Country-music legend was truly one of a kind


Star-Telegram staff writer

Hank Thompson was never without a smile or a swagger. He was the perfect lifelong ambassador of that happy postwar period of the late 1940s and early 1950s when his honky-tonk hits topped the country-music charts.

Thompson, 82, died last week at his home in Keller, after a battle with lung cancer. He leaves a legacy of country classics and darn-good memories for those lucky enough to have personally crossed paths with him.

Hank wasn’t one for funerals. Would you expect anything else of someone whose songs had titles like Humpty Dumpty Heart and Whoa, Sailor? So instead, his friends, fans and music-business types will be congregating at Billy Bob’s Texas this afternoon for an affectionate send-off that will be a lot more entertaining than tear-jerking.

After all, Hank leaves behind so much colorful material.

He was about to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville when I first interviewed him years ago. He answered his door wearing a yellow jacket resplendent in sequined wagon wheels, spurs and the like. A huge white cowboy hat sat atop his head and a pair of denim shorts showed off his less-than-lovely knees.

Photographer and reporter both gasped, and Hank’s rich, loud laughter boomed out onto the porch, making us hurry inside before we became the joke instead.

Interviewing Hank was talking to a legend, hearing firsthand about his signature hit The Wild Side of Life and Kitty Wells’ classic reply It Wasn’t God Who Made Honkytonk Angels. Even better was listening to albums in Hank’s living room, albums that included the first live recording by a country star (Hank Thompson: Live at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas).

He and his wife, Ann, knew how to be hospitable, how to make a question-and-answer interview seem like a neighborly visit. Hank liked game hunting, and he really loved making elk chili, doves and dumplings, and warm homemade bread to go with them. He enjoyed a glass of good wine. His back yard usually had a new grill or smoker, and he could whet your appetite just talking about the last hunk of meat he basted and barbecued.

Hank lived in the present, even with such a stellar past. He was a happy camper when many of his contemporaries were singing sad songs about bygone days. Ten years ago this week, the Star-Telegram ran a story about him releasing a new album, on a major label (Curb) and planning to chart a single from it so he could say he’d charted one for six consecutive decades.“It’s a lot easier doing it this way, than in six non-consecutive decades,” he joked.

The name of the single? You’ve Gotta Sell Them Chickens Before They Die (And the Eggs Before They Hatch).

He wasn’t afraid to be critical of the music business, and by the late 1990s, he had seen enough to give an outsider the lay of the land. Hank decried an industry that he saw becoming more narrow, more repetitive and less open to the originality he had known in his heyday.

“You couldn’t come along and do the same thing somebody else was doing,” he said. “You had to be original. I had a problem starting out, because I sounded too much like Ernest Tubb.

It didn’t take long for Hank to find his own voice, and its influence echoes still. Six Pack to Go and Oklahoma Hills have been covered by top contemporary artists such as Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett and Junior Brown.

When Hank was a curly-haired cowboy singer trying to make it after the Navy, he once penned an autograph to himself on a publicity photo. It read, “To Hank Thompson, very best of luck. Hope you get somewhere, kid!”Well, he did, and happily, Hank took thousands of other people along for the ride.This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Remembering HankA celebration of country legend Hank Thompson’s life will occur at Billy Bob’s Texas in the Fort Worth Stockyards, from 2 to 5 p.m. today. No need to bring Kleenex, you can bet this is gonna be festive. Plan to jam to some good ol’ country tunes.

Call 817-624-7117.
SHIRLEY JINKINS, 817-548-5565

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