Hank Thompson is back – December 1997
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Hank Thompson is back  Print

By Jon Johnson, December 1997

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"He and I hunted together up in Alaska; had a lot of laughs at the cabins where we were staying. I had a lot of fun with Merle. He was real good helping out with ideas for the arrangements on the record sessions."

Thompson, elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, is more fortunate than many other country artists of his generation inasmuch as his catalog is comparatively well-represented by reissues on Capitol, MCA, Varese, Curb, Bear Family and other labels.

Particularly noteworthy is Capitol's 1995 reissue of "At the Golden Nugget," recorded in Las Vegas, the first live country album ever released. It's a real period piece, with the sounds of roulette wheels, telephones, chips, slot machines and drink orders being nearly as loud as the music itself.

"I think that the first live album that Capitol did was by Louis Prima (in 1957), and that's what gave us the idea. It was successful and it had energy and that projected in the music. So I said, 'My gosh, Capitol knows how to do this. They can just bring that equipment down the street where we're playing, and we'll cut one at the Golden Nugget.' It hits you like you were right there. There was a phone at the bar station, which wasn't too far from the stage. And they would call to deliver drinks over to the dice table or the 21 table. They didn't call a whole lot, but it's on there."

From recording his first live album in Las Vegas to quitting the Grand Ol' Opry earlier in his career ("I couldn't have developed the sound I wanted"), Thompson has managed to avoid the star-making machinery in Nashville.

And though he's appeared on the Opry from time to time in the intervening years, he's quick to point out what he feels the biggest problems in country music are today.

"Well, of course, I think the main thing is that the music they're putting out now all sounds alike. People are tired of it. All that stuff comes out of Nashville, it comes out of the same studios, same musicians, same producers, same writers, and it all just sounds the same."

How does this differ from Capitol, then, when in Thompson's day Ken Nelson produced much of the label's country output and the same musicians - including Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, Billy Strange and Cliffie Stone - backed many of the label's country acts on a regular basis?

"The thing is they weren't all done in Hollywood. They weren't all done in Nashville. Capitol recorded in New York. It recorded in Chicago. Some of my things were recorded in Dallas. Even though you had a few artists on the west coast (who used the same musicians) it wasn't every record label and every record, like it is in Nashville today."

Finally, now that the new album is on the shelves, Thompson intends to promote it for as long as he can and then turn to a new project: his autobiography.

"For the last two or three years I've been making notes. I've got a discography together that was in the Bear Family (12-CD boxed set). I've just got notes now. What I need to do is get somebody to sit down with a tape machine and start talking about things. I'd like people to enjoy it whether they're Hank Thompson fans or not; a book that's interesting and humorous. And now that this thing is off and running, maybe I can turn my attention to that."

"I think I could come up with a good book. I've been a lot of places and done a lot of things."

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