Early in his extensive liner notes for Bear Family's eight-disc box The Pathway of My Life: 1966-1986, Scott B. Bomar quotes something Hank Thompson told his biographer, Warren Kice: "I was never happy with those records and I never thought it was my thing. Nobody wanted to do my style of music and I never was able to get the records with Dot that I did with Capitol." Presumably, Thompson held the records he made for Warner Bros., ABC, and Churchill -- the other three labels he recorded for after leaving Capitol in 1964 -- in a similar low regard and, to an extent, his mild disdain is understandable. The Capitol records he made with his Brazos Valley Boys between 1947 and 1965 -- boxed up, along with his handful of sides for Globe and Blue Bonnet, in Bear Family's 12-disc 1996 box Hank Thompson & His Brazos Valley Boys -- were indeed the singer's popular and creative peak, monumental Western swing that rivaled Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The 20 years of music collected on The Pathway of My Life sees Thompson constantly adjusting to the times, first by trimming his group, which reached 14 musicians at its peak, to a core five or six, then allowing producer Joe Allison to sweeten his Western swing with syrupy backing vocals -- a questionable idea made distasteful by the decision to have the singers mimic steel guitar lines. Allison added these sugary vocals with the intent of polishing Thompson up for the changing pop charts and it worked, with "On Tap in the Can or in the Bottle" and "Smoky the Bar" reaching the Top Ten in 1968. Beneath that gloss -- and it's possible to hear around these tacky accouterments, as the whittled-down band remains muscular and is sometimes accentuated by guitarist Merle Travis -- this music is hard Texas country and, once he parted ways with Allison and moved from Warner to ABC, the purity of his country could easily be heard. At times, he'd follow the shifting tides of fashion -- it's disarming to hear fuzz guitars on the Allison-era "But That's All Right" but natural to hear him sing "Behind Closed Doors" -- and sometimes he'd indulge in a bout of nostalgia (he recorded a nice tribute to the Mills Brothers in the early '70s, and it's fun to hear him reconnect to his big-band roots), but he generally stuck to his tried-and-true Texas country. His last Top Ten was called "The Older the Violin, the Sweeter the Music," a nod to his advancing age, and if the productions of the late '70s and early '80s do sound a little brittle and cheap, the same can't be said of Thompson himself: as this big box proves, he was a warm, robust, cheerful vocalist who made sweet music.
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