No Rocking Chair For Hank Thompson (1996)

<>Originally published in the Oct. 8, 1996 issue of Country Weekly featuring John Michael Montgomery on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety. Hank died on Nov. 6, 2007. You can learn more about Hank and his music at his official website, hankthompson.com.

With 60 million records sold in his 50-year career, you’d think country legend Hank Thompson would be content to kick back, soak in the sunsets and glide into those golden years.

Wrong. No rocking chair for this 70-year-old dynamo. In fact, Hank’s hard at work chasing his next goal—another hit on the country charts. It would be his 78th.

“We’re putting together a new album, and we hope to get into the recording studio in a month or so,” Hank said. “We’ll have both new and veteran country artists on the album.

“We’ve talked to George Jones, Tanya Tucker, Aaron Tippin, Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson, Mickey Gilley and Asleep At The Wheel. There will be a lot of duets, and songs with three or four artists performing with me.”

Hank was interviewed on his boat Whoa Sailor , after he and his wife Ann invited Country Weekly to take a spin around scenic Lake Texoma, which straddles the border between Texas and Oklahoma. His fishing and pleasure boat is named after his 1949 hit song.

In an incredibly productive career, Hank’s biggest seller was his 1952 smash “The Wild Side of Life,” which spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s country singles chart.

The new album from Hank, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, will include a few of his old honky-tonk swing standards, but most of the songs will be new. “I don’t want to do a tribute album of my old songs. I want songs on this album that will make it to radio. I want great songs that get airplay and get onto the charts.”

The reason he’s so intent on getting another charted hit: Hank believes he will become the first person in country music history to make the charts six decades in a row. “I’m hoping the new album I’m working on will put me there,” says Hank, with the same determination that once made him decide to quit the Grand Ole Opry in disgust over his measly paycheck. Hank recalled how that unique chapter in his colorful career unfolded.

“I first went to Nashville in 1949. Ernest Tubb and I became good friends. One day he told me, ‘Son, you need to be on the Opry. That’s because the Opry is the foundation of country music. If you stay on the Opry, you’ll be known.’ So Ernest got me on the Grand Ole Opry, which I’d been listening to my whole life. But after three months in Nashville, I became pretty disillusioned. I realized I could not do the kind of music I wanted to do on the Grand Ole Opry.

“They didn’t allow electric instruments, drums or horns. I’d used twin fiddles, electric steel and drums on my recordings, and I wanted to use them when I performed live. I wanted to do country music, but I wanted it to sound bigger and better than the conservative, traditional type of country music.

“So after I performed on the Opry one Saturday night, the following Monday I went to pick up my check. In the parking lot I ran into Hank Williams. Hank and I had met when we both played a big club in Houston. In fact, I was over at Hank’s house in Shreveport, La. the day Hank Jr. was born.

“In the parking lot, Hank said, ‘Ernest got you on the Opry and now you’re leaving? My God, man, the Opry is what we’ve all dreamed of! And now you’re here.’

“Then he asked me, ‘OK, why are you leaving the Opry?’ I pulled the Opry check out of my pocket. It was for $9.60. I told Hank, ‘I’m going to frame this damn check and write at the top, Why I Left The Grand Ole Opry.’

“I told him I was going to hang the framed check on my wall, and then I was going to take a photo of it. Then, every time somebody asked me why I left, I could show them the photo and say, ‘Here’s why I left—I wasn’t paid enough.’ Hank Williams broke out laughing. He really thought that was funny.

“Of course, I couldn’t frame the check,” Hank added with a chuckle. “I had to cash it immediately. I needed that $9.60 to buy gas to get back to Texas!”

Once back in his home state, Hank pushed his band, the Brazos Valley Boys, to go beyond the sounds that were popular in the early 1950s. “The music of Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb was good, but it was simpler than I wanted to play,” he explained. “I wanted more instrumentation. I loved Bob Wills’ western swing, but I wanted to blend that kind of sound with a heavier beat, twin fiddles and steel guitar. I wanted my own sound.

“So when one of the band members did something that sounded new, I’d tell them to keep doing it because it was different. What evolved was my music—honky-tonk swing.”

Under Hank’s direction, the Brazos Valley Boys became the No.1 country-western band in the United States and held that position on both the Billboard and Cash Box magazine lists 13 years in a row, from 1953-66.

It was a big step from his bizarre introduction to music. Born Sept. 3, 1925, in Waco, Texas, Hank was an only child. His father was an auto mechanic and his mother took in sewing.

“When I was 5 years old, I loved to go to the house of a neighbor, Mrs. Whitaker, and listen to her Victrola. She was a nice lady who was also a bootlegger. She’d let me play her records for hours. I was particularly fond of Jimmie Rodgers [the Father of Country Music], but she also had records by The Carter Family, Carson Robison and Vernon Dalhart.

“Periodically, the police would raid her and run her in. I remember listening to the Victrola and seeing that old police wagon, called a ‘Black Annie,’ pull up in front of her house.

“When I was about 10 years old, I saw Gene Autry in a movie for the first time, playing a guitar and singing. Gene had listened to Jimmie Rodgers a lot, so at that time he sang a lot like Jimmie.

“I’d fallen in love with Jimmie’s music in front of Mrs. Whitaker’s Victrola. I couldn’t see Jimmie sing, but I could see Gene, and I knew instantly that I wanted to sing and play a guitar, too. And I knew I could do it. “I went home and told my parents I wanted a guitar. So for Christmas, they gave me a second-hand Vernon guitar. They paid $4 for it. I learned a little guitar-picking from my dad’s brother.”

Hank got pretty good at it, because at 17, he was already performing on local radio station WACO, billed as “Hank, The Hired Hand.”

During World War II, he served in the Navy’s Pacific fleet. “I wrote ‘Whoa Sailor’ when I was in the Navy,” the still-handsome singer recalled. “One night when I was on watch, a friend came back to the ship after shore leave and told me about a girl who wouldn’t pay him any attention until he showed her he had money in his pocket so he could afford to show her a good time. When I got off watch at midnight, I picked up my guitar and wrote ‘Whoa Sailor.’ ”

Half a century later, Hank expertly guided his boat Whoa Sailor back to the marina, and his wife helped him tie it down at the dock. Ann, who’s been married to Hank for 26 years, said: “If I had to leave this earth forever, I would have no regrets. I’ve had a wonderful life with Hank. We’ve traveled all over the world and our marriage has been extremely happy.”

Hank then drove us in his Lincoln Town Car back to his home in Roanoke, Texas, about 80 miles from the lake. Along the way, he reminisced fondly about another old friend, Tex Ritter, who also helped his career. “Tex loved to talk,” Hank remembered. “It was common for us to sit up all night long nursing a bottle of whiskey and smoking a pile of cigarettes. We’d talk about everything because Tex was such an in-depth person. We saw the sun come up many a morning.

“Tex and I met when he came to perform in Waco, and he asked me to sing on his show. He had been told to keep his eyes open for country talent. Right after we met, he let the people at Capitol Records know about me.”

Capitol signed Hank and recorded a song he wrote, “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” launching a career that has included songs such as “Rub-a-Dub-Dub,” “Wake Up, Irene” and “Squaws Along the Yukon.”

Inside Hank’s spacious home, he showed off the trophies from his wildlife expeditions: Heads of black bear, caribou, bighorn sheep and other wild animals hang on the wall. Hank bagged them all on hunting expeditions all over the United States, Canada and Africa. Some were shot by Ann, who also likes to hunt.

“I hunt today because of my tradition as a boy,” he said. “Until I graduated from high school, 75 percent of the meat we had on our table at home was something my dad killed. He hunted deer, doves, ducks, geese, squirrels. After Ann and I were married, she got interested in hunting, too.”

Ann laughed. “Yeah, when we were dating the first gift he ever gave me was a 20-gauge Ithaca pump shotgun. I was thinking he would give me a gold chain or earrings.”

In a corner of Hank’s in-home office is a stack of black-and-white photos he’s collected over the years. One is a picture of a very young Elvis Presley, who once opened for Hank.

“Elvis started to autograph the photo on the front,” Hank recalled, “but the pen wouldn’t write on the glossy surface. So he signed it on the back.”

Another photo shows a 20-year-old Hank Thompson. The handwritten inscription says, “To Hank Thompson, Very Best of Luck, Hope You Get Somewhere, Kid.” It’s signed “Hank Thompson.” Hank explained that he autographed the photo to himself “in case I didn’t become successful enough to give my autograph to somebody else.”

At the end of their day, Hank and Ann sat in front of their brick fireplace watching TV, a recent installment of TNN’s Honky Tonkin’ at the Wildhorse Saloon with Aaron Tippin. Aaron’s guests on the taped segment were Mark Collie, Junior Brown, Johnny PayCheck and the master of honky-tonk swing, Hank Thompson.

The set of the show featured a big blowup of Jimmie Rodgers and another of Hank Thompson. Ann lovingly touched Hank’s hand as she turned to him and asked, “How is it being up there with your idol?”

Hank flashed a smile and replied, “Seeing my photo next to Jimmie Rodgers’ makes my heart beat fast. Isn’t this business grand?”

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