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HANK GARLAND 1930-2004

Hank Garland Biography

The following Hank Garland biography and interview are extracted from the January 1981 issue of Guitar Player magazine. The biography was written by Rich Kienzle.

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"NASHVILLE CATS", John Sebastian admiringly sang in his 1967 composition, "play clean as country water, play wild as mountain dew, been playin' since they's babies," and "get work before they're two."' Allowing for artistic license on the last phrase, those descriptions fit Hank Garland particularly well. Along with Chet Atkins, Harold Bradley, and Grady Martin, Hank was among the first true guitar virtuosos to emerge from the Nashville studios a player who helped define the standards by which other Nashville session guitarists are judged.

Garland epitomized the image of the Nashville picker: the guitarist able to walk into a studio, tune up, hear a run-through of the songs to be recorded, and invent a creative and sympathetic backing on the spot; the consummate musician who would leave the last session of the day for a night of jamming in a Printer's Alley night-club; the inveterate experimenter interested in the latest guitar model and addicted to trying out new sounds, licks, and devices; the person for whom the instrument was not just an end in itself, but a means to the end of creating music.

Hank's influence extended far beyond the studios of Nashville. His 1960 Jazz Winds From A New Direction had a considerable effect on players throughout the country. A young Pittsburgh R&B guitarist named George Benson was taken by it, as was another. young musician from Mississippi who was into rock and blues, Bucky Barrett. Above all, the LP gave Nashville musicians new admiration and stature in the jazz world. It was almost as if Garland had smothered the "hillbilly" stereotypes with chorus upon chorus of brilliant, bop-flavoured jazz. Before Hank Garland, the very idea of a steel guitarist such as Buddy Emmons recording with a jazz group as he did in 1963 with his Steel Guitar Jazz album - or of mainstream jazz bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelley Manne working with country mandolinists Jethro Burns and Tiny Moore, would have been all but unthinkable.

Hank Garland's professional career spanned only 15 years, less than a third of his life. In 1961, at the age of 30, his dream of becoming "the best guitar player in the world" was shattered in a violent auto accident near Nashville. After lingering near death, he began to recover, but the price paid was devastatingly high. Severe brain damage claimed most of his motor functions and co-ordination, and his dreams of greater music to come seemed to have evaporated. Shortly thereafter he left Nashville, never to return to the studios where he made his reputation as a country and jazz sideman on, recordings by Elvis Presley, Rusty Draper, Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Webb Pierce, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Charlie Rich, Patti Page, Jerry Lee Lewis, and numerous others.

This wasn't the-end of the Hank Garland legend. Drawing upon vast determination and courage he began relearning the guitar from scratch, encouraged by his family, particularly his brother Bill. It would be two, years after the accident until he regained any command of the instrument, and 13 more before he returned to Nashville for a brief appearance at the 1976 Fan Fair Reunion Show - where his rendition of his 1949 composition "Sugarfoot Rag" left moist eyes among performers and audience members. They could see and hear that while Hank Garland might not be returning to the Nashville studios, he had certainly returned from one of the most uncertain and harrowing journeys any musician could ever make.

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Walter Louis Garland was born November 11, 1930 in Cowpens, South Carolina, a small town just north east of Spartanburg, not far from the North Carolina border. It was an area dominated by hard-core country music, which had quite an impact upon young Hank. Chet Atkins, who worked closely with Garland through the years, recalls that "Hank said his first inspiration was, the Carter Family [GP, Mar. '791. He heard Maybelle picking the 'Wildwood Flower' when he was a little kid, and he dreamed that night he was playing it and he couldn't wait, of course, to get a guitar." Garland's father-bought him a used Encore steel-string when Hank was six, and young Garland began taking lessons from one Mr. Fowler, who taught him basic chords and positions.

Early on, Hank was attracted to another young guitarist, who was beginning to make his mark as a musician. Arthur Smith was just 17 when he began playing over radio station WSBA in Spartanburg, and Hank listened closely to him. Smith's electric lines captivated Garland to the point that the younger musician attempted to electrify his acoustic. Atkins remembers Hank's account of this event: "He told me he hooked an electric cord to the strings and plugged it in the wall and almost burned the guitar up."

As World War 2 began, Hank was heading into adolescence as a true guitar addict. By the time he was in his teens he was proficient enough to join Shorty Painter's band, a local group that gave him his first taste of performing experience. Garland remembers getting his first electric guitar during this time, although he isn't sure if it was an archtop Gibson or Epiphone. He did, however, have a De Armond pickup on it, and ran it through a small Gibson amplifier.

His first real break as a professional musician came quite by chance. He had gone downtown to Alexander's Music Store in Spartanburg to buy a string, and while there he was introduced to Grand Ole Opry member Paul Howard. Howard was passing through with his western swing-styled Georgia Cotton Pickers group, and after handshakes were exchanged someone quickly produced a guitar and amp. Garland picked a little, and Howard, who played a major role in ending the Opry's long-standing ban on electric guitars, was impressed. He offered Garland a job with the Cotton Pickers in Nashville, and told him he would call in two weeks to finalize the deal. It was 1945, and Hank was only 15 years old.

Garland went home ecstatic and explained it all to his parents, who had some initial reservations because of their son's age and the fact that he would have to leave school. But Hank's pleading over the next two weeks softened them, and when Howard finally called telling him to come to Nashville's Tulane Hotel, they reluctantly assented. When Hank arrived at the Tulane, however, Howard didn't remember him. Hank was crushed, but went on to ask Howard if he could play on the Opry that night anyhow. The bandleader agreed, and that evening Garland was featured on a boogie woogie instrumental that brought the audience at the Ryman Auditorium to its feet. Backstage after the performance Howard dubbed Hank the "Baby Cotton Picker" and, told him, "Kid, you have a job here as long as I got one".

For the next eight weeks he worked on the road and on the Opry with the Cotton Pickers, but because of extraneous circumstances his initial stay with the group was cut short. At 15 Garland wasn't old enough to join the Musicians Union, and child-labour laws banned anyone that age from working full time. Crestfallen, Hank returned home to Cowpens, his only consolation being Howard's promise to recall him to Nashville when Garland turned 16. On November 11, 1946, Hank got his call, from Howard, and a short time later he was back in Nashville with the Cotton Pickers.

Chet Atkins was in Nashville for the, first time in 1946, working as a sideman with Red Foley on the Opry. He recalls with laughter and great affection his first meeting Garland there: "He was a little old, fat, red-faced punk, and he hadn't gotten all of his height yet. He was playing choruses that he heard on Bob Wills records done by Jimmy Wyble, the fellow who played like Charlie Christian. And he rushed an awful lot; he'd pick up tempo". Veteran Nashville session guitarist Harold Bradley, who met Garland around the same time through Ernest Tubb's lead player Billy Byrd, has a similar recollection. "Hank was very fast", he says. He was rough, but very fast, and he had a lot of phenomenal technique.

Garland's association with Billy Byrd subsequently changed Hank's entire musical direction. Though he played spare, simple leads behind Tubb, Byrd was also a fine jazz guitarist who had grown up jamming Charlie Christian tunes with Bradley. Hank moved into an apartment in Byrd's home and spent his spare moments learning the rudiments of jazz. "Billy showed me how to use my little finger," Garland says, "He'd say, 'Use the damn thing; stick it up on the string there and use it!"' Bradley, who also sat in on many of those sessions, adds, "We taught him songs and jazz licks and just a whole bunch of improvisations. We showed him a lot of the things we knew, and he just went on by us just got into the jazz thing real heavy".

But one didn't make a living playing jazz guitar in those days around Nashville, so early in 1947 Hank left Howard and the Cotton Pickers when steel guitarist Bob Foster recruited him for a new band being led by singer Cowboy Copas. Copas had just departed from Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys after scoring successes with King recordings such as "Filipino Baby". Hank' gained experience doing some of Copas' earliest sessions. According to Dr. Charles K. Wolfe, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University at Murfreesboro who is currently working on a bibliography of country music for the Smithsonian, recording session books during the late '40s and '50s are very unclear as to just who worked on what songs, but all the available data points to Hank playing on Copas tunes such as "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," "Honky Tonkin'," and "Down In Nashville Tennessee."

Another tune which Hank almost certainly worked on was singer Autry Inman's 1948 recording of "You Better Leave Them Guys Alone," where his guitar solo echoes both Les Paul and Django Reinhardt. "I started listening to Django," Hank says, "after Chet told me he was the greatest guitar player in the world." Atkins also remembers hearing Garland on a record for the first time in the late '40s: "I was in Knoxville, and I heard this chorus. I don't recall the artist now, but I remember then that I thought it was the greatest guitar chorus I'd ever heard, so I checked around and found out it was Hank who played it."

It's little wonder that Hank had so much Django in his early guitar work. For a time, he and his friend Bob Moore, who is a longtime Nashville studio bassist, roomed together in a boarding house while Garland was playing with Copas. Moore remembers, "I used to get up every morning to go do a radio show at 5:30 with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. When my alarm would go off, Hank would get up and be practising even before I finished my breakfast. I'd go do the show and another at noon, then I'd come home. There was Hank, still listening to Django Reinhardt."

Garland spent nearly three years with the Copas band. gaining a reputation for his increasingly masterful guitar work. "He was one of those guys who you could play a lick for and he'd come back like an echo," says Atkins. "He had such a good ear. Sometimes I'd pick something with fingers that he couldn't just to irritate him. He didn't play fingerstyle, but he could have if he'd wanted." Hank today recalls that episode with `laughter, admitting that "whatever anybody else played, if they played it through one time, 1 had it." Photos show that throughout his tenure with Copas, Garland primarily used a blond Epiphone Zephyr Deluxe, but by the end of the decade he had switched over to Gibson guitars,

Nashville, too, was undergoing some radical changes at the time. Until then the Opry was its sole connection with country music. Most country recording sessions were usually done in other cities or with portable equipment in Nashville, and a few were held in radio station studios. Then in 1947 Castle Studios opened in the Tulane Hotel, signalling the beginning of the recording industry there. It also created a new role for local musicians. Although many singers preferred either to use their touring groups or to borrow someone else's group, there was a small enclave of players who made themselves available for sessions something that until then hadn't been done much in country music. But it was an inevitable by-product of the studio industry, one that became increasingly important in Nashville.

Sometime during 1949 Garland left Copas and began freelancing in the studios. Just how this took place isn't certain. Harold Bradley remembers Hank coming into a Decca session he was working on with his brother Owen and producer Paul Cohen. "Hank entered the studio," Bradley says, "and since Cohen and my brother liked him, they put him on the session." Cohen also favoured a song Hank had written as a fingering exercise, "Sugarfoot Rag." Cohen thought enough of it to record an instrumental version by Garland. Later, lyrics were added by one George Vaughan, and Red Foley recorded this version on November 10, 1949 with Hank doing the now-famous guitar intro and solo. Two days prior to that date, Foley had cut "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy," and the two tunes were paired on a single released early in 1950. Garland got label credit for "Sugarfoot," something quite rare for a sideman, and since "Chatta'noogie", became a million-seller, many listeners also heard "Sugarfoot Rag" which itself was #5 on the Cash Box country charts for a time. The song earned Garland the nickname "Sugarfoot," and got him a series recordings.

By the late '40s and early'50s, Hank, Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, and Chet Atkin's were the main guitarists in Nashville. During those days the studios were loose, and the musicians free to contribute their own ideas to songs. Bradley remembers Garland going even further than that: "He had a very good imagination for not only coming up with ideas, but also with arrangements." And Chet Atkins says that this ability was typical for Hank throughout, his studio career: "Hank was very outspoken and he had a lot of ideas. He didn't take any talk from any producer. If they said something smart to him, his face would get real red and he'd say something back. But he was such a good musician that everyone had a terrible amount of respect for him, so nobody stepped on his toes. He could only help you: He was so good, he could never hurt you." Garland did a number of early Nashville sessions, including a notable one with singer Eddie Hill in 1952. The song, "The Hot Guitar," featured Hank, Chet, and Jerry Byrd imitating other guitarists as well as themselves. The flipside cut "Steamboat Stomp," was done with just Hank, a steel guitarist, and a rhythm section. Having begun as a routine western swing number,' the song found Garland taking an incredible bebop guitar break in the middle which turned the tune inside out. Hank's jazz talents were crystallizing. Having already assimilated elements of Django, Christian and Barney Kessel, he now showed signs of Barry Galbraith and Tal Farlow influences in his playing.

In the early '50s Hank began working with singer Eddy Arnold, who was doing an ABC radio series that summer. The gig involved travelling to different cities, and Garland got the chance to go to New York where he finally heard and met some of the jazz guitarists he long admired among them Barry Galbraith, who subsequently taught him jazz rhythm playing. Garland's obsession with jazz also began rubbing off onto his fellow Nashville guitarists. "Hank was the first guy to turn me on to Tal Farlow and Wes Montgomery," says Bradley. After a brief period with Arnold, Garland returned to the studios of Nashville.

Sessions were plentiful by 1953, and Hank spent a lot of time in the studios picking a variety of country music. He worked on Tommy Jackson's square dance series for Dot Records, playing both guitar and mandolin behind Jackson's fiddle. He also played on many of Jim Reeves' RCA sessions.

In 1955, Garland along with Billy Byrd helped design Gibson's Byrdland (Byrd + Garland) guitar, and Hank began using it on session work. Like Chet Atkins and other Nashville pickers, he soon became an inveterate experimenter, constantly trying out new guitars, pickups and amplifiers. He also experimented with an early echo device that he used to play the memorable guitar intro on Patsy Cline's 1961 hit, "I Fall To Pieces." Chet often loaned Hank different pickups to try out, and Harold Bradley says that on occasion Garland worked in odd tunings: "He would use a wound G as his first string and play chords, for instance, because he had heard someone in Chicago do it and liked the sound."

Hank was also obsessed with developing technique. Bob Moore remembers it well: "Hank used to sit around and show me how he was developing the muscle in his right thumb. He'd take a pick and hold it in all these different positions between the, forefinger and thumb and just work it as fast as he could without a guitar. He'd sit around and do that to develop strength, and that's one of the things that helped him because none of the other guitarists could get around with a pick like he could. It seemed like everything he did with it was just so easy. It looked like he wasn't doing anything., With his left hand he'd do all these finger exercises from one end of the guitar to the other, and he would play on the low E string as high as he could and learn any jazz run. He would sit and play it from one fret to the next, learning it in every position."

Garland would try different guitars as well. He bought a Gibson ES- 150 from a cab driver in Nashville, according to Harold Bradley, and also got a Gibson L-7 with a "Charlie Christian" pickup. All of this, of course, was in between sessions. Hank worked on a number of hits during 1954 and 1955, including Jim Reeves' "Yonder Comes A Sucker" where Garland and steel guitarist Bobby Garrett did some impressive twin guitar ensemble playing, and on the Grady Martin Dance-O-Rama LP which found Grady and Hank picking some flaming improvisational runs on "Pork Chop Stomp," "Woolly Boogie," and "Cornstalk Hop," backed by pedal steeler Bud Isaacs.

In 1955, Elvis Presley's Sun recordings began stirring up the South. Changes were on the way as rockabilly began grabbing a surprisingly large audience. One of the harbingers of change was in a September 1955 Decca recording where Garland did a session with boogie-woogie pianist and singer Roy Hall. At the time of the recording, rockabilly wasn't terribly compatible with jazz guitar playing, and Garland knew it. "Hank told me what he did to get ready for that," Bradley says. "He turned on radio station WLAC, which back then was playing R&B, to get a lot of ideas before he came in to do that one. He knew it was going to be a funkier style of music than we were accustomed to playing."At that September 15 session Hank and Hall recorded a tune titled "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" [Rare Rockabilly], and Hank's blues licks were good. It would be nearly two years before pianist Jerry Lee Lewis transformed the same song into a rock and roll classic.

But even those sporadic sessions didn't prepare Nashville for the onslaught that followed Elvis' burst upon the national scene after his first RCA records were released in 1956. Though some of his singles sound country by today's standards, they weren't originally perceived that way. As rock and roll spread across America many radio stations turned away from country, causing some young country singers to drop their fiddlers and steel guitarists in favour of the loudest drummer they could find. Finally, country record sales and personal appearances by artists began to slip, and Nashville was in trouble. "They ran the fiddle players and the steel players back into the woods," says Bradley. "Some of them were not able to survive a wait of two to three years before they would get hired again."

Hank Garland, however, was one of the lucky musicians. After the initial trauma wore off, some Nashville producers started to persuade as many country singers as possible to record rock and roll flavoured records. Everyone from Carl Smith and Red Foley to Little Jimmy Dickens, Webb Pierce, Johnny Horton, and Marty Robbins jumped on the bandwagon some of them reluctantly. The musicians, obviously, also had to adapt. Garland recalls having to use lighter gauge strings, and adds, "I had to turn another knob on the amplifier to make the sound more tinny." These records varied in quality and reached their peak in 1957 and 1958.

Hank's guitar work, however, played an important role in many of the better cuts. He picked some searing guitar on Wayne Walker's Bo-Bo Ska Diddle Daddle", Red Foley's "Crazy Little Guitar Man", Bill Brown's "Flip Out" and Webb Pierce's "Bye Bye Love." Hank also added a bone-jarring solo to Jimmy Dickens' 1958 hit 1 Got A Hole In My Pocket" as well as hot lines to Jerry Lee Lewis' "What'd I Say", Ronnie Self's rendition of "Bop-A-Lena" and Eddie Bond's early rockabilly recordings for Mercury Records. Hank also played on nearly all of Brenda Lee's Decca sessions, and picked a superb country-jazz solo on Patti Page's version of "Just Because".

By the late '50s the pop-influenced "Nashville Sound" began to coalesce, and once again Hank Garland was one of its prime movers, able to add nearly any type of accompaniment. While the vocal choruses and softer sounds received some criticism from country purists, these changes nevertheless helped country music recover from the mid-'50s rock and roll barrage. Hank, Harold, and Grady often worked together on sessions, each taking solos according to their respective specialties: Grady doing funkier tunes, Harold playing pop-oriented material, and Hank handling fast numbers. Garland played on a number of hit records during this time, including Ferlin Husky's "Gone," Jim Reeves' "He'll Have To Go", Don Gibson's "Sea Of Heartbreak" and "Just One Time" (both with Chet Atkins), the Wilburn Brothers "A Woman's Intuition," Kitty Wells' "Jealousy," and Webb Pierce's "I Ain't Never" and "Tupelo County Jail" the latter featuring Hank picking some gutsy, bass-string runs.

Garland versatility and ability to work up song arrangements may have helped to bring him and Elvis Presley together in the studio for the first time on June 10 and 11, 1958, while Elvis was on, leave from the Army. Although Scotty Moore had played regularly with Elvis since 1954, he was now working with him on a per-job basis. Elvis was beginning to expand his musical range, adding more pop-oriented numbers to his repertoire. Though most of his tunes still rocked, it was obvious that he was trying to appeal to a wider audience. So Garland got the call on a number of sessions with Elvis from 1958 to 1961, playing on songs such as "I Got Stung," "A Fool Such As l," "Big Hunk Of Love, " "Stuck On You" (which had Hank on 6-string bass), "It's Now Or Never," "Are You Lonesome Tonight," "Surrender," I Feel So Bad," and "Little Sister." He also picked guitar on Elvis' "His Hand In Mine" LP. Harold Bradley remembers Hank using an early Gibson ES-355-TD-SV with "the first Vari-tone switch we'd ever seen" on many of the rock and roll sessions, deviating from his Gibsons only on the "Little Sister cut. Bradley comments: "I started advertising Fender, and Hank borrowed my Jazzmaster to play on the song because he didn't have a guitar with the sound he wanted to get."

Hank also did some concerts with PresIey, among them Elvis' March 25, 1961, Benefit show in Honolulu, which was Presley's last live performance for eight years. Garland was featured prominently, and when Elvis introduced the band, everyone got a routine intro while Hank was referred to as "one of the finest guitar players anywhere in the country today." In addition, Garland continued flexing his country-jazz muscles. This is clearly evident in his work with jazz great Johnny Smith and Harold Bradley on Don Gibson's "Gibson, Guitars, And Girls" LP, which was recorded around 1960.

Besides the studios, the Carousel Club in Nashville's Printer's Alley proved to be another important locale in Hank's musical life. After a day's session, it was common for him to go there and jam the night away. He appeared regularly with other jazz-minded musicians, including Bob Moore, drummer Buddy Harman, pianist Floyd Cramer, saxophonist Boots Randolph, and others. After hearing Garland play, many jazz musicians who visited Nashville left praising him. Billy Byrd recounted a session with Hank and some of Stan Kenton's group for Country Music Magazine: "I remember they were playing 'Back Home Again In Indiana.' Hank flew in there, and their eyes got as big as quarters. They just couldn't believe what they were hearing."

In 1960, Garland and some of his Carousel Club band-mates, plus Chet Atkins and then 17-year-old vibraphonist Gary Burton, were invited to the Newport Jazz Festival where RCA was to record their performance for an LP. Rioting cancelled the show, so the musicians recorded on the back porch of a house they rented during the festival. The resulting After The Riot At Newport was a loose jam session which captured some of Garland's most awesome jazz guitar licks, especially on "Relaxin"" and the Garland/Randolph tune "Riot-Chous."

Hank, Gary Burton, Bob Moore, and some other Nashville musicians recorded another album around the same time for SESAC [a musical licensing organization similar to ASCAP and BMI], which was later issued by Columbia as The Unforgettable Guitar Of Hank Garland. From there, through the efforts of Columbia's Nashville producer Don Law, Garland was signed to the label as an artist. His first solo LP, Velvet Guitar, was a bit tame and pop-flavoured. Harold Bradley recalls that Hank "got a little upset and said that he was just going to totally do his own thing on his next album."

On August 23, 1960, with Grady Martin sitting in the producer's chair subbing for Law, Hank recorded Jazz Winds From A New Direction with Burton, Dave Brubeck drummer Joe Morello and bassist Joe Benjamin. They played six songs that day, including bop standards such as "Move," as well as "Riot-Chous," "Relaxin'," and "Always." The LP turned many heads, including those of jazz aficionados who couldn't believe that such a great guitarist could come from Nashville. All during this time Hank was still picking up direction, listening intently to Wes Montgomery and others. His finger-style chops were improving, and it looked like Garland was finally entering the world of jazz guitar on his own terms.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. In the autumn of 1961 while travelling in his car near Springfield, Tennessee, Garland was involved in an auto accident. When he regained consciousness at the hospital, the doctors attending him had determined that he had sustained severe brain damage. With his talents thus impaired and lacking the ability to co-ordinate his hands, it seemed indeed that Hank Garland's career was over.

The loss of ability to play would have sent most guitarists into a deep depression, but Hank decided to fight back. He practiced for two years after the accident, studying and working scales and arpeggios while fighting to regain control over his instrument. After two more years he'd gotten some of his command back, and his advice to similarly afflicted guitarists is succinct: "Don't give up".