JoeMc on 07/23/2009 at 04:46PM
Last Friday was "rockabilly night" in Lincoln Center's ongoing series of dance concerts called Midsummer Night's Swing, and WFMU was there with our microphones and recording machines to preserve the event. The bill featured luminaries like Joe Clay, Carl Mann, and the Collins Kids (you can tune in to Dave the Spazz on July 30th from 8 to 11 p.m. if you missed it). As I watched these great performers play the juiced-up country music that rockabilly essentially is, I couldn't help but think of an earlier Midsummer Night's Swing I attended a few years ago, one featuring the legendary country artist Hank Thompson.
Hank Thompson predated rockabilly, but there was a hard-swinging, good-time sensibility to his music that likely had a big influence on what came to be called rockabilly. Today's post is all about the honky-tonk goodness of the one and only Hank Thompson.
That Hank Thompson show, back in the summer of 2003, was a rather rare east-coast appearance by the country legend. By this time of his life, at age 78, Hank was still robust and still touring, but he mostly confined himself to playing around Texas and the southwest. So, it was a real treat that this giant of the music was signing autographs in the Lincoln Center plaza a few steps from the 1/9 train. (He was a giant in more ways than one, actually--he was well over 6 feet tall, and his Texas-size cowboy boots and twenty-gallon cowboy hat extended him into low cloud cover. Combined with his rugged-looking beard, big rings, and a massive shirt fashioned after an American flag, he cut a formidable figure, indeed!)
Hank's set that day drew from his amazing string of hits, going back to his very first ("Whoa, Sailor" from 1946) to his biggest ("The Wild Side of Life," his first #1 hit). His band, some of whom were original members of his famed group the Brazos Valley Boys (voted the #1 band by Billboard magazine every year from 1953 to 1965!), played the kind of western swing influenced music that, contrasted with Hank's laconic, honky-tonk vocals, made the sound of Hank Thompson so unique.
That sound was born in Texas, where Hank started out with a four-dollar guitar. By high school, he had his own radio feature on WACO. After serving in the Navy during World War II, honing his chops by playing songs to his shipmates in the South Pacific, he came back to a possible career as a radio engineer. When his independent release "Whoa Sailor" caught Tex Ritter's ear, though, Hank's career path took a turn. Landing a contract with Capitol Records, he had a hit with "Humpty Dumpty Heart," and after that, the hits just kept on coming.
One of the reasons this came to pass was that Hank, in addition to his other talents, was also a great songwriter. He had the peculiar ability to couch some of the most heartbroken sentiments in a light and bouncy setting. Later in his career, he would do this especially well on songs about drinking like "Smokey the Bar" and "A Six Pack to Go," but earlier on, he did it in songs like "Waiting in the Lobby of Your Heart," seemingly flippant songs that were really rather sad. Today's post is one of these. "Rub-a-Dub-Dub," like the earlier "Humpty Dumpty Heart," uses a children's nursery rhyme as its metaphor for a relationship that has gone adrift. In Hank's take, the three men in the tub are named "Faith, Hate, and Jealousy." Like that other famous Hank, Hank Thompson had a knack for vividly sketching out the aftermath of love gone sour.
"Rub-a-Dub-Dub" was a number 5 hit in 1953 on Capitol Records, Hank's long-time label, but the version presented here is a radio transcription version recorded in Oklahoma City. It's slightly less polished than the recorded version, which is good--you can hear how Bobbie White's steel guitar, for instance, is a little freer to dance around the melody. It's evidence of what a strong band they were. No wonder, really--Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys typically played more than 250 dates in a year, and they made their reputation as a live band. They were so good that their record company allowed them to put out country's music's first all-live album, Live at the Golden Nugget, in 1960.
Hank Thompson died in November of 2007 from lung cancer, never slowing down much. His last show was fittingly played in his hometown of Waco, Texas a month before, on a day declared Hank Thompson Day by the governor of Texas. Me, I'm just thankful that I got the chance to see him in person on that trip to New York. We're lucky to be living in a time when a lot of the greats are still among us and still playing out. Do yourself a favor and go see a few of 'em before they (or you) go!