Longtime Hank Thompson pal shares singer's country tales in new biography|
BOOK REVIEW: Pal pens Hank Thompson's honky-tonk life
12:00 AM CST on Thursday, January 10, 2008
By MARIO TARRADELL / The Dallas Morning News
Hank Thompson was a storyteller in song and in person. He liked to spin a tale. He'd get a mischievous look in his eyes, he'd grin slyly, and his robust voice would soar and dip as the plot thickened. The punch line always came with a wallop.
So it's fitting that the late Mr. Thompson's biography – My Side of Life, written and self-published by longtime friend Warren Kice – comes chock full of stories. In fact, just about every one of the 292 pages has a tidbit, an anecdote from the Waco-born Country Music Hall of Fame inductee's 60 years of performing and recording.
Want to know about Mr. Thompson's female groupies? There were many, including two named Hurricane Shirley and Black Rider. Each gig had an after-hours soiree dubbed the Brazos Valley Boys Invitation Only Fun and Games Unwinding Party. He's got a handful of R-rated tales about the late singer Faron Young as well as a variety of Brazos Valley Boys members.
Mr. Thompson, who died at his Keller home in November after battling lung cancer, made a signature brand of honky-tonk-influenced Western swing brimming with rugged attitude and top-notch musicianship. His heyday extended through the '50s and '60s. He charted 79 singles, 30 of which hit the Top 10. His best-known tune is 1952's "The Wild Side of Life," a No. 1 hit for 15 weeks.
My Side of Life chronicles his entire career. Mr. Kice, a Dallas-based retired attorney, isn't an author. (Legal briefs don't count in this case.) More than a few times he resorts to clichés and a phrase or two that ultimately seem stilted. But his attention to detail is impeccable, and he's clearly passionate about his subject.
So My Side of Life turns into an entertaining read and one that moves along smoothly. Chapters are short, which accounts for having 58 of them. Mr. Kice vividly takes us to Waco during the days of Prohibition. That's when Henry William Thompson first heard the music of Jimmie Rodgers, the pioneering country singer and yodeler.
That inspiration sparked an enduring livelihood that remained passionate through Mr. Thompson's service in the Navy during World War II. As a civilian, he recorded for Capitol Records, the label where he enjoyed the career-making staples, before tripping through four more imprints. He formed his Brazos Valley Boys in 1950 and toured nationally and internationally, winning Billboard's No. 1 country and Western band award for 14 consecutive years.
In My Side of Life, Mr. Thompson's personal existence and his public persona intertwine. Mr. Kice makes sure to paint the picture of a strong-willed yet reasonable man who treated everybody as he would have wanted to be treated. The onetime Oklahoma-based star held steadfast to his convictions, especially to his traditional country music roots, but always displayed an easygoing demeanor.
His private life seemed largely devoid of drama. He married twice, first to Dorothy Jean Ray in 1948 and then to Ann Williams in 1970. His divorce from Dorothy was amicable. When Dorothy eventually remarried, she got hitched to Mr. Thompson's longtime friend and bandmate Merle Travis; Mr. Thompson jokingly referred to Mr. Travis as his "husband-in-law."
In Ann, Mr. Thompson found his soul mate. Their marriage lasted to his death 37 years later. She was his wife, business partner, traveling companion and fan. Mr. Thompson met her at one of his shows while he was still wedded to Dorothy. He had run into Ann two more times during gigs in the '60s before their romance materialized.
His long-standing relationships, including musical friendships that remained solid for decades, underscored Mr. Thompson's artistic longevity. He influenced future stars such as George Strait, Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, Vince Gill and even Bob Dylan.
Mr. Kice encapsulates Mr. Thompson in the final chapter while recounting festivities celebrating the legend's 80th birthday. For Mr. Thompson, life revolved around music. It's from which all good fortunes stemmed. Mr. Kice writes that Mr. Thompson was reflective at that party, thinking about his long career, his wife, his fans, his friendships and his formative beginnings:
"And such as the time when he, as a 5-year-old boy, after being inspired by a Jimmie Rodgers song he had just heard on a neighbor's Victoria, ran and skipped down 17th Street in Waco, Texas singing 'T for Texas and T for Tennessee...' "
Mr. Kice ends by noting, lest we forget:
"And T for Thompson."