There’s a downside to being a legend. Myths, rumors, tall tales, and allegations swirl around you and obscure the truth like mists around some magical isle in a fantasy novel. Legend distorts reality.
Such is the case with Hank Garland and
his place in the annals of guitar history. To
those in the know, his story is fraught with
innuendo, hearsay, and familial strife. But,
brush that aside, and the truth emerges—
and it’s a truth all guitarists can agree upon:
Garland was an incredible player.
The Early Years
Walter Louis “Hank” Garland (November
11, 1930–December 27, 2004) was born
in Cowpens, South Carolina—a town that,
even today, has only slightly more than
2,000 residents. During Garland’s childhood,
most of the locals were listening to
country music, and he was no different.
One of his biggest musical influences was
seminal folk group the Carter Family.
According to the Garland family’s website
dedicated to Hank, his first guitar was
a four-dollar Encore steel-string that his
father purchased for him. A neighbor provided
the budding musician with lessons to
augment his own attempts to copy tunes
from the radio. At 14, he impressed Paul
Howard of the Arkansas Cotton Pickers,
who subsequently took the young guitarist
to Nashville. Garland eventually appeared
on the Grand Ole Opry. During this initial
foray into country music’s heartland,
Garland met guitarists Harold Bradley and
Billy Byrd. They felt the young player was
obviously talented, but still a bit rough.
His age became a more pressing concern
when authorities realized he was too young
to work regularly. Garland was forced to
return to South Carolina.
When he was of legal age, he came back
to Music City and reconnected with Byrd
and Bradley. “Billy and I were his mentors,”
Bradley remembers. “But he immediately
left us in the dust—he was so talented.”
That’s high praise coming from someone
like Bradley, who was inducted into the
Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and
who received a Trustee Award at the 2010
Grammy Awards ceremony.
Back on the Scene and Going Big
According to Bradley, Garland initially
found it difficult to get session work in
Nashville, but he eventually broke through
and became one of the most in-demand
pickers on the scene. His “Sugar Foot
Rag”—a guitar-heavy single available in two
versions, one with Red Foley on vocals and
an instrumental rendition that put Garland’s
fleet fingers center stage—became a huge
hit, with more than a million copies sold.
The skill Garland demonstrated in
“Sugar Foot Rag” continues to inspire
guitar players of every stripe to this day.
Venerated session ace Brent Mason—whose
schedule is as jam-packed as any musician’s
in Nashville today—is among the legions of
players who have paid homage to the song
(on his 1997 release Hot Wired).
“I admired his capacity to play what’s in
his heart in his music,” Mason says, “and
then, on the other side of it, go in and be a
session player and be commercial—to have
both of those worlds. You don’t see a lot of
guys who can jump in one genre and then
into another. It’s tough for a jazz guitarist to
stay on the same lines as a piano and saxophone—sometimes jazz licks don’t play that
great on guitar. But Hank was one of the
few who could do it. He had a real smoothness
and very melodic lines. Everything was
real fluid, and his technique was tremendously
stellar. Whatever the style, I never
could find a weakness in his work.”
Even metal shredder John Lowery (aka
John 5) cites Garland as the first axe man
to really strike a chord with him. “‘Sugar
Foot Rag’ is on my first instrumental record
because I felt like I grew up with Hank.
He was the guitar hero, the shredder back
in the day,” Lowery says. “He was the man.
I guarantee that if kids today would check
him out, his popularity would skyrocket.
There are so many great recordings people
should listen to. It will blow their minds.”
“Sugar Foot Rag” was the only “hit”
to officially bear Garland’s name, but he
contributed to a host of popular singles for
other performers. His days were devoted
to quick, efficient sessions in Nashville
studios, while his evenings were spent in
smoky bars in Printer’s Alley—places like
the Carousel Club, where audiences were
required to be silent and waiters strolled
the room in red coats. It was in the latter
environment that Garland indulged in a
different genre—jazz. Owing to his time
in these contrasting worlds, Garland developed
an incredible ability to seamlessly
shift between styles in a manner that would
become one of his hallmarks.
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