Clarence Eugene "Hank" Snow (May 9, 1914 - December 20, 1999) was a celebrated Canadian country music artist. In a career that spanned nearly 50 years, he recorded 140 albums and charted more than 85 singles on the Billboard country charts from 1950 until 1980. His number one hits include the self-penned songs "I'm Moving On", "The Golden Rocket" and famous versions of "I Don't Hurt Anymore", "Let Me Go, Lover!", "I've Been Everywhere", "Hello Love", as well as other top 10 hits.
Snow was an accomplished songwriter whose clear, baritone voice expressed a wide range of emotions including the joys of freedom and travel as well as the anguish of tortured love. His music was rooted in his beginnings in small town Nova Scotia where, as a frail, 80-pound youngster, he endured extreme poverty, beatings and psychological abuse as well as physically punishing labour during the economically depressed 1920s and 30s. Through it all, his musically talented mother provided the emotional support he needed to pursue his dream of becoming a famous entertainer like his idol, the country star, Jimmie Rodgers.
As a performer of traditional country music, Snow won numerous awards and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and the Music Hall of Fame. The Hank Snow Museum in Liverpool, Nova Scotia celebrates his life and work in a province where his fans still see him as an inspirational figure who triumphed over personal adversity to become one of the most influential artists in all of country music.
Hank Snow was born in the small community of Brooklyn in Queens County, Nova Scotia, Canada on May 9, 1914. He was the fifth of six children born to George Lewis Snow and Marie Alice Boutilier. The two eldest died in infancy. In his autobiography, Snow tells how his parents struggled to feed their four remaining children during hard financial times. George Snow worked for low pay as a foreman in sawmills, often far from home, while Marie helped support the family by washing clothes and scrubbing floors in better-off homes. Both parents showed musical talent. Although Snow says his father loved to sing "in an amateurish way," he describes his mother as "an accomplished singer" who played piano during silent films at the local theatre and sometimes performed in minstrel shows. She also enjoyed playing her own pump organ, but refused several offers to join travelling shows because of her dedication to the family.
Unfortunately for Snow, his parents legally separated when he was about eight and the local Overseer of the Poor decided the children should be taken from their mother because of her inability to support them financially. One sister moved in with an aunt, while the other two were sent to separate foster homes. Snow himself went to live with his paternal grandmother who ordered him never to mention his mother's name and subjected him to severe beatings as well as psychological abuse. Gradually, Snow began to sneak away to visit his mother in nearby Liverpool and eventually, after his grandmother failed in her attempt to get him sent to reform school, he was allowed to rejoin his mother.
Snow's childhood misfortunes continued, however, after his mother's remarriage to a local fisherman. He endured his stepfather's jealous tantrums, beatings and verbal abuse. "Why in the hell don't you get out and find a job somewhere?" his stepfather would rage even though Jack, as he was then known, was a frail, 12-year-old who weighed only 80 pounds. It was at this time that his mother ordered a Hawaiian steel guitar advertised in a magazine along with free lessons and several 78 rpm gramophone records. At first, she ordered him not to touch the guitar because it was one of her prized possessions. But later, when she finally allowed him to play, she marvelled "at the various sounds that I could get from the instrument." Snow adds that after he had mastered some chords and a few songs, his mother would ask him to sing and play for her. When he performed for the neighbours, word got around and "I was being invited out somewhere just about every night. So it was through Mother's mail-order guitar that I became interested in music."
Life at sea:
In 1926, as the tension continued at home, Snow decided to escape by joining a fishing schooner where he served as a "flunky" or cabin boy. The job did not pay any wages. Snow, however, was allowed to cut out cod tongues and sell them later along with any fish he caught from the deck. After one trip, he sold his tongues and fish for around $58 and feeling rich, he ordered a guitar and chord book for $5.95 from the T. Eaton mail-order catalogue. In 1927 or 1928, Snow remembers hearing radio broadcasts while at sea. The one-hour broadcasts featured recordings by such country artists as Vernon Dalhart and Carson Robison. "I still remember Dalhart singing 'The Prisoner's Song,' and 'The Wreck of the Old 97,'" Snow recalls. "These songs gave me a great lift." He adds that he tried to sing the songs exactly as the artists had, entertaining his fellow crew members by singing and dancing while accompanying himself on a mouth organ.
Snow's fishing trips went well until August 1930, when the schooner he was sailing on, got caught in ferocious winds that blew it uncontrollably toward Sable Island, known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because the crews of ships wrecked there rarely survived. Snow writes that when they were about 14 miles from the island, "the Good Lord reached out his Hand and changed the wind. Saved by the grace of God!" A day later, Snow learned that six other vessels had been lost in the gale and that 132 men had drowned. Once ashore in Canso, Snow vowed he would never return to the open sea again. "I was finished," he writes. "No more fishing trips for me."
Hard work in hard times:
Snow returned to live with his mother and abusive stepfather all the while trying to pull his weight financially by peddling fish door-to-door or landing occasional jobs that included transporting passengers and their luggage by horse-drawn buggy to and from the train station in Lunenburg; unloading salt and coal ships; raking scallops and hauling loads of dried cod into a warehouse for processing and shipping. One winter, after being reunited with his father, he cut pulpwood and firewood on his father's farm in the backwoods at Pleasantville, Nova Scotia.
As he struggled to earn money, Snow spotted a picture of a guitar for $12.95 in Eaton's catalogue. He figured he could sell his old guitar for five dollars, but wondered how he would raise the additional $7.95. The answer came when a storeowner in the village of Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia hired him to paint yellow pinstripes on the wooden spokes of his brand new car. He offered to pay Snow two dollars per wheel. After the new guitar arrived, Snow experimented by playing runs and chord progressions in the style of Jimmie Rodgers. He also sang and played in an old fishhouse where local men stored their gear. Soon, Snow was invited to perform in a minstrel show in Bridgewater to help raise money for charity. "Someone blackened my face with black polish and put white rings around my eyes and lips," Snow recalls. When his turn came in the show, he played a song called "I Went to See My Gal Last Night." "My debut was a big success," Snow writes. "I even got a standing ovation."
In March 1933, Snow wrote to Halifax radio station CHNS asking for an audition. The rejection letter he received only made him more determined and later that year he visited the station, was given an audition and hired to do a Saturday evening show that was advertised as "Clarence Snow and his Guitar." After a few months, he adopted the name "The Cowboy Blue Yodeler" in homage to his idol Jimmie Rodgers known as "America's Blue Yodeler." Since Snow's Saturday show had no sponsor, he wasn't paid for his performances, but he did manage to earn money playing halls and clubs in towns where people had heard him on the radio. He also played in Halifax theatres before the movies started and performed, for $10 a week, on a CHNS musical show sponsored by a company that manufactured a popular laxative. At the urging of the station's chief engineer and announcer, he adopted the name Hank because it went well with cowboy songs and once again, influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, he became "Hank, The Yodeling Ranger." Snow also appeared occasionally on the CBC's regional network.
On September 2, 1935, he married Minnie Blanche Aalders, a young Halifax woman who worked in a local chocolate factory. She soon became pregnant and gave birth to their only child, Jimmie Rodgers Snow.
Snow's audition with the Canadian division of RCA Victor in Montreal, Quebec on October 29, 1936 led to the release of his first record with "The Prisoned Cowboy" on one side and "Lonesome Blue Yodel" on the other. He signed with the label, staying for more than 45 years. A weekly CBC radio show brought him national recognition and, he began touring Canada until the late 1940s when American country music stations began playing his records.
Snow moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1945, and "Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger" (modified from his earlier nickname, the Yodeling Ranger), was invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry in 1950. That same year he released his hit, "I'm Moving On." The first of seven number 1 hits on the country charts, "I'm Moving On" stayed at the top for 21 weeks, setting the all-time record for most weeks at number 1.
That same year "The Golden Rocket" and "The Rhumba Boogie" both hit number one with the latter remaining No. 1 for eight weeks.
Along with these hits, his other "signature song" was "I've Been Everywhere," in which he portrayed himself as a hitchhiker bragging about all the towns he'd been through. This song was originally written and performed in Australia by Geoff Mack, and its re-write incorporated North American place names. Rattling off a well-rhymed series of city names at an auctioneer's pace has long made the song a challenge for any singer.
While performing in Renfro Valley, Snow worked with a young Hank Williams.
In the February 7th 1953 edition, Billboard Magazine reported that Snow's then seventeen-year-old son, Jimmy Rodgers Snow, had "signed with Victor" (RCA Victor Records). Billboard reported that the younger Snow would "record duets with his father", as well as cover his own (presumably ghost-written) material.
A regular at the Grand Ole Opry, in 1954 Snow persuaded the directors to allow a young Elvis Presley to appear on stage. Snow used Presley as his opening act and introduced him to Colonel Tom Parker. In August 1955, Snow and Parker formed the management team, Hank Snow Attractions. This partnership signed a management contract with Presley but before long, Snow was out and Parker had full control over the rock singer's career. Forty years after leaving Parker, Snow stated, "I have worked with several managers over the years and have had respect for them all except one. Tom Parker (he refuses to recognise the title Colonel) was the most egotistical, obnoxious human being I've ever had dealings with."
Performing in lavish and colourful sequin-studded suits, Snow had a career covering six decades during which he sold more than 80 million albums. Although he became an American naturalized citizen in 1958, he still maintained friendships in Canada and remembered his roots with the 1968 album, My Nova Scotia Home. That same year he performed at campaign stops on behalf of U.S. presidential candidate George Wallace.
Despite his lack of schooling, Snow was a gifted songwriter and in 1978 was elected to Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In Canada, he was ten times voted that country's top country music performer. In 1979, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Nova Scotia Music Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985.
His autobiography, The Hank Snow Story, was published in 1994, and later The Hank Snow Country Music Centre opened near his ancestral home in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. A victim of child abuse, he established the Hank Snow International Foundation For Prevention Of Child Abuse.
Illness and Death:
In 1996, Snow began experiencing respiratory problems which forced him to retire from performing. He died three years later at 12:30am on December 20, 1999, from heart failure at his Rainbow Ranch in Madison, Tennessee and was interred in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee. Minnie died on May 12, 2003 in Madison, Tennessee.
Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Ashley MacIsaac, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris, among others, have covered his music.
One of his last top hits, "Hello Love", was sung by Garrison Keillor to open each broadcast of his Prairie Home Companionradio show. The song became Snow's seventh and final number 1 hit on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in April 1974. At 59 years and 11 months, Snow became the oldest artist to have a top song on the chart. It was an accomplishment he held for more than 26 years, until Kenny Rogers's hit record in May 2000 (at 61 years and nine months), "Buy Me a Rose". (Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson subsequently reached the top of the chart at older ages as secondary duet partners on records fronted by other artists.)
In Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville, Henry Gibson played a self-obsessed country star loosely based on Hank Snow. He was also mentioned in the film Smokey and the Bandit. When Cletus Snow, making a collect call, gives his name, the operator's response is not heard, but Cletus replies "No, I'm not Hank Snow's brother."
Hank is referenced in the opening lines of Jimmy Buffett's 1974 song "The Wino and I Know."