Hank Thompson is back

Jon Johnson, December 1997

It's tempting to say "Hank Thompson is back!" After all, he's just released his first new album in better than a decade and is currently on the phone from his manager's office in Roanoke, Texas, sounding almost exactly as he did on his 1961 live album, "At the Golden Nugget"; a still-powerful Texas baritone on the other side of a cranky long-distance connection.

But the fact is that he never really went anywhere.

Thompson - at 72 - still plays about 120 live dates a year, and his lack of activity in the studio hasn't been because of an unwillingness to record, but simply because Thompson is in the same boat that many of his contemporaries are in: a lack of interest on the part of radio and record companies to deal with older artists.

And yet here he is, with a fine new album, "Hank Thompson and Friends" (Curb), recalling the best of his classic Capitol recordings of the '40's, '50's, and '60's.

The disc contains a warm analog sound (courtesy of producer Bill Millet), wry wit, and the brilliant guitar work of Thom Bresh, son of Thompson's late friend and frequent collaborator, Merle Travis, as well as guest vocals by the likes of Junior Brown, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and Brooks & Dunn, George Jones.

Thompson's idea to record an album of duets has been around for a long time: "Oh, about 10 years! We never could seem to get anybody interested in it. We just ran into one stumbling block after another. I'm glad (now) because I think a few years ago if we'd done this thing it wouldn't have been received as well as it is today."

It wasn't always so hard for Thompson to interest labels in his music.

The Texan has enjoyed an astonishing degree of success over the past half-century. Though known primarily for Capitol hits such as "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love," "Whoa Sailor," "A Six Pack to Go," and "The Wild Side of Life," (which of course was answered by Kitty Wells's "It Wasn't God Who Made Honkey Tonk Angels"), Thompson recorded fine music for other labels later on, including Warner Brothers and Dot, with minor hits continuing into the early '80's.

Thompson is the only country artist who's ever charted in five consecutive decades - and is now trying for six. Between 1952 and 1982, Thompson charted every year except 1962. He last charted in 1980.

Even after the hits finally dried up, Thompson continued to lead his Brazos Valley Boys through the '80's and '90's, continuing to find favor as a live act before signing with Curb earlier this year.

"The thing began to really get in motion about last September. Vince Gill was in town - in fact, he was going to emcee the CMA awards show - and he and his brother used to sing 'A Six Pack to Go' when they were kids. So, he came in and said, 'I want to do "A Six Pack to Go" with Hank.' That kind of kicked open the door. Then people knew that we were for real and that this wasn't still just an idea."

Thompson speaks in glowing terms of the artists with whom he recorded, not all of whom made the final album, unfortunately.

Record company politics being what they are, Thompson's duet with Joe Diffie - "Been Down That Road" - had to be left off of the final version of the album.

And though it's on the album, Thompson's collaboration with Brooks & Dunn, "Hooked On Honky Tonk," likely won't be released as a single due to restrictions from their label, Arista; a real shame considering that its more contemporary sound would probably stand a decent chance of success with radio.

The new album is, however, prime-cut Hank Thompson; as reminiscent of his Capitol recordings as anything he's recorded since he left the label in September 1964.

Thompson says, in fact, that this was intentional. "I wanted the thing to have the sound that we got back in the fifties and sixties. And Mike Curb (owner of Curb Records) also said, 'I'd like you to sound like the things that you did on Capitol.' And the thing to do, then, is to use those old tube amplifiers instead of the hi-tech stuff. And we found a studio where they have tube equipment (Sound Emporium in Nashville), so we got the analog and tube sound that they're not getting out of Nashville now. If you like a warm, analog sound, that's it. That's the type of sound we got at Capitol."

"Before I accepted (Curb's offer), I said that there were two people that I definitely wanted on this recording. One was Bobby Garrett on steel guitar, because he plays my style better than anybody I know of. And also Thom Bresh because he plays like Merle Travis did. Which you'd expect, since Merle was his dad. I'd worked a few shows with him in the past, but I'd never really gotten an opportunity to work with him or get that acquainted. It was really a pleasure to work with him. He was so good. We enjoyed going back to a lot of those old stories about Merle and I."

Thompson has fond memories today of Travis, who died in Oklahoma in 1983 after a long and successful career as one of country music's truly great guitarists and songwriters.

"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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com