Hank Thompson, 82, a singer, guitarist and songwriter who became a prolific western swing hitmaker with upbeat music about beer drinking and broken hearts, died Tuesday at his home in Keller, Texas, near Fort Worth. He had lung cancer.
Thompson’s genial smile, virile baritone voice and crisp guitar playing – not to mention his $40,000 rhinestone-studded Nudie Cohn outfits – elevated him to the front rank of country music personalities from the late 1940s to 1970s.
He incorporated pop, hillbilly and honky-tonk elements into his music, which found millions of buyers. He specialized in anthems about carousing: “A Six Pack to Go,” “On Tap, in the Can or in the Bottle” and “Smoky the Bar.”
In a six-decade career, he had more than 100 hits, including “Whoa Sailor,” “The Wild Side of Life” and “(I’ve Got a) Humpty Dumpty Heart.” As recently as 1997, he reached the country music charts with “Gotta Sell Them Chickens,” a duet with singer-guitarist Junior Brown, one of many artists whose style Thompson inspired.
At his peak, from 1948 to 1978, Thompson had 28 top-10 hits. His backup band, the Brazos Valley Boys, was Billboard magazine’s top-ranked Western swing band from 1953 to 1965 – an unbeaten record, according to the reference guide Contemporary Musicians.
The easygoing manner of singing movie cowboy Gene Autry was a crucial influence on Thompson’s approach to a song.
Thompson endured with his fiddle- and steel-guitar sound despite changing tastes in country music, starting with the bass-driven “rebellious” sound popularized in the 1970s by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
Yet Thompson was long considered an innovator. He made the first live recording by a solo country artist, “Live at the Golden Nugget” (1961), from a Las Vegas performance. In his genre, he made some of the first theme-based, or concept, albums: “Cheyenne Frontier Days” (1962) and “Songs for Rounders” (1959); the latter was also one of country music’s first stereo albums.