HONKY-TONK SUNSET

Standing outside Nashville's WSM, radio home of the Grand Ole Opry, Hank Thompson is feeling down. He glances at the piece of paper in his hand, a check for less than $10, and shoves it into the pocket of his pants.

It's 1948, and Hank has been in Music City three months. A new friend, Ernest Tubb, helped him get on the Opry. But the famous radio show didn't allow electric instruments, drums or horns, so Hank couldn't play the energized, crowd-pleasing, dancehall-filling honky-tonk swing he was pioneering back in his home state of Texas. And to top it all off, the Opry only paid him a measly $9.60 for his performance.

Another friend, Hank Williams, walks up. Hank Thompson tells his bud he's hanging it up in Nashville and headin' back to Texas. Hank Williams can't believe what he's hearing. "My God, man, the Opry is what we've all dreamed of," he says. "Why are you leaving?" Hank pulls the check out of his pocket.

"I told Hank Williams, 'I'm going to frame this damn check and write at the top WHY I LEFT THE GRAND OLE OPRY,' " Hank says today. "I told him I was going to hang the framed check on my wall and 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."

So did Hank Thompson - who went on to score dozens of smash songs, sell 60 million records and become known as the "King of Western Swing" - frame the check?

"Heck, no," bellows Hank, now 78, "I was just talkin' big. I had to cash it immediately. I needed the $9.60 to buy gas to get back to Texas!"

That Hank-to-Hank meeting took place over 55 years ago. Now, after an amazing career spanning seven decades, Hank Thompson is pulling the plug on hitting the road.

"I won't stop playing music," he admits. "I could never do that. It's too much a part of my life. But I just won't be on that pell-mell pace of touring on the road. I'll be selective in my gigs - but I'm still gonna have fun playing!"

Hank's been having fun playing music since the mid-1940s. He's had dozens of hits, including three No. 1s - his signature song "The Wild Side of Life," "Rub- A-Dub-Dub" and "Wake Up, Irene." His latest album is titled, appropriately enough, Seven Decades.

When Hank and his Brazos Valley Boys chose to kick off their Sunset Tour Nov. 15 in Tulsa, Okla., at the famous Cain's Ballroom, he was coming home. "Cain's is the logical place to start my final tour," notes Hank, as he walks around the historic facility. "It's a cradle of old Western swing, with Bob Wills playing here in the '30s. Bob's brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, played here for years and I played here a lot. It's a country music landmark.

"The first time I played at Cain's was 1948," he continues. Hank had just gotten married and was about to head out to Nashville to appear on the Opry. I had a hit with "Humpty Dumpty Heart." Johnnie Lee Wills broadcast live from Cain's on Thursday nights. So I stopped by and sang a couple of songs. It was a thrill."

The day after his 2003 Cain's performance, Hank was a happy man.

"I had a tremendous amount of fun last night," he declares. "I was just up there grinning from ear to ear all night long."

Ann, his wife of 33 years, smiles. "He was really having fun."

"It was a great start for the tour," adds Hank. "We'll probably run it through 2004 and wrap it up early in 2005." (Check hankthompson.net for the latest tour info.)

Hank's come a long way from the days of listening to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family on his bootlegger-neighbor's Victrola, and learning to play guitar at age 10 on a secondhand $4 Vernon guitar.

"I've had so many good things happen in my life - hit records, people liking what I do, good health and a great marriage. I'm completely happy with my life."

Did Hank ever return to the Opry after that 1948 Hank-to-Hank meeting?

"The Opry asked me back several months later - and I said yes," admits Hank. "That's because I'd had some hits by then and they put me on the network portion of the show. That paid $250. That was a lot of money back then. Motel rooms were $2 or $3 a night. Gas cost 20 cents a gallon, and you could buy a steak for $2.25.

"Getting paid that much made the Opry work for me."

-- Story by Larry Holden

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