Hank Thompson’s storied career as a country music recording artist began in 1946 and continues with his brand-new release, aptly titled Seven Decades. The record reached stores Tuesday, July 18, and as part of the launch Thompson joined country.com for a live web chat Wednesday, July 19. (Read the complete transcript).
On dozens of earlier recording projects, working with his crack band, the Brazos Valley Boys, the Country Music Hall of Fame member often pursued a particular theme or musical style. Songs for Rounders, from 1959, gathers barroom tunes such as “Cocaine Blues” and “Drunkard’s Blues,” raunchy even by today’s standards. At the Golden Nugget, recorded in 1960, was one of country music’s earliest live recordings; it documents Thompson’s role as a country music pioneer in Las Vegas showrooms.
Thompson paid tribute to personal favorites with collections devoted to the Mills Brothers and Nat “King” Cole. Other themed releases featured popular waltzes, Christmas songs, instrumentals and songs of Oklahoma. In 1997 Thompson recorded a collection of duets, Hank Thompson and Friends, on which he teamed with Vince Gill, Junior Brown, Brooks & Dunn, Lyle Lovett, George Jones, Kitty Wells and Tanya Tucker, among others.
For Seven Decades, however, Thompson departed from the practice of centering his releases around a particular subject. Granted artistic freedom by HighTone Records and working with producer Lloyd Maines, he followed his creative instincts.
“There is absolutely no theme, no direction, no anything. It’s just whatever I wanted to do,” Thompson says from his home near Fort Worth. On the phone his voice is warm, his tone inviting and friendly. “It’s a random selection of songs. No one song has an intentional relation to the other.”
The 13-track collection includes new originals such as “Condo in Hondo,” “Medicine Man” and “New Wine in Old Bottles,” as well as old favorites Thompson has not recorded before, among them Vernon Dalhart’s “The Wreck of the Old ’97,” Tex Williams’ humorous “The Night Miss Nancy Ann’s Hotel for Single Girls Burned Down,” The Kingston Trio’s “Scotch and Soda” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now.” Rodgers was a childhood hero.
Thompson’s home state of Texas seems to occupy a central place on Seven Decades. Indeed, if any thread unites the project, it might be the great influence exerted by the Lone Star State. Born and bred in Waco, Thompson first recorded in Dallas. He returned to the city to make the new record, working with fellow Texan and producer Maines, father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. One track, “Triflin’ Gal,” comes from Texas songwriter and fellow Hall of Fame member Cindy Walker. Another Texan, Al Dexter, had a major country hit with the record in 1945.
Not everyone comes from Texas. Thom Bresh plays in the thumb-picking guitar style made famous by his father, Merle Travis. Travis played on most of Thompson’s classic sides. Keyboardist Mark Jordan, who also handled orchestration, is an alumnus from Bonnie Raitt’s band. The late Gary Hogue, a Texas native living in Nashville at the time of the recording, played steel guitar.
On the first track, “Sting in This Ole Bee,” Thompson crows that he’s still got his. As if to prove it, the 74-year-old musician still plays 100 dates a year and hasn’t considered hanging up his ax anytime soon. “People only retire from things they don’t like, and then they go to doing what they always wanted to do,” Thompson says. “In my case, I got into what I want to do when I got into music.”
The veteran entertainer clearly enjoys what he does. He insists on having a good time with his music, and he encouraged the musicians on the set to take the same attitude. “I told them, ’Now, look, this album may not sell enough copies to even pay for the studio time, but the number one thing we want to do is have fun — enjoy what we do on this thing. We’re not trying to impress anybody but ourselves, so play what you feel. Let’s do this thing for us, and if it pleases us, it’s got to please a lot of other people.'”
The singer has earned the artistic freedom HighTone granted him for the project. With nearly 80 country chart singles under his belt — 30 in the Top 10 — Thompson can claim longevity and a track record equaled by few others. The year 1952 brought his first No. 1 single, “The Wild Side of Life.” The country classic’s chorus includes the distinctive line, “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels.” The record spent 15 weeks on top of the charts and inspired “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” the answer song that launched the career of fellow Hall of Fame member Kitty Wells.
Thompson recorded “The Wild Side of Life” during his heyday on Capitol Records, from 1947-65. That era also spawned classics such as “A Six Pack to Go,” “Rub-A-Dub-Dub,” “The Blackboard of My Heart,” “Oklahoma Hills,” “Humpty Dumpty Heart” and “Wake Up, Irene.”
Thompson went on to score hits such as “On Tap, in the Can, or in the Bottle,” “Smoky the Bar” and “The Older the Violin, the Sweeter the Music” with Dot in the late ’60s and ’70s. He also had brief associations with Warner Bros., ABC and MCA.
Before recording his 1997 collection of duets with country stars, Thompson had not released a new album since 1988’s Here’s to Country Music, issued by Step One Records, a small, Nashville-based independent. His decade-long hiatus coincided with the unprecedented country music boom set in motion by younger acts such as Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson.
“No label wanted people like me,” Thompson states frankly. “There was no place for me. I would have been delighted to make records during that time, but I couldn’t get any label interested. They weren’t interested in a Hank Thompson.”
Maines suggested Thompson try tradition-friendly HighTone. The Oakland-based indie’s roster includes Buddy Miller, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Big Sandy. Company officials jumped at the chance to work with the Hall of Famer, and Thompson hasn’t had so much creative control — and fun — since the ’60s, when he was with Capitol.
“I pretty much called all the shots in those days,” he recalls.” I did things exactly the way I wanted to. I had free rein. I think that’s why I was so successful there. Nobody was trying to tell me the way I ought to do it. That’s not to say I am not open to suggestions. I have always gotten ideas from musicians. Merle Travis, in particular, was very good about coming up with ideas.
“But it was our ideas, it wasn’t the ideas of some young program director. I was influenced by a lot of that when I was with Dot and MCA, and somewhat on the [duets album]. There were a number of things on there I didn’t particularly care for.
“With this new one, we weren’t trying to conform to anything,” Thompson reiterates. “We just did it the way we thought it ought to be done.”
The ole bee still has plenty of sting left, and a great passion for his art.