Thompson knew early on that he was going to be a musician. "I had the idea that I could sing," the Texan recalls. "I'm sure I wasn't that good but I thought I could. I listened to Jimmie Rodgers records and learned a lot of his songs. Of course, I listened to some others - the Carter Family and some of the people on the border stations."
It was film star Gene Autry who had the biggest impact on the young Thompson.
"He sang exactly like Jimmie Rodgers," says Thompson. "You could close your eyes, and you couldn't tell the difference. I never got to see Jimmie Rodgers, but I could see Gene Autry up there on that screen, and it gave me an animation. He was picking that guitar, and I said, 'By golly, I think I can do that.' But it wasn't as easy as it looked."
Thompson first enjoyed regional success in the early '40's on the radio in his hometown of Waco. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Waco in 1946 and had a local hit with "Whoa Sailor" on a small California label.
Thompson's big break came when another screen cowboy heard his recording of "Humpty Dumpty Heart." "Hal Horton had the 'Hillbilly Hit Parade' on KRLD in
Dallas," recalls Thompson. "That thing went to number one on his hit parade, as had my earlier recordings. It became so popular that it came to the attention of Tex Ritter, who was on tour down here at the time, and he mentioned it to Capitol. And sure enough they came down to Dallas, and we cut the record and started out an 18-year association with Capitol Records."
Thompson first went to Nashville in 1949. "I did a network show on Mutual called 'Smoky Mountain Hayride,' and then I did an early morning show on KLAC," says Thompson. "Then, Ernest (Tubb) got me on the Grand Ole Opry, but I could see this wasn't my bag. It wasn't the way I wanted to go in the business. At that time, I would not have been able to develop the kind of music I wanted to play in Nashville because, in the first place, there weren't the musicians to play it and, in the second place, they wouldn't allow you to have all the electric instruments and drums and all that stuff anyhow.
"So, it was just not a place for somebody like me who wanted to do the southwestern swing and honky tonk type music. The Grand Ole Opry at that time was strictly acoustic guitars, banjos and fiddles and the mountain music. Although I was a part of all this, I had a different view of how I wanted to do my music."
Disillusioned with Nashville, Thompson returned to Waco to pursue his musical vision with his own band called the Brazos Valley Boys. "Waco is in the Brazos Valley," says Thompson. "Back then it was customary to identify with your part of the country. You know, like Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It kind of came natural and easy."
The Brazos Valley Boys were highly acclaimed for their instrumental prowess, taking home several band of the year honors. In 1953, they were joined by legendary picker Merle Travis. "I was a big fan of Merle's," says Thompson. "I'd listen to his records, and I was singing a lot of his songs."
It was actually a chance meeting that brought Thompson and Travis together. "I'd gone out to record and just happened to intercept him on a motorcycle with his girlfriend. They were headed for the mountains for the weekend, and we hailed him down and got acquainted."
Prior to adding Travis, Thompson had rarely featured the guitar prominently in his music. "I never did care for just straight, standard guitar. I lean more toward fiddles and steel. But I liked his style of playing, so that Merle Travis guitar thing became associated with my music, too."
Thompson's biggest hit came in 1952 with "Wild Side Of Life," which Thompson had heard on a regional recording by Jimmy Heap. "A boy named Perk Williams was the singer on that record - a good singer," Thompson remembers. "They were out of Taylor, Texas, close to Austin. It was very popular on the juke boxes, and a lot of the radio stations were playing it."
Though Thompson was initially unimpressed with the song because the melody was borrowed from "I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes" and "Great Speckled Bird," his wife at the time, Dorothy, was intrigued by the line about "honky tonk angels" and encouraged Thompson to record it.
After rewriting the second verse and condensing the song, Thompson brought it to producer Ken Nelson, but Nelson was also bothered by the unoriginal melody. Thompson convinced Nelson to cut the song and make it the B-side of "Crying In The Deep Blue Sea."
"It took a couple of months or so before it really began to take off," recalls Thompson. "We already had another record scheduled."
When radio stations began to focus on "Wild Side Of Life" as the emphasis track the record shot to number one and stayed there for 15 weeks.