In the mid ’50s, Garland influenced guitar
manufacturing when he and Billy Byrd
helped design what would eventually
become the Gibson Byrdland hollowbody.
Some of the specifics Garland and Byrd
requested included a thinner body and a
23.5" scale. The company kept the first
Byrdland off the line, and Garland got the
Garland also experimented with different
instruments and effects on his recordings. For
example, he employed an Ecco-Fonic tape
echo on Patsy Cline’s smash “I Fall to Pieces.”
Despite Garland’s association with
Gibson, he felt no compunction about
using other gear to get the right sound. “He
borrowed my Strat to play on ‘Little Sister’
with Elvis,” Bradley says. “He told me,
‘Yours twangs more than mine,’ because he
was playing a Gibson.”
In this 1950s press photo, Garland plays a gig with a circa-1956 Gibson Byrdland hollowbody.
Prelude to Tragedy
In addition to Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline,
Garland worked with such seminal artists
as Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison, and Conway
Twitty. He even performed on one of the
holiday season’s most timeless tunes. “He
and I played the intro to ‘Jingle Bell Rock’
by Bobby Helms,” Bradley says. “He’s playing
the lead and I’m playing the harmony.”
In 1961, Garland released Jazz Winds from
a New Direction
, a groundbreaking record that
featured Joe Benjamin on bass, Joe Morello
on drums, and a young vibraphone player
named Gary Burton. The vibraphone legend
remembers that Garland had a “fluid, facile
technical command of the guitar,” and that
he took routes and directions usually reserved
for musicians playing other instruments. “The
recording sessions featured Hank at his best.
Being a studio musician, he was very comfortable
in a studio setting. But, in this case, it
was new musicians and new music, in a genre
that was still relatively new to Hank. But he
was confident and cool and knew just how to
bond with the musicians on the session.”
blew away Nashville’s country
music establishment. But Garland
seemed to do that on a regular basis—at
least according to legend. The 2007 movie
(which was co-produced by Steve Vai
and features cameos from him and Tony
MacAlpine) depicts Garland as a player
who bristled at the regimented and closed-minded
nature of Nashville’s music industry.
But critics say Crazy is more fabrication
than truth (which may be why the opening
credits begin with “Inspired by a legend”
rather than “Based on a true story”).
Although it’s unclear whether it began
with some sort of familial strife, as depicted
, in September 1961 Garland
was apparently under the impression that
his wife, Evelyn, had left town with their
daughters and was headed to Milwaukee to
visit family. The guitarist hit the highway in
pursuit and was involved in a near-fatal car
accident near Springfield, Tennessee.
Some members of his family have said
in online forums that the musician hit an
embankment and lost control. Others allege
that his car was forced off the road by music-industry
goons determined to prove a point.
But Bradley dismisses all the conjecture.
“[It’s] all trash—it’s all wrong.” He emphatically
states that there were never any rumors
of malfeasance at the time of the accident.
While the veracity of the more dramatic
theories may never be known, there’s no
doubt that the car crash marked the decline
of Garland’s career. Depending on who
you ask, he suffered brain damage from
either the car crash or subsequent shock-therapy
treatments at Madison Sanitarium.
And that’s just the tip of the tragic iceberg.
Allegations of depression and infidelity
abound about this period in Garland’s life.
Whatever the case, he left Nashville and
stayed with family for a time before eventually
settling in Orange Park, Florida.
As a testament to the esteem that Nashville
musicians held for Garland, they funneled
money to his family for years. At the time,
session players were required to sign documents
when they completed work in order to
get paid. Rumor has it that Garland’s name
was often written in by generous colleagues.
“I know it’s true, because I signed some
of them,” Bradley says. “I remember one
time looking into the book and seeing that
Garland signed into a session that occurred
more than a year after the accident.”
Garland spent years learning to play again,
but he never fully regained his former level
of mastery. He performed in public rarely
over the decades, most notably appearing at a
1976 fan appreciation show in Nashville. In
a 1981 Guitar Player
interview, Garland said,
“I’m going to take what the Lord left me
with and do better things with it, if I can.”