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From the Old Country

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From the Old Country

In 1950 country star Ernest Tubb pulled strings to get a 25-year-old fellow Texan named Hank Thompson a prized spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Though Thompson had already scored a couple of top-ten country hits, Tubb's favor was his ticket into the heart of the country establishment. Right off the bat, however, Thompson got riled that the conservative showcase wouldn't allow him to use drums, and by the time he collected his $9 fee, he'd decided he'd had enough of Nashville to last him a lifetime.

By then Thompson was recording for Capitol Records, but unlike many of the musicians on the label's young country roster he didn't move to the west coast. He stayed in Texas--and went on to forge one of the most successful careers any country singer has ever had, racking up nearly 80 hits between the late 40s and the early 80s. His band, the Brazos Valley Boys, played a driving take on western swing fueled by a twin-fiddle front line, but Thompson's cleanly articulated vocals were straight out of honky-tonk. (George Strait would later put this blend to good use.) Thompson is still best known for the 1952 smash hit "The Wild Side of Life," which not only topped the country charts for 15 weeks but launched the career of Kitty Wells, inspiring her answer song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

He became the first country artist to take his own sound-and-lighting system on the road, the first to tour with corporate sponsorship (from Falstaff beer), the first to record a stereo album, the first to play Las Vegas, the first to take a country band into swanky midwestern and east-coast ballrooms, and the first to cut a live album. In August he'll release Hank World, a collection of previously unreleased radio transcriptions (meaning versions recorded exclusively for broadcast) from the early 50s, on Chicago's "insurgent country" label, Bloodshot Records. All 23 tracks were cut in a home studio he'd built for himself, another first for a country artist.

Thompson's stardom waned in the 1970s with the advent of country pop, and he's no longer an active recording artist. He still plays about 100 dates a year, between county fairs, TV appearances, and the occasional nightclub gig, but he reckons his gig at Schubas on Saturday night is his first in Chicago since the 70s. In an interview from his home in Keller, Texas, Thompson compared the industry today to the one he remembers from his prime. "Back then country record labels weren't interested in the short haul," he says. "If they took you they had the idea that you were good enough and different enough that you would be a seller for years to come, not for just one or two hit records like they do today, where they cookie-cut you."

Thompson's most recent encounter with Music Row was in 1997, when he recorded Hank Thompson and Friends (Curb)--a series of nostalgic duets with current stars like Vince Gill and Lyle Lovett as well as fellow legends like Wells and George Jones. "It was enjoyable to get back into the studio, but we had a lot of problems," he says, explaining that the labels to which the various singers were signed weren't particularly cooperative. He also gripes a little about the modern recording process: "We used to be able to cut three or four songs in one three-hour session, and now you're lucky if you can even get one done."

The forthcoming Bloodshot release is part of the label's "Revival" series, which also includes radio transcriptions by cowboy singer Rex Allen and western swing fiddler Spade Cooley. Thompson says he hasn't heard any of the contemporary bands on Bloodshot and knows nothing about the alternative country movement. But he understands why such a movement might be interested in his work: "We get a lot of younger people that come out, and they appreciate the music of the 40s and 50s a lot more than the contemporary stuff that comes out of Nashville today," he says. "It had a lot more substance."

Postscripts

Jim O'Rourke watch: So far this year Jim O'Rourke has produced albums for Stereolab, the Aluminum Group, Superchunk, and Storm & Stress. Now he's set to produce Laurie Anderson's latest record early next year. The increasingly busy O'Rourke just made a brief stop home after playing on a double CD by Sonic Youth. That album, due later this year on the band's own SYR label, will feature renditions of contemporary classical works by such composers as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, James Tenney, Pauline Oliveros, and Christian Wolff (who also participated in the recording). Other guest musicians included experimental turntable whiz Christian Marclay, Japanese violinist Takehisa Kosugi, and percussionist William Winant.

The cure for Buena Vista Social Club fever is coming this fall, with concerts by Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, and Barbarito Torres. But if you can't wait, consider a dose of Familia Valera Miranda in the meantime. The group, which plays a pristine, old-fashioned style of son on bass, acoustic guitar, tres, and percussion, actually has nothing to do with Ry Cooder's phenomenally successful project. But in 1995, about six months before the Club convened, it did cut a great version of Compay Segundo's "Chan Chan"--which has become the Buena Vista Social Club signature tune--for its album CaƱa Quema (Nimbus). Familia Valera Miranda performs this Saturday at 7:30 PM as part of the city's free Summerdance series, in Grant Park's Spirit of Music Garden (on Michigan between Balbo and Harrison), and later that night at HotHouse on a bill with Mambo Express.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Griffis Smith-TXDOT.

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