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Culture

Hank Thompson R.I.P.

It's time to remember bandleader and country legend Hank Thompson, who died November 6 at age 82

Just a short time after the death of Porter Wagoner, country music has suffered the loss of another pioneer and legend, the great country songwriter, western-swing bandleader, and Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson. He died of lung cancer November 6 at his home in Forth Worth, Texas, at age 82.

Many country fans today don't know Thompson's music the way they do those of Hank Williams or Bob Wills, but Thompson and his band the Brazos Valley Boys were huge in their heyday, consistent hitmakers from the late '40s ("Whoa Sailor") through the '70s. The song that pushed Thompson over the top was "The Wild Side of Life," which spent 15 weeks at No. 1 in 1952, but he had many others, too, including "Six Pack to Go," "Humpty Dumpty Heart," "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love," and "Where is the Circus." On these and more he showed an innate ability to mix down-and-out themes with a humorous, good-natured attitude, doing so with genuine feeling--these weren't just one-shot novelties, they were true honky-tonk songs. On top of that, the melodies were immediately catchy and the rhythms big, lively, and built for dancing. His music was western swing in the big-band style of Wills and Milton Brown, but filtered through the honky-tonk of stars like Williams and Ernest Tubb (Thompson dubbed his music "honky-tonk swing"); then freshened up for listeners and dance fans not only in western swing's home turf (Texas, Oklahoma, and California) but all over the U.S.

Another key point in his career was his insistence on better sound quality while touring. During his stint in the Navy and at college (he studied at Princeton, among other places) he trained as an electrical engineer. So when he began facing what he called "pathetically inadequate" electrical and sound systems in clubs and dance halls, he devised a portable system to give his shows better sound and light quality than fans had seen before.

There are some great Thompson collections out there I'd recommend for sure. Vintage is a good (and currently dirt-cheap on Amazon) collection of his early Capitol classics, while The Best of Hank Thompson focuses on his later material for Warner Brothers and Dot, which is equally strong.