehalls with the hillbilly jazz known as Western swing, and produced a body of work that has continued to influence successive generations of country musicians.

His biggest hit remains "The Wild Side of Life" (1952); its depiction of a man torn apart by a woman who prefers the good life of the bar-room to the stability of married life struck a chord with listeners and topped the country charts for 15 weeks. In addition, it provoked a feisty "answer song" by Kitty Wells, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", the first country chart-topper for a woman.

Born into a German-Czech family in Waco, Texas in 1925, Thompson's admiration for the singing cowboy Gene Autry led him to learn both the harmonica and the guitar as a child and, by 1942, he was appearing in Hank, the Hired Hand on local radio. In 1943 he joined the US Navy, where he worked as a radio operator and developed an interest in sound processes that would eventually lead him to become the first country act to travel with his own sound and lighting system. On demobilisation, in 1946, he took advantage of the GI Bill and studied electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, but the lure of music proved too great and he returned to Waco.

In 1946 he recorded his first single – "Whoa Sailor" – for the local Globe label and followed it with a number of regional hits for Blue Bonnet. These sides brought him to the attention of the singer-turned-film-star Tex Ritter who helped him to secure a contract with Capitol. His first single for his new label, "Humpty Dumpty Heart" (1947), was inspired by the nursery rhyme and led to several minor hits in a similar vein, while a re-recording of "Whoa Sailor" reached the Top Ten in 1949.

Following the success of "The Wild Side of Life", he turned to the answer song himself, releasing "Wake Up, Irene" (1953) in response to the Weavers' pop smash, "Goodnight Irene". It was at this time that his music became more obviously indebted to Western swing and his band began to record in its own right, producing a number of stunning instrumental discs. Thompson's hits from this period included "The New Green Light" (1954), "Total Stranger" (1959), and the classic "A Six Pack to Go" (1960) and, in 1961, he recorded At the Golden Nugget, the first live album within the country genre. In the same year he enjoyed hits with "Oklahoma Hills" and "Hangover Tavern" and recorded the darkly atmospheric "I Cast a Lonesome Shadow", later remembering: "It kinda reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe's poem 'The Raven'. It had a real subtle implication, and so I was attracted by the idea of the title and the song."

On leaving Capitol in 1965, he briefly recorded for Warner Brothers before signing with Dot Records and enjoying another clutch of hits including "On Tap, in the Can, or in the Bottle" (1968), "Smoky the Bar" (1969) and "The Older the Violin, the Sweeter the Music" (1974). In addition, he recorded a number of unusual concept albums including the Mills Brothers' tribute Cab Driver (1972).

Although his music fell out of favour with country radio, he recorded for independent labels such as Churchill, Step One and HighTone and, in 1989, was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1997 he cut the critically acclaimed Hank Thompson and Friends, an all-star project that saw him joined by admirers such as Vince Gill, George Jones and Lyle Lovett. As he entered his ninth decade he continued to tour, noting: "People only retire from things they don't like, and then they go to doing what they always wanted to do. In my case, I got into what I want to do when I got into music."

Paul Wadey

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