Born Walter Louis Garland, 11 November 1930, Cowpens, South Carolina
Cowpens is a rural suburb of Spartanburg, SC, and while growing up there, Garland absorbed country music from Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith and Mother Maybelle Carter on the radio, eventually switching from banjo to guitar. He joined the Grand Ole Opry at 15 in 1945 and was among the first to play eclectric guitar on the country scene. In the spring of 1949, staff producer Paul Cohen signed him to Decca Records as a solo artist. His first session, on May 1, 1949, produced the amazing instrumental "Sugarfoot Boogie", which he would develop into the classic "Sugarfoot Rag" at his next session. At this August 1949 session Hank also recorded three tracks as a singer, but that was a mistake. His vocals were mediocre, his instrumentals far better. Backed by Garland, Red Foley recorded a vocal version of "Sugarfoot Rag" in November 1949, which would peak at # 4 on the country charts. After leaving Decca in 1951, Hank joined Eddy Arnold's backup band and played on radio shows out of Springfield, Missouri.
From the mid-fifties on his most adventurous work was done in the studio backing others. Of Nashville's A-Team of studio guitarists, few could match Garland's versatility. He appeared on innumerable Nashville recording sessions, mostly country, but also rock 'n' roll, including Elvis Presley's famous June 1958 session ("A Fool Such as I", "A Big Hunk O'Love" etc.) and most of the post-Army Presley recordings until mid-1961 ("Stuck On You", "Elvis Is Back" LP, "Little Sister", et al.). He also worked with the Everly Brothers, Brenda Lee, Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Self, and Johnny Preston among many others.
In the 1950s Hank developed a strong interest in jazz, mainly under the influence of Django Reinhardt. His jazz debut on records, the LP "Jazz Winds From A New Direction" (Columbia, 1960, produced by Don Law) astonished both jazz and country circles, and a follow-up album "The Unforgettable Guitar of Hank Garland" was recorded in 1961 (but not issued until late 1962). Hank seemed set for jazz stardom. Then tragedy struck.
On the morning of September 8, 1961, he had quarreled bitterly with wife Evelyn, who took their two children to a Nashville motel until things calmed down. Arriving home, Garland found them gone and assumed she'd taken the kids back to her native Milwaukee and set out after her. Speeding north, around 5:00 P.M., on Route 41 north of Springfield, Tennessee, his station wagon overturned, throwing Hank from the vehicle. He spent weeks in a coma. Finally, when he awoke, Grady Martin brought him a guitar. A few minutes later, Martin emerged in tears. Garland could not maintain his coordination. After he recovered, his aggressive personality changed; he could play well for only brief periods before losing his train of musical thought, a consequence of the injury. His attempts to resume session work faded. For the next year, as financial problems closed in on the Garlands, his friends on the Nashville A-Team signed his name on Musicians' Union cards to guarantee the family had something to live on. Given the scope of his musical contributions, it's doubtful the deception upset even the record companies. The family moved to Milwaukee, where Evelyn died in a 1965 auto accident. After years of inactivity, Garland appeared at an Opry old-timers show in 1976, where he managed to pick out "Sugarfoot Rag", but he could never resume an active role in music.
Hank Garland died of a staph infection in late 2004, aged 74. His life and times was the subject of the mostly fictional movie "Crazy" (2008), with Waylon Payne in the role of Garland.
More info :
Acknowledgements : Rich Kienzle.
As a session man :
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