Hank Thompson plays his final tune

Published 1:48 pm Wednesday, November 14, 2007

By By Lowell McGill
A sad note at the beginning of the week was the passing of Hank Thompson, famous western singer and leader of the Brazo Valley Boys band.
Oddly I was preparing a column about Hank and other western swing musicians and their bands to run at a later date.
But, I received an email from a man in Colorado who touched on one my of my earlier columns where I compared country to western music. He asked if I would write more about this.
In that column I told about the various instruments in each of these styles of music. Hank, like Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, and Pee Wee King used the steel guitar as the lead instrument, along with twin fiddles, guitars, stand up bass fiddle, horns and piano.
Country bands commonly used guitars, mandolin, one fiddle, banjos and bass fiddle.
Country themes were usually about broken-hearted lovers, etc., while western music used themes of nature-out on the trail, so to speak.
Western music, both vocal and instrumental, always implied close harmony. This was not always the case in country music.
It is because of these two different styles that I, personally, do not think country and western music should be linked together. Of course I am speaking of early country and western music.
Today's country is in a class all by itself. However, the younger generation believes in this contemporary style. And, again, you have to remember this originated with the Elvis Presley and Beetles era.
Well, since I have no control over this I'll tell you what Thompson was quoted saying after appearing on the Grand Ole Opry years ago. Someone wrote that the Opry did not like his music because of electric instruments and his sometime use of horns. This attitude caused many great bands and singers to take their talents elsewhere-like Branson, for instance. Only few western groups remained during early days of the Opry. The Willis Brothers, "Oklahoma Hills Where I was Born," were fixtures at the Opry along with Pee Wee King, "Slow Poke," and his band. Today a comical western quartet "Riders In The Sky" offers somewhat traditional western music. But, they are identified initially with the Grand Ole Opry.
But the other great western groups were Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Foy Willing and The Sons of the Pioneers. To me, the best sounding western singing group today is the "Sons of the San Joaquin." This is a trio featuring brothers John and Jack Hannah and Joe's son Lon. Roy Rogers quoted this group prior to his death as "sounding more like the Sons of the Pioneers than the Pioneers themselves." They have won numerous western awards for their outstanding singing. If you want to hear samples of their songs type in their names on the Internet and take a listen.
Well, again it was sad to learn of Hank Thompson's death.
I played his many records on the radio back in the 50s and 60s. I have his autographed album to me sent three months ago. We had mutual friends in Gun Barrel City, Texas and a lady there sent me the album. She had shown Hank my earlier column I wrote about him and all the great western swing bands which were so popular for so many years.
Thanks goodness for the contemporary band "A Sleep At The Wheel" for keeping this great western sound alive today.
Born 82 years ago in Waco, Texas his career expanded six decades. They say he was a fan of Gene Autry in his early years. He studied electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University, according to Internet reports. His band was voted as top western swing band several years in a row.
He was still traveling to concerts up until a few weeks before his death.
I signed his Internet obituary guestbook with these remarks. "Your records were always included on my disc jockey shows back in the 50s when I was working my way through college at our local radio station. Your great band fit the same mold as Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and Pee Wee King. Belated thanks for your autographed album I received a few months ago from mutual friends in Gun Barrel City Texas, You were the last of the western swing bands. You were the last of the 'Great Ones.'"
Lowell McGill is a historical columnist for The Atmore Advance. He can be reached at exam@frontiernet.net

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