For the second time in less than two weeks, lung cancer has claimed a Country Music Hall of Famer. Hank Thompson died at his home in suburban Fort Worth, just days after being released from the hospital into hospice care, and not unlike fellow Hall of Famer Porter Wagoner.
The only thing sadder than Thompson's passing is the head scratching and shrugging going on at the mention of his name. "Who?" Many will dismiss this as just another old-timer that they've never heard of dying, or someone they thought was already dead, or someone their grandparents listened to.
Oh, friend, if that is your attitude toward Hank Thompson, you are depriving yourself of some of the greatest music created in the past seventy years. That's right, seventy. Thompson was active in seven count 'em seven decades, and he kept on performing almost until the day he died. (His last concert was at a "Hank Thompson Day" celebration in his hometown of Waco last month.)
Thompson got out of the Navy and went into music. One of his early hits was "Woah, Sailor," a rather humorous (and, for its era, risque) look at a sailor trying to strike up a conversation with a girl who doesn't want to hear any of his lines. "A sailor's full of that kind of bull, so don't hand it to me," she tell him in the lyrics -- then he pulls out his wallet, stuffed with the six months' pay he had drawn while on ship. "Oh, sailor," she says, changing her tune, "I think you've won my heart." The song concludes, "She's not all to blame 'cause it's a sailor's aim to have a girl in every port."
In many ways, that became Thompson's formula. He became known for his comical titles, such as "Humpty Dumpty Heart" and "Rub-a-Dub-Dub." He could write very serious songs with humorous titles, such as "Waiting in the Lobby of Your Heart," and he could deliver downright funny songs, such as the "answer song" to "Goodnight Irene," "Wake Up, Irene." The latter was met with stiff opposition to release by his record label, Capitol, because it came out over a year after "Goodnight Irene" had been a hit by numerous artists. That, however, only added to its charm, as Thompson had time to look back at the "months and months and months around the country" that "everybody sang Irene goodnight." "Even Crosby too," he sang, "with his boo-boo-ba-boopty-doo, tried to get Irene to hit the hay." The song went to #1, confirming that everyone else had had their fill of people singing Irene "off to slumber." All throughout his music was a signature riff: one note played twice on a steel guitar, then the third time slid up one tone. It was as much "his" riff as the Ernest Tubb run (which is mimicked in the first verse of Alabama's "Jukebox in My Mind").
Thompson sold 60 million records in his career, which is phenomenal considering that, while Nashville was becoming the headquarters of country music in the 50s and 60s, Thompson divided time between his native Texas and the west coast (where most of Capitol's artists were based at the time). He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.
And so another memorial flower collection goes up beneath a Hall of Fame plaque, and another time to mourn comes to the country music industry.
The song that came to mind when I heard of his death was his broken-heart-with-a-funny-title hit, "The Blackboard of My Heart:"
But my tears have washed "I love you" from the blackboard of my heart
It's too late to clean the slate and make another start
I'm satisfied the way things are, although we're far apart
My tears have washed "I love you" from the blackboard of my heart
"I love you" will never disappear from the blackboard of my heart regarding the great Hank Thompson.
Hank was 82.