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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 second instrument.
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.”
Jazz Winds 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 Crazy (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 Crazy, 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.”