Hank Snow Biography

Clarence Eugene Snow, 9 May 1914, Brooklyn, near Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada, d. 20 December 1999, Madison, Tennessee, USA. After his parents divorced when he was eight years old, Snow spent four unhappy years with his grandmother, finally running away to rejoin his mother when she remarried. However, he was cruelly mistreated by his stepfather, which prompted him to abscond again. Snow stated ‘I took so many beatings from him I still carry scars across my body that were left by his ham-like hands’. Though only 12 years old, he went to sea and spent the next four years working on fishing boats in the Atlantic where, on several occasions, he almost lost his life. An early interest in music, gained from his mother who had been a pianist for silent films, led Snow to sing for fellow crew members. On his return home, he worked wherever he could but at the same time seeking a singing career. He gained great inspiration listening to his mother’s recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, and, acquiring a cheap guitar, he practised Rodgers’ blue yodel, guitar playing and delivery, and set out to emulate his idol. He began to sing locally and eventually, through the help of Cecil Landry, the station announcer and chief engineer, he obtained a weekly unpaid spot on CHNS Halifax on a programme calledDown On The Farm, where he became known as Clarence Snow And His Guitar and The Cowboy Blue Yodeller. It was Landry who, in 1934, first suggested the name of Hank, since he thought the boy needed a good western name.

Snow became a talented guitarist and in the following years always played lead guitar for his own recordings. He met and married his wife Minnie in 1936 and the couple struggled to overcome financial hardship; eventually through sponsorship, he was given a programme on the networkCanadian Farm Hour. In October 1936, by now known as ‘Hank the Yodelling Ranger’, he persuaded Hugh Joseph of RCA - Victor Records, Montreal, to allow him to record two of his own songs, ‘Lonesome Blue Yodel’ and ‘The Prisoned Cowboy’. This marked the start of a recording career destined to become the longest that any one country artist ever spent with the same record company. Rodgers’ influence remained with him and when Snow’s only son was born in 1937, he was named Jimmie Rodgers Snow. In 1944, after further recordings and regular work in Canada, and having become ‘Hank The Singing Ranger’ (owing to the fact that as his voice deepened he found he could no longer yodel), he extended his career to the USA. He played various venues, including the Wheeling Jamboree, and worked in Hollywood, usually appearing with his performing horse, Shawnee. However, the anticipated breakthrough did not materialize; RCA, New York informed him that they could not record him until he was known in America, but eventually they relented and in 1949 his recording of ‘Brand On My Heart’ brought him success in Texas. In December 1949, he achieved his first minor country chart hit with ‘Marriage Vow’.

At the recommendation of fellow Jimmie Rodgers devotee Ernest Tubb, he made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry in January 1950; he did not make a great impression and seriously considered abandoning thoughts of a career in the USA. This idea was forgotten when his self-penned million-seller, ‘I’m Moving On’, established him for all time. It spent 44 weeks on the US country charts, 21 at number 1 and even reached number 27 on the US pop charts. In the late 40s, Snow worked on tours with Hank Williams, later stating, ‘I found Hank to be a fine person but the stories about him have been blown completely out of proportion. Take it from me, Hank Williams was okay’. Williams can be heard introducing Snow on 1977’sA Tribute To Hank Williams. Snow formed a booking agency with Colonel Tom Parker and in 1954, they were responsible for Elvis Presley’s only Grand Ole Opry performance. Presley sang ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, but failed to make any impression on the audience that night. Parker, to Snow’s chagrin, took over Presley’s management, but Presley recorded material associated with Snow, including ‘A Fool Such As I’, ‘Old Shep’ and later, ‘I’m Movin’ On’. ‘I don’t mean to brag but Elvis was a big fan of mine and he was always sitting around singing my songs’, says Snow.

After his initial breakthrough, Snow became an internationally famous star whose records sold in their millions, and between 1950 and 1980, he amassed 85 country chart hits. Further number 1 records were ‘The Golden Rocket’, ‘I Don’t Hurt Anymore’, ‘Let Me Go, Lover’, ‘Hello Love’ and the tongue-twisting ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’. The last, which gave him his second million-seller, was an Australian song originally naming Australian towns, but Snow requested that the writer change it to appeal to Americans. He was later proud to state he recorded it on the sixth take, in spite of the fact that there were 93 place names to memorize.

Snow’s penchant for wearing a toupee that did not always appear to fit correctly at times caused mirth, and many people believed he deliberately emphasized it. Legend has it that, as a joke for the audience, one night on stage his fiddler player removed it with his bow and, understandably, received instant dismissal from his boss. Some album sleeves clearly show the toupee; others, such asMy Nova Scotia Home, are most beautiful designs, while the noose on Songs Of Tragedy easily makes it one of the most remembered. It is generally assumed that the character played by Henry Gibson in Robert Altman’s controversial 1975 movieNashville was modelled on Snow. Over the years his melodic voice, perfect diction and distinctive guitar playing made his recordings immediately identifiable, and his band, the Rainbow Ranch Boys, always contained some of country music’s finest musicians. His songwriting gained him election to the Nashville Songwriters’ International Hall Of Fame in 1978 and the following year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, the plaque rightly proclaiming him as one of country music’s most influential entertainers. In 1981, after a 45-year association, he parted company from RCA, stating it was ‘because I would not record the type of things that are going today’.

Snow did not record another solo album, feeling that ‘I have done everything in the recording line that was possible’. He resisted over-commercializing country music during his long career and said of the modern scene that ‘80% of today’s would be country music is a joke and not fit to listen to - suggestive material and a lot of it you can’t even understand the words, just a lot of loud music’. Snow played in many countries all over the world, being a particular favourite in the UK. An ability to handle all types of material led to him being classed as one of the most versatile country artists in the music’s history. In memory of his own unhappy childhood, he set up a foundation in Nashville to help abused children. In his last years he rarely toured, but maintained his regular Grand Ole Opry appearances. He was still readily recognizable by his flamboyant stage costumes, which were his hallmark over the years.

With well over 800 recordings over the years and sales approaching 70 million, Snow was not only influential, but hugely successful in commercial terms. A gigantic figure in the history of country music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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