Hank Thompson Carries On Country Music Tradition

At 74, legendary singer takes a historical approach on his new album, Seven Decades.

NASHVILLE — In his decades-long country-music career, Hank Thompson has seen 'em come, and he's seen 'em go.

Now, he wishes a lot of them would just go.

"What they call country music today has taken it far away from its roots," said the 74-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member. "It's become diluted. To me it's monotonous and boring, and it all sounds alike. I've just about quit listening to it."

Thompson — whose new album, Seven Decades, takes a historical approach with old and new songs — also suggested that the rock influence on contemporary country is a case of subtraction by addition. "It's not even good rock," he said. "After a couple of songs, I'll switch over to a [real] rock [radio] station. Classic rock music has some pretty good licks in it."

For all his disappointment with many modern country artists, Thompson's beginning to see positive changes in country audiences, he said. He took particular note of the country AM stations that are flourishing with a traditional sound that attracts country fans tired of the pop-oriented version of the genre.

"We just did a show up in Oklahoma, and that's what you hear, on KVOO in Tulsa and on other stations," Thompson said. "You'll hear Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins — and my records."

Boomeranging Back

FM stations in the Dallas–Fort Worth area where he lives, Thompson said, are playing a wider mix of country that includes recordings by traditional artists as well as music by younger, roots-conscious performers.

"They'll play my records again," he said. "So, there is a turnaround under way. I think, to maintain an audience, they're going to have to. They can't attract people with the music that they're putting out now."

Thompson's recently released album includes some of his favorites that span the history of country music. Seven Decades has songs ranging from "Wreck of the Old 97" (RealAudio excerpt), which was country music's first million-selling record in 1924, to the novelty song "Abdul Abulbul Amir" (RealAudio excerpt) that Thompson learned as a kid. And he wrote some latter-day country songs about life, such as "Condo in Hondo" (RealAudio excerpt), for the new LP.

"I also featured the instruments on there," he said. "A lot of newer country records, you don't hear any instrumentation — you just hear rhythm. People like to hear fiddles and steel guitar."

To produce the album, Thompson turned to a kindred spirit, Lloyd Maines — a well-known musician and producer who is an icon in alt-country circles. "His daughter [Natalie Maines], you know, is with the Dixie Chicks, and they do country stuff," said Thompson. "I've known those girls since they were just little kids. I played 'Roly Poly' with them on the Grand Ole Opry. I'm tickled to death for them. I think they're really good, and I'm glad to see them be successful."

Man Who Epitomized Honky-Tonk

Thompson, who charted his first hit in 1948, is widely credited with being the main bridge between the country genres of western swing and honky-tonk music. His 1952 hit "The Wild Side of Life" was at #1 for 15 weeks and came to epitomize honky-tonk. (It also launched Kitty Wells' career when she recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" as an answer song to "Wild Side").

Thompson's robust blend has influenced performers ranging from Dwight Yoakam to Asleep at the Wheel to George Strait.

Still a very energetic man, Thompson continues to tour when he's not out on his boat on a lake near Dallas.

"I do about a hundred dates a year now. I'm playing in Norway and Sweden at the end of this month," he said, "And I play a lot of dance halls and fairs." And he says he's grateful to find new audiences of young people embracing his music as he travels.

"This generation has just discovered this music, I think," he said. "We have a lot of young people come to our functions, and they say they're finding music that appeals to them."