Hank Thompson Keeps On Swingin'
Some of his classic songs boast titles worthy of a Three Stooges short—"Smoky the Bar," "Mutiny On the Monotony," "Time Wounds All Heels"-but the slapstick ends there. The tales Hank Thompson has spun since cutting his first record in 1946 are full of witty wordplay, memorable settings, infectious joie de vivre, and down-home philosophizing about life its ownself; the music powering all this is an irresistible blend of full-throttle honky tonk and rousing western swing as definitively Hank Thompson's as Bob Wills's was Bob Wills's. In a career marked by staggering achievement, the 75-year-old Waco, Texas, native is busy proving that time is no obstacle to new conquests. Case in point: his new Hightone album, Seven Decades. Suffice it to say that the original songs live up to the artist's high standard, starting with the lascivious opening cut, "Sting In This Ole Bee," and the cover choices are as interesting and eclectic as they are adroitly executed. If this is not his finest album, it's close. Speaking from his west Texas home on a scorching summer day in 2000, Thompson discussed the origins of Seven Decades and the style of western swing he pioneered.
What's your theory about why western swing keeps finding an audience with each new generation? What is it about it that people can't get enough of?
Hank Thompson: For one thing, it's a colorful music. You got instruments in there-you hear steel guitar, you hear fiddles, you hear mandolins, you hear pianos, some horns in there, sax, clarinet, something that gives a little flavor to it. Then it's got a beat to it; you can pat your feet to it, you can clap your hands to it, you can dance to it, you can sit there and enjoy it. It's a very broad spectrum as compared to the limited sounds of the music you hear today on Top 40. There's no substance to that. You hear a loud drum and some guitar wailing on one monotone note. There's no music to it. In western swing music, we do some good songs. There's a lot of traditional stuff in there that people never get tired of. I've been doing some stuff for years, and people never get tired of "The Wild Side of Life," "The Green Light," "Six Pack to Go," "Back Door To My Heart." They never get tired of hearing "San Antonio Rose," "Steel Guitar Rag," all those good ol' western swing numbers. It's just good music, and good songs to go with it. I'm just glad to be one of its prominent exponents.
Indeed. And you're showing no signs of slowing down. Seven Decades is one of the best albums you've ever made.
HT: Well I think so, too. The main reason is I did exactly what I wanted and how I wanted it done. I did not have to be influenced by someone saying, "Well, in this day and age you oughta do this," or "we need to focus on this." No. Let's just go in and cut a bunch of songs, make 'em sound good and have fun. I think it shows.
You have some good, strong original material in addition to the cover songs. But you have some explaining to do about that first cut, "Sting In This Ole Bee." I heard that lyric, "I love the taste of that nectar/from a pretty little flower like you," I thought, Uh-oh, here we go.
HT: (laughs) Yeah, that was kinda reminiscent of "The Older The Violin The Sweeter The Music" that I did some years ago, and "New Wine In The Old Bottle"-I figure there's some people out there that can identify with that.
Are the original songs ones you wrote specifically for this album or things you had written some time back but hadn't had a chance to record until now?
HT: Combination of both. This was not a concept album; it was perfectly random. We weren't trying to focus on doing all love songs or all beer-drinking songs-just do anything. So a number of those songs on there I'd been doing for a long time, like "Dinner For One, Please James," "Abdul Abulbul Amir," but they didn't fit the albums I've done through the years. So this gave me an opportunity to reach back and do a bunch of old things, like "In the Jailhouse Now" and "Wreck Of the Old 97." But since I wasn't recording for awhile I hadn't had a chance to work up the new songs. I had some ideas and when we got the deal with Hightone and knew we were going to do an album, I got out the pencil and paper and started working on them. And I had people who were well able to do it, like [producer] Lloyd Maines. The whole thing came together real easy. We cut the album in three days.
The best albums seem to follow that exact blueprint—just get in and get it.
HT: Sure, just do the things. We'd had such an uphill struggle when we did that Hank Thompson And Friends album for Curb. That was a concept album, doing the duet things with different artists. We were locked into the types of things we could do so that it would fit some other artist's style. The finished product was fine, but boy, it was a struggle. A lot of time and money. Then we come to this album and just walked in and said, Here's what we want to do, so let's do it and have fun. That was it. Nothing to it!
You pay tribute on this album to one of the great artists who influenced you with a terrific version of "In the Jailhouse Now," in your style. Can you remember how you felt when you first heard Jimmie Rodgers?
HT: Well, see, I don't remember when I heard him the first time, because I always heard him. I know I was going to school by then; I was probably about five years old. I would go down to a neighbor lady's house and she'd let me play her Victrola, and I'd play her Jimmie Rodgers records. I remember that. But I'd heard Jimmie Rodgers long before that, seems like. Because everybody loved Jimmie Rodgers. If they had a Victrola, they had Jimmie Rodgers records, and they played them. It's just a part of my life, listening to Jimmie Rodgers. I don't remember when I didn't hear him.
I think what was a real influence on me-not that Jimmie Rodgers wasn't an influence-but a few years later, when Gene Autry started in the movies and I went to see him. He sang exactly like Jimmie Rodgers. You'd close your eyes and you couldn't tell the difference between Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry back then. Gene did the same little yodels and guitar runs. So when I saw Gene Autry-I never did see Jimmie Rodgers-he made a movie short, but I didn't see that until after I was grown-but when I saw Gene Autry and he sounded like Jimmie Rodgers and he was picking that guitar and singing those songs, I thought, Well, my gosh, I believe if I had a guitar I could do that just like Gene Autry, just like Jimmie Rodgers. So my folks got me one for Christmas. I must have been about ten years old. I think Gene Autry started in the movies about 1934, so I was nine. I'd learn and try to sing those songs. I knew a bunch of Jimmie Rodgers songs, and I'd go around singing them when I was a youngster. So yes, I can say "In The Jailhouse Now" was a tribute to him. "The Wreck Of the Old 97" was by Vernon Dalhart, who preceded Jimmie Rodgers. But Vernon Dalhart was never a personality like Jimmie Rodgers was.
He came from a different field. He was a light opera singer.
HT: Yes, he sang some light opera and he had that big round voice. It was the nature of country music that there was a story to be told, like "The Wreck Of the Old 97," or "I'll Sleep In Your Barn Tonight, Mister," "Little Rosewood Casket," all those things Vernon Dalhart did. These things all told stories and most of them were sad stories, they were tragic stories. So the diction had to be impeccable; you had to be able to understand every word he said. Having done light opera, where pronunciation is extremely important, he was capable of doing these songs, even though he did not have a country-sounding voice or a styling that distinguished him as an individual. You remembered the songs. But with Jimmie Rodgers, you remembered the individual, singing that Blue Yodel; you can just hear his styling and he had such personal charm. That was the big difference for me-I sang some Vernon Dalhart songs, but it was Jimmie Rodgers' styling that really influenced me.
The sound you developed blended a harder-edged approach with classic western swing. And it became as distinctive a sound as anybody around had at that time, it laid the foundation for the Bakersfield sound that Buck Owens and Merle Haggard popularized, and it's the sound we hear today on Seven Decades. Was there any model for your approach?
HT: I came up in an era quite unlike today's climate. It was almost a necessity that you were different, that you had a style. Of course nowadays nobody's got a style; they all sound the same. They don't want anybody to have a style. But back then you had to be yourself; you wouldn't get anywhere trying to play and sing like somebody else. So I wasn't trying to copy anybody. My voice was in the same range as Ernest Tubb's and I was a big fan of his. I had to really work at not sounding like Ernest. I was inadvertently singing like he did, and realized what I was doing and conscientiously worked at changing my style so I didn't do things the way Ernest did them. In the same way, I wanted western swing music as a background, but I didn't want to sound like Bob Wills. So I had to work at not using that same type of thing that Bob Wills did; but at the same time I wanted that good swing sound with the good rhythm, twin fiddles, the steel, the piano. Boy, that was a big hurdle to overcome, because all the musicians I was getting had all been brought up on Bob Wills music. There was a period there when I had to tell the band, "Look, don't play any Bob Wills songs except 'Steel Guitar Rag' and 'San Antonio Rose.' There's already a Bob Wills, and we're not trying to be a Bob Wills band. We're gonna develop different endings, different intros, different voicings on the instruments, different styling on the instruments; we're not gonna all play at once like they do in Bob's band, we're gonna have the fills alternated, the steel comes in, the fiddles come in." As we went along I'd tell them, "Now you've learned that, think of something else; come up with something, but not something you've heard before." Actually, I wanted it to be a little more country than Bob Wills and Spade Cooley. I wanted that good sound like they had, but I wanted it to be country. I wanted country songs and my voice to be up front and the band to be in the background, and not vice versa. In the orchestras of that time, the orchestra leader was the focal point. The orchestra was the main thing, the vocalist was virtually another instrument in the band, like Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman. They all were just singers in the band. I changed that. I put it up there, I am the singer, this band is a background to me; I'm not in the background and a part of it. It is a part of me. So I switched roles, and that then became the trend in the business.
There's a song on the album that's indicative of how broadly musicians of your generation listened to music that was around them, and that's "Dinner for One, Please James." Nat King Cole recorded that song. Did you listen a lot to Nat and Sinatra, and that generation of pop vocalists?
HT: Yes, I did. I was a big fan of Nat King Cole, and Sinatra. But my favorite was the Mills Brothers; in fact I did a whole album of their songs. I had quite good success with their music. I did one of their ballad songs, "Gloria," that was a big record for me in the '50s; "Cab Driver," back in the '70s; "Paper Doll"; I had a charted record on "Glow Worm." "You Always Hurt the One You Love." I did quite a few of those things. I used to do "The Gypsy" all the time—Perry Como and the Ink Spots had hits with that too.
Another of your original songs features a new wrinkle in your sound. "Condo in Hondo" has a Tejano strain. Obviously you grew up around that kind of music, but it's the first time you've done it on record.
HT: Well, I had the idea for that song from playing in Hondo. I was driving down there and looked off the side of the road and there was a condo. I said, "Well, there's a condo in Hondo." We all got tickled about that, and I said, "I'm gonna write a song about that." That was several years ago. So every once in awhile I'd give some thought to it, but I never could get started on it. Then one time I was in Mexico on vacation, and I figured it should have that Tejano feel, and also I was hearing mariachi bands all day, and said, That's the kind of feel I want for this thing. Then I got to thinking, Why would anybody want a condo down in Hondo? I thought it might be that some ol' cowboy working this range gets a little disenchanted with the cowboy life, and thinks he'd rather go lay around the patio and the swimming pool, drink margaritas and eat barbecue. So I wrote it with that idea in mind, the disgruntled cowboy who gets him a condo down in Hondo. That's west of San Antone, so you have the Mexican influence, and we designed it around that feel.
Could you clarify a story I've heard over the years? Ernest Tubb got you on the Grand Ole Opry, but after you saw your first paycheck you decided it wasn't worth it. Then you got some grief from Hank Williams for walking away from the show. Is that how it happened?
HT: Well, actually what happened was I came to Nashville and was up there doing "The Smokey Mountain Hayride" on Saturday on the Mutual network. After the show's contract wasn't renewed, I went over to KLAC, doing a morning broadcast. Ernest was always so nice to me. I always went down to his record shop, and we'd talk about what was going on. He strongly advised that I needed to be on the Grand Ole Opry. He said, "You need to stay here for several years and really get yourself entrenched in the business. Then you'd be able to go out and do whatever you want to do. And the Grand Ole Opy is where it's happening." At that time that was very true.
So Ernest took me to see Jim Denny, who was the head of the Opry, and told Jim he should put me on. So he did, and I got a slot on a Saturday night. I got over there and got to thinking, Boy, this isn't my bag. I like the Opry, I respect it, it's a great show, I've got a lot of friends here. But I cannot develop the kind of music I want to play. They didn't allow any drums or horns or electric instruments. Also, there weren't the musicians there that could play what I wanted to play. I had already made up my mind to go back to Texas. I knew I could get work down there, make some money, but also I could develop and play the kind of music I wanted to play. I wanted a dance band, a swing band, I didn't want acoustic instruments and bluegrass things like they were doing at the Opry. I liked all that, I just didn't want to do it myself.
So I went up Monday morning to pick up my check. I had already packed up, my wife and I, heading to Alabama to work a date and then go on back to Texas. They gave me the check, and after they'd taken a little withholding or something out of it, it came to less than ten dollars. Nine dollars and eighty cents, or something like that. I took the check, and as I was going out to the parking lot to leave town, I ran into Hank Williams. Hank had already got the word, and he said, "Hey! What's this I hear that Ernest got you on the Opry and now you're leavin'! We grew up hoping we could do this, and now you're leavin' it?! I don't believe that!"
I said, "Hank, I know I'm gonna be asked this a lot of times. What I'm gonna do is take this check, frame it and hang it up on the wall with a sign that says 'The Reason I Left The Grand Ole Opry.'" We laughed about it. That wasn't the reason I left, but it was a good joke. The irony of it was that I had to cash the check to buy gas to get out of town. Came in handy anyhow.
How often do you tour these days?
HT: I do about a hundred dates a year. Recently I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a film festival. I signed a lot of autographs and we sold a lot of our product there. I did a little performance that evening for the dinner, and they presented me with the Ernest Tubb Achievement Award. Then we're playing at an Indian reservation casino in Iowa. We work quite a few of those things in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan. Then we'll be going to Norway and Sweden in late July for a couple of festivals over there. We work some of the old Texas dance halls—down in Bandera we work the old Cabaret Club that I've been playing ever since I've been in the business. I do all kinds of things. I'm very fortunate. I enjoy doing this as much now as I did when I started. Getting paid for it is a bonus.
(Ed. Note: this interview was conducted by David McGee and originally published at barnesandnoble.com in the summer of 2000)