Sunday, September 5, 2010
It's a test of a man's mettle where you place Hank Thompson on the scale of importance in the history of country music. That is, of course, assuming you know or care about the subject of country music in the first place, and have a working understanding of who Hank Thompson even is.
Many country fans are content to classify Thompson as a second-tier kinda guy in the big scheme of things twangy. One who fronted a western swing band whose eclecticism kept them from matching the heights of Bob Wills. One who managed to have a few benchmark early hits ("Wild Side of Life", "Whoa Sailor", "Humpty Dumpty Heart") and was lucky enough to still keep placing some sides on the charts well into the 1970s.
I myself see Hank T as a Class-A C&W icon, and the true ambassador of the power of positive drinking. Hank Williams may indeed have been a genius who etched out the Rosetta Stone which all subsequent country music looked to as a template, but let's face it: the man was a colossal downer, both in song and in real life. Not only was Hank T genuinely one of the nicest guys in showbiz, he was still a good-natured well-rounded optimist even in his darkest nights of the soul.
I'm reminded of a Gene Simmons interview where he was mocking Black Sabbath for being such a negative drag, words to the effect of: "KISS is not Black Sabbath, where life is pain and everything is horrible, and the seven demons of hell are coming to drag you down, life is so bad, blah blah blah.... life isn't bad, life is good." The same contrast could be made between Hanks T and W.
Mr. Williams' oeuvre, while not entirely humorless, was nevertheless all about how life sucks, love sucks, women suck, friends suck, fate sucks, and nothin's ever gonna be right anyhow. "And having said that, ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to follow that up with some pious but insincere gospel songs."
Hank Williams was, frankly, pathetic. Hank Thompson was never pathetic, even when covering some hardcore cry-in-your-beer number. Hank was happy and radiant and smiling and possessed a real and infectious joie de vivre, even as the bartender cuts him off and motions for the bouncer to gently escort him to the alley out back so he doesn't pass out and/or start peeing all over everything. And of course, the Hank who kept his attitude up-tone lived a long and successful life, while the Hank who was moanin' the blues died in a blaze of less-than-glory and left a miserable mess in his wake.
As country music's self-appointed sunny saloon singer, Hank gave us many anti-AA anthems like "On Tap, In The Can, Or In The Bottle", "Oklahoma Homebrew", "The Lord Knows I'm Drinking", "What Made Milwaukee Famous", "Hangover Tavern", and "A Broken Heart and a Glass of Beer".
And then there's "Smoky the Bar", "A Six Pack To Go", "Just to Ease the Pain", "Beer Barrel Polka", "Teach 'em How to Swim", "Drunkard's Blues", "Bubbles in my Beer", "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin", "Bartender's Polka", and the ultimate delerium tremens-as-psychedelia number, "I See Them Everywhere".
He even did a commercial endorsement for Falstaff beer.
Not all of Hank's opuses were alcoholic in nature, of course. The man knew his way around a love song, and also recorded plenty of off-the-wall head-scratchers such as "Squaws Along the Yukon", "Where is the Circus?", "Klishama Klingo" and "Rockin' in the Congo".)
Even at his darkest and doomiest - in songs like "Left My Gal in the Mountains", "I Cast a Lonesome Shadow", and May I Sleep in your Barn Tonight, Mister?", Hank seemed above the fray, as if he was simply telling cautionary tales about someone else's ruined lives, not his own. Hank also did one of the most popular versions of "Cocaine Blues", that strange old folk song perpetuating the Interzone legend of Willy Lee (who just may be the same man as William S. Burroughs' alter ego of William Lee, a.k.a. "Uranian Willy".)
(Bonus Hankitude: "Detour", "Oklahoma Hills", "Deep in the Heart of Texas", "I Wasn't Even in the Running", "Most of All", "Gotta Sell Them Chickens", "Shotgun Boogie", "Cab Driver", "Long John" and "Green Light".)
- - JSH