Hank Snow

First published in Country Music People, November 1973

As is now well-known, Hank Snow first stepped into the recording studios in Montreal, Canada on October 29, 1936. In the beginning he followed the popular trend of the 1930s imitating the legendary Jimmie Rodgers. He called himself ‘Hank the Yodelling Ranger’ and his first record release was Prisoned Cowboy and Lonesome Blue Yodel (Bluebird B-4614)

It would appear that at this time RCA didn’t possess their own studios in Canada, and that this first session was held in a Montreal church. The acoustics in churches are tailor-made for recording sessions and it was a regular thing in the early days of recording to use churches and similar large buildings as studios. Due to very poor sales this first recorded was swiftly deleted and very few collectors possess this rare disc. Though the two titles were later issued again, they were paired with other titles and are still two of the rarest titles that Hank Snow has recorded.

On this first recording Hank Snow used solo guitar and continued to do so right up to January 1939 when he recorded the very popular Texas Cowboy. Five other titles were also cut at this session and a bass was added to at least one of them—Bluer Than Bluer. In January 1942 Hank recorded a further eight titles of which four were not released. The four, When That Someone You Love Doesn’t Love You, Let’s Pretend, I Traded
My Saddle For A Rifle
and I Dream Of The Rainbow’s End were re-recorded on April 14h, and the latter song was altered to The Rainbow’s End when finally released on disc.

Right through 1943 Hank kept recording and from this period onwards there were at least two or three personnel on these recordings, including at odd times a steel guitarist. His records were now becoming very popular in Canada, and he was much in demand for persona appearances. In December, 1944 he recorded Ernest Tubb’s wartime hit The Soldier’s Last Letter, patriotically changing the last line to: ‘Keep Canada Free.’ This is the same song that Merle Haggard successfully revived a few years ago.

Canada’s ‘Blue Yodeller’ for a while stayed within the Rodgers’ traditions: straight guitar, sometimes accompanied by steel guitar back-up, songs of the range and cowboy life, with a yodel at the end of the chorus.

Most of these very early recordings featured Hank’s own songwriting abilities, and he showed from the very beginning that he could compose simple country songs that were very easy for his listeners to associate with. He soon began to vary his playing style. This was brought about because he changed from the old ‘stiff-sound hole guitar’ he used at the beginning of his career to a more pliant Martin, then to a Martin Jumbo. The liquid jingling sound that was to become his distinctive sound can be heard in rudimentary form on Dream Tide and Down Where The Dark Waters Flow. The first was cut in the summer of 1944, and the latter on September 17, 1945 when he also did such outstanding material as My Sweet Texas Bluebonnet Queen, Brand On My Heart and No Golden Tomorrow.

Hank Snow was now a very big name in Canada and was undertaking concert tours that took him right across the country, and at times into the Northern parts of the Unites States. Soon he was undertaking long tours into the States, and in 1946 he travelled right down to Hollywood, in the hope of making his name really well-known in America. It is understood that while undertaking one of these extensive tours that Hank’s mother died and the promoter wouldn’t allow Hank time off to go home to her funeral. This prompted him to write the moving tribute My Mother, that he still includes in his act today. The first recording of this was made in September 1946 when he also recorded the equally famous Drunkard’s Son.

Hank being honoured in Japan

The very last Bluebird session was held in December 1947 and instrumental approach had been refined to a fine art. Little Buddy and Within This Broken Heart Of Mine showed the direction Hank Snow was taking. ‘Take’ numbers were available for this session and it took four takes to put My Phillipino Rose down. The very rare Out On That Open Range with great fiddle work was among the twelve titles recorded and also the well-known My Two-timing Woman.

It should be noted by Hank’s collectors that many of these early Bluebirds were later issued in the United States by RCA Victor on both 78 and 45 rpm records and they were incorrectly labelled—Hank Snow and the Rainbow Ranch Boys. Hank didn’t form this group until he had become established in the States, and even more surprising is that even records Hank had made with solo guitar were labelled in the same way.

After many setbacks with tours of the USA that flopped, Hank finally made his first recordings in the States during 1949. Although he had moved to Nashville, his first two sessions were held in Chicago. It has been generally thought that his first big American hit I’m Movin’ On was his first American recording, in fact this was cut during his third session in the States that was held in Nashville in the Old Brown Radio Producers Studio.

Hank Snow’s historic first American session: —
Chicago—March 8, 1949, Supervision Steve Sholes.
400.  The Only Rose
401.  The Star Spangled Waltz
402.  Nobody’s Child
403.  The Law of Love  

Personnel:- Steel Guitar, Dale Lohman; Violin, Dave Bohme; Bass, Charles Grean.

From these sessions came the beginning of a long run of hits for the popular Canadian, but he did not change his style drastically, just listen to favourites like The Star Spangled Waltz and With This Ring I Thee Wed for confirmation of the artistry of the singer. Then came I’m Movin’On and fame of a very significant sort. Hank Snow’s performances throughout the early 1950s were marked by a virile guitar style and his tunes, mainly self-composed, were characterised by interesting subjects, tunes you could really remember, and intricate rhyme and vocabulary.

Most of this material falls into two categories: the ‘A’ side of any single release was usually a fast rhythm ditty about railroads, airplanes or other mechanical subjects such as The Boogie Woogie Flyin’ Cloud and Honeymoon On A Rocket Ship. On the ‘B’ side there was usually a slow, lyrical song, generally about broken hearts, cheating around or guilty feelings, typical of this style, was Paving The Highways With Tears and Married By The Bible, Divorced By The Law

Snow’s guitar work style was like no other. Un-electrified, it was to the flat pick what Merle Travis was to finger style. Fast, assured, always original, Hank Snow had by the mid-1950s established himself almost as a living legend of the stature of his idol Jimmie Rodgers.

Much of Hank’s recorded work has paid tribute to his idol and on February 12, 1953 Hank cut six of the legendary Blue Yodeller’s songs, including Anniversary Blue Yodel and Jimmie the Kid. The next day Hank’s son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow was in the studio and recorded When Jimmie Rodgers Said Goodbye and Treasure Untold. At this same session Hank recorded the first version of Spanish Fireball plus Between Fire And Water and I Can’t Control My Heart, the latter included on his first twelve-inch album—JUST KEEP A-MOVIN’.

There has been a lot of interest during recent years in the Hank Snow and Anita Carter duets, and the first session on these was held in January 1951 when it took a four-hour session to record just Bluebird Island and Down The Trail Of Aching Hearts. During October of the same year a second version of My Mother (a song previously recorded in Canada) was made and this was included on his album SACRED SONGS. This was the first time that Hank had used choral support on his records and helping him out were the famous Jordanaires.

Accompanying Hank on many of these early sessions were Joe Talbot and Jerry Shook on guitars with Tommy Vadem on fiddle. From quite early on the modern sound was beginning to creep into Hank’s recordings and as well as using The Jordanaires and The Blackwoods Quartet on his sacred material, the well-known band leader Marty Fold was featured playing organ on Hank’s original recording of I Went To Your Wedding which was made in the summer of 1952.

With all of the recording that Hank was now undertaking it was now becoming quite common to have material recorded that was not considered suitable for release. During the latter part of 1953 he recorded It’s You And Only You That I Love, twice, once in Nashville and again in New York, a month later, yet neither of these versions were issued, and this song was again recorded during 1955 when it was considered suitable for release.
Hank Snow was the first guitarist to record duets with ace guitarist Chet Atkins. Their early numbers together, which were made in September/October 1954, are sheer technical virtuosity: two professionals who understand each other’s musical language. Examples of the great sounds these two achieved can be found on the following tunes The Old Spinning Wheel and New Spanish Two-step, both sadly deleted. Hank’s own COUNTRY GUITAR album featured eight tracks with Chet Atkins and four which he recorded in his own home on his Ampex tape recorder. Playing bass on these home-produced recordings was the late Sleepy James McDaniels who was a member of the Rainbow Ranch Boys. A notable title from these sessions was Carnival of Venice, which was only available on single release for many years, also many of these instrumentals were only issued in Canada.

In between cutting singles and guitar solos, the now famous OLD DOC BROWN album was recorded and several titles from this album were among the first of Hank’s to be made in RCA’s new studio in Nashville. This sought after album has recently been partly re-issued on RCA’s Camden label and for the first time Hank’s many newer fans are discovering just why this album was so sought after for so many years. One of Hank’s rarest records is Love’s Call From The Mountains which was only released in Canada. Between 1955 and 1957 three versions were made, but only one of these was issued.

Ironically it was Chet Atkins, who had teamed up so well with Hank on the earlier guitar duets, who undermined Snow’s impeccable taste in what to record. Beginning with Mainliner, Snow gave in to the modern pop-country sound: The Anita Kerr Singers and Floyd Cramer style piano. There’s nothing wrong with this if it happens to be your bag, but it began to drown out the spectacular Snow guitar. Overproduction triumphed over quality.
Furthermore there were less and less Snow-written or Snow-derived numbers. Form the witty Night I Stole Old Sammy Morgan’s Gin and the fantastic Golden Rocket we went to Let Me Go Lover and Hula Rock, which are simply not the man.

As if to confirm this theory, back in 1961 in the midst of all those operatic productions came a new Snow recording of unparalleled virility and force. It was The Last Ride, but not the 1936 song. Instead a powerfully strummed G-chord bass note, a recitation and a song on a good sentimental railroad theme that was as exciting as a ride on the Cannonball herself.

This was a new recording, yet it was this 1947 sound all over again. ‘Ben Dewberry’ making his final run on ‘The Wreck Of The Old ‘97.’ But this return to the old sound was short-lived. RCA was under the impression during the early 1960s that the public seemed to prefer watered-down country music, pianos and Anita Kerrs and since that was where the money was that would be the style we had to put up with.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but not all of the country singers suited the ‘smooth Nashville sound’. Hank Snow with his deep Canadian voice and that strange pronunciation he possessed was one of those who was much better off with steel guitar and fiddles, and of course that dominating flat pick that had been his trademark for so many years.

Hank and friend in the early 50s

Hank reached a stage in his career where, although he was still very popular, he didn’t have any really big hit records, and RCA tried everything short of the big orchestrated production to try and restore him back into the country charts. Success came once again with I’ve Been Everywhere, a song back in the old tradition that was recorded in June 1962. Again though RCA missed the point, instead of Hank’s guitar, we had Hargus ‘Pig; Robbins piano taking the lead, and of course there was that inevitable choral work, which luckily didn’t overpower Hank’s dominant vocal.

During this year Hank had an interesting session that included Chubby Wise his famous fiddle player. The result of this session was four titles including Stuart Hamblen’s Black Diamond, which was included on the THREE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN, album which also featured tracks from Porter Wagoner and Hank Locklin. This was one of the strongest narrations that Hank has recorded, and only one other track from this session was released, What Then, another narration that was included on the GOSPEL TRAIN album, which wasn’t released till 1966. It seems very probable that the remaining two tracks, not yet released are also narrations.

Hank Snow has made three sacred albums during his career, and the second of these, GLORYLAND MARCH was recorded during the summer of 1964 over a period of three sessions. Another interesting album made during this period was Hank’s tribute to The Sons Of The Pioneers.

Unfortunately the album suffered from a rushed production and the unnecessary heavy choral work from The Jordanaires. Throughout his career though, Hank has made use of some of the finest musicians and singers in Nashville, and it’s interesting to note that Tompall and The Glaser Brothers provided the harmony and choral work on HANK SNOW IN HAWAII, which also featured some pleasant guitar picking from Hank.
The modern pop influences in Nashville were beginning to fade away during the latter period of the 1960s and Hank’s last ‘Nashville-sound’ album was HITS, HITS AND MORE HITS which was still dominated by heavy piano and chorus, but managed to feature a little of Hank’s guitar picking. During April 1968 Hank cut a fantastic album of narrations about the Yukon during the Gold Rush days. The eight titles on this album which were all poems from fellow Canadian Robert W. Service was recorded during one six hour session, The production was by Chet Atkins, who sometimes picked along softly as Hank recited with the added help of Chubby Wise on fiddle and Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins adding gentle honky-tonk piano touches.

They say that the good old days can never be recalled, but in November 1968 Hank returned to the old days and the likes of I’m Movin’ On, when he recorded SNOW IN ALL SEASONS. This was back in the early 1950s all over again, that great flat picking was there again, the complicated chord and melody combinations and the authority was again back in his voice. Flying South, a song from Hank’s long time friend Cindy Walker opened the album, and straight away Hank’s guitar was there, even more exciting was the Bryant’s January, with Hank doing things on the guitar he hadn’t done for years in the studio. Hank Snow had proved to his fans and RCA that the old times could be recalled.

And this album didn’t prove to be a one-shot wonder. True the next album HITS COVERED BY SNOW wasn’t quite as compelling as the previous one, but it did have its highspots. Like a Bird again had the authority in the voice, the fiddle in the background carried it along beautifully, and Hank was allowed just a glimpse of that old guitar magic.

With this return to the past came Hank’s third tribute album to the legendary Jimmie Rodgers. The second had been made eleven years previously in September, 1958, and it’s interesting to compare the sound of the two. The third album HANK SNOW SINGS IN MEMORY OF JIMMIE RODGERS was made in early 1970 and benefited from the modern studio techniques, apart from that, there was little to distinguish the two records. Hank’s fine guitar work was given almost a free hand and it’s amazing the lasting impression that Rodgers’ style has had on country music.

Perhaps equally as important as Hank’s association with the old Jimmie Rodgers style is his great affection for train songs, and his first album of 1971, TRACKS AND TRAINS again had an abundance of that old Hank Snow guitar work. Recalling memories of the past seems to be the way of the 1970s, but Hank Snow cleverly mixed old favourites like The Engineer’s Child and Fireball Mail with Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues and Ray Griff’s Canadian Pacific, which although recognised in Britain as George Hamilton IV’s theme tune, gave Hank a small Stateside hit.

Hank Snow has proved during the 1970s that it really is possible to mix the old style with the new songs, and his guitar picking is the real standout on his AWARD WINNERS album which was cut in 1972. Again he takes the cream of the modern Nashville songs and breathes his own style into Kristofferson’s Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down and creates some great picking on Snowbird.

Thinking back to the early 1960s, at that time I thought that the days of Hank Snow’s distinctive style were over. I believed that RCA had sufficiently smothered his style with the ‘Nashville Sound’ that he would never be able to re-create those exciting sounds of the 1950s again. True they could never rid him of that voice with all the rough edges that had been built up by the hard years at the outset of his career, but they had removed the very style that had made the man. They showed pictures of him playing his guitar in the studio, but somehow they lost the guitar sounds on his recordings. Perhaps he couldn’t play anymore?

But in the 1970s he has stood up with the original Hank Snow sound an proved that a legend cannot be kept down. After thirty-seven years of recording Hank Snow is still one of the finest song stylists in country music, and it is such a great pity that he had to waste so many years on the Nashville sound, when he could have been thrilling us with his great voice, wonderful guitar picking, and most of all that Hank Snow magic which is now back with us in all its glory.