Hank Thompson famously sang of "The Wild Side of Life" but on his records, he never seemed like much of a hell-raiser (although he certainly was a beer-drinker, but more on that later). Hank had a deep warmth to his voice and a jovial gait to his delivery that made nearly everything he sang seem friendly, yet he could still pull some tears out of the barroom ballads that he often sang. That friendliness helped engender a large, loyal following that kept him in the charts for over two decades, spanning from the late '40s to the early '70s â€“ and he was a concert draw long beyond that, as he was singing regularly right up to his death from lung cancer on November 6, 2007 at the age of 82 (his last public appearance was almost exactly a month ago on October 8). Such longevity is a sure sign of Thompson's status as a country music giant, which he undoubtedly was, ruling the country charts as one of the biggest stars of the '50s with the support of his Brazos Valley Boys. Plenty of great musicians played with the Brazos Valley Boys â€“ most notably legendary finger-picker Merle Travis â€“ and with that big group, Thompson blended Bob Wills western swing and Ernest Tubb honky tonk, helping to create the foundation of modern country with his '50s sides.
By the early '60s, Hank Thompson's subtle innovations had been absorbed by many country singers â€“ not just his pure country sound of swinging honky tonk, but how he crafted concept albums (most famously his gambling LP Songs for Rounders, but he also released collections of western songs before that) and how he pioneered live country albums with the 1961 record At the Golden Nugget, which was a great showcase for Merle Travis as well. The fact that Thompson flourished on live albums is a testament not just to how good of a group he always had in His Brazos Valley Boys, but how sharp he was as a bandleader. He was at his core a crowd-pleaser, creating good-time country dance music, and he knew how to get there by emphasizing the western over the swing during his '50s peak, which made him different than the looser, jazzier music of Bob Wills. Even if there wasn't as much jazz in the Brazos Valley Boys, that doesn't mean they couldn't tear it up and that prowess is evident even on the concise hit singles, currently easiest to obtain on the 1996 comp Vintage for proof (or dive into Bear Family's exhaustive '96 12-disc box, chronicling all his Capitol work from 1947 to 1964, if you want to lose a month of your life to his greatness).
When Thompson parted ways with Capitol, he spent a couple of years at Warner before settling at Dot in 1966, a period chronicled in Varese's 1996 collection The Best of Hank Thompson 1966-1979 (as it turns out, 1996 produced a bumper crop of Thompson reissues). On these post-Capitol records Hank played relatively straighter honky tonk, singing songs of six packs and indulging in his fine sense of corny, punny humor ("Smoky the Bar," "He's Got a Way with Women" with the terrific punchline of "he just got away with mine"). Thompson's music had gotten a bit mellower at this point â€“ these '60s and '70s recordings aren't as driving as the Capitol cuts, but as he sang on his 1974 top ten single, "The Older the Violin, The Sweeter the Music." This lived-in, laid-back feel was a perfect match for Hank's rich, inviting drawl; it made it seem like he was leaning across the bar and singing right to you. That sound never lost its appeal, which is why he could keep performing into this year, why his records still sound great, and why he'll be sorely missed.