Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Remembering Hank Thompson

Sometimes, it just happens. You pick up one of those records that realigns your view of the musical landscape, that happily sends you off exploring in a different direction.

For me, one of the records was Hillbilly Music: Thank God! Vol. 1, which was the result of letting Marshall Crenshaw loot the Capitol Records archives back in the late 1980s. So, after being immersed in punk and alternative music for most of my junior high and high school years, suddenly I was listening to Merle Travis, the Louvin Brothers, Jimmy Bryant & Speedy West and Rose Maddox.

But the real thunderbolt moment for me was the first cut, Hank Thompson playing "How Cold Hearted Can You Get." Maybe it was the virtuoso guitar work, maybe it was Hank's deep clear voice and the jauntiness of his phrasing. I don't know what it was, but at that moment, the twang hooked me and it lives in my heart still.

Last week, Thompson, the country music Hall of Famer and Fort Worth-area resident, passed away last week after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 82. Since then, I've been thinking about him a lot and trying to put my thoughts into words.

I was lucky enough to meet Hank a couple of times. I saw him play a gig at The Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas back in 1995, an almost religious experience. As he played that big ole Gibson hollow-body and sang all of his classics, I sipped on a Shiner Bock and watched dancers, old and young, scoot their boots across that old wooden floor. And I thought gawd-damn, THAT is the kind of old guy I wanna be.

I got to meet Hank after the show, say thanks and get an autograph on my Hatch Show Print poster. That poster still hangs in my man-cave to this day (it's in the photo in the upper right).

I saw Hank again a few years back, I think it was 2003. I wanted to take my wife and daughter to see him, and I laughed because we were probably the only folks under 60 there at the theater in Grapevine. He had slowed a step, but was still able to play a 45-minute set and sign autographs after the show. He autographed my daughter's program, graciously accepted our thanks for a show well played, and gave me a firm handshake and his trademark smile.

You have to admire a guy who could keep working like that at an age when most would have consigned themselves to a Barcolounger to watch reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show. Not Hank. In fact, I think we can all learn a few things from him:

Do What You Love
Growing up outside of Waco to German immigrants, Hank showed a knack for music and played on local radio before a stint in the Navy took him to the South Pacific during World War II. He studied electrical engineering briefly at Princeton after the war. It was a great opportunity, but what he really wanted to do was play music. So he returned to Waco and to the radio business, and put together a band he called the Brazos Valley Boys. They recorded their first single, "Whoa Sailor," a song inspired by his time in the Navy, for the Globe label in 1946. (See a video of "Whoa Sailor" below:

When the song became a regional hit, it caught the notice of Tex Ritter who helped Hank get a record deal with Capitol Records. From 1948 through 1980, Hank recorded 60 top 40 hits on the country charts. Yeah, electrical engineering is good job, but country music legend is a hell of a lot better. Lesson learned: You can always play it safe in life. Listen to your heart and take a few chances.

Don't Be Afraid to Try New Things
Hank enjoyed a lot of firsts in a career that spanned seven decades. His band was the first act to tour with a sound and lighting system; first to receive corporate tour sponsorship; first to record a live album "Hank Thompson, Live At The Golden Nugget In Las Vegas" released on Capitol in 1960, first country music show to play in Las Vegas, first to record in Hi-Fi stereo; and first to perform on a color broadcast of a television variety show. Lesson learned: Life changes. Change along with it.

Keep On Keeping On
This could also be called "Do what you love 'til it kills you." Hank kept performing until a few weeks before he died. Seven decades doing anything is impressive. Seven decades of doing something well -- now that's special. Lesson learned: You're going to die anyway, but there's time for that later. Live. Now.

Don't Expect People to Make a Big Deal When You're Gone
At his request, there will be no funeral for Hank Thompson. However, his fans will gather to celebrate his life at 2 p.m. today at Billy Bob's Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza. Lesson learned: If people really love you, they'll remember you anyway.

Because I can't make it, I offer these videos I found on YouTube that show the man in his prime. Take a minute to check out the greatness.

Playing "Green Light":

Playing "Wildwood Flower / Just to Ease The Pain":

Interview on the Hal Peters Show. It's kind of funny. His house is on Tenkiller Lake and my grandfather was an engineer who helped build Tenkiller Dam:

Thanks for the memories, Hank. Rest in peace.


a.k.a. sunlit doorway said...

lovely tribute--well-done.

Steve-O said...

Thanks, Tammy. I appreciate your kind words.

cowtownshortwave said...

I too came to Hank Thompson through the "Thank God For Hillbilly Music Vol 1" CD err uhh cassette tape.

One day when I was 25 and I was on the road with Johnny Reno's band, we were goofing off in Hollywood and ducked into a cool little shop on Sunset called Texas Soul. I heard a really crazy guitar solo coming out of the speakers in the shop and I inquired who it was. The owner said Tennessee Ernie Ford and the guitar playing was by Jimmy Bryant. "Hog Tied Over You was the name of the song.

I went out to find the tape and it's still one of my favs!