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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 920

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This is the grave of Hank Snow.

Born in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia in 1914, Clarence Snow grew up dirt poor. His parents had a bad marriage and they had no money at all. His father worked in sawmills, many of which were far away from their home. His mother cleaned houses for pennies. His mother also was a good piano player who was hired to accompany silent films in nearby theaters. So there was musical interest in the family. His parents separated in 1922 and it was pretty bad for the kids. The father had no ability to take them. The mother was deemed too poor. So they were separated and given to different people. Clarence went to his paternal grandmother who routinely beat the hell out of him and forced him to never see his mother. Naturally, he rebelled.

So this was a pretty rough childhood. His mother later married a fisherman named Charles Tanner, who was also a well-known local folk musician. Young Clarence showed musical talent as well and they encouraged it. They bought a guitar and when he played it, they were amazed he was so naturally good.

Snow started working in 1926 on fishing boats as a flunky. Yep, he was 12. His stepfather, who had also taken to abusing the child, kicked him out of the house. The job was unpaid except he could sell the tongues of cod and any fish he caught during the day after work. They would listen to early country music broadcasts on the radio now enveloping the world. So he heard people such as Vernon Dalhart and thought maybe he could do that too. After nearly drowning in a storm in 1930, Snow said he was done with the water. Good choice. Everything about the ocean says “Stay away, I will kill you.” The limited money he made on the water he saved to get a guitar.

Snow then tried to make a go of it in music, doing everything from local radio shows to blackface routines (he later claimed this was against his will but it’s not a real compelling excuse). He started getting local work in Halifax, changed his name to Hank (this was before Hank Williams got big; basically it was just better for the radio than Clarence) and got his first recording contract with RCA Victor in 1936. At this point, he was basically a Jimmie Rogers copycat, which wasn’t unusual. This is basically how George Jones got his start nearly two decades later. Rogers was popular! In fact, Snow named his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow.

For the next decade, Snow was only popular in Canada. He remained based in Canada, with his own CBC radio show and doing Canadian tours. Country music was nearly as popular in Canada as the U.S.

It was only in 1949 that Snow made the plunge into the American market, moving to Nashville. He sold himself as a cowboy through these years, though he was not. Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger is how he marketed himself. But he hit big pretty fast. Ernest Tubb took a liking to him and got him his first Opry slots. Hank Williams introduced Snow the first time the latter appeared on the show. He had a top 10 single that year with “Marriage Vow.” Then he started appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and rapidly became one of the genre’s biggest stars. His second single was “I’m Moving On” and this was a gigantic hit that remained #1 for a ridiculous 21 weeks! That was the first his his 7 #1 singles. Those would include such classics of 1950s country as “The Golden Rocket,” “The Rhumba Boogie,” and “I’ve Been Everywhere,” which is NOT a Johnny Cash song, but just one he covered in his late career revival. Snow rewrote what was a popular song in Australia to make it about his travels as a country musician, portraying himself as a hitchhiker.

Snow was a huge deal, despite what I find to be a quite limited voice (hardly uncommon among male country stars of the era. I mean, I think I have a greater range than Ernest Tubb). He could call the shots and that included giving Elvis Presley an early break, having Elvis open for him as early as 1954. In fact, Snow introduced Elvis to Colonel Tom Parker! The irony of this is that Parker was Snow’s manager for awhile and Snow despised him. He hated that Parker claimed to be a colonel when he was not (as if southern men giving themselves honorary military titles was anything but common in those days) and later wrote that he “was the most egotistical, obnoxious human being I’ve ever had dealings with.” Ha ha, sounds right!

The irony of Snow’s support of Elvis is that rock and roll was pretty disastrous for a country artist such as Snow, who sang in an old-time way. Rock was pretty bad for lots of these guys, but obviously not all. From Johnny Cash to Marty Robbins, many could find a way forward. But Snow’s popularity declined significantly and he moved toward senior status even though he was a fairly young guy still. He did manage a final #1 hit in 1974 with “Hello Love,” which later became the opening song for Prairie Home Companion. At the age of 61, this made him the oldest person to date to top the country charts. There’s a self-obsessed country star character in Robert Altman’s Nashville based on Snow. He remained on the Opry forever. He got elected to your various songwriter and singer halls of fame. Everyone knew who he was. But he was a blast from the past, despite continuing to record. In fact, he churned the material out. Country musicians recorded way too much during these decades, just throwing material at the market that largely consisted of third rate covers and poorly conceived songs. This is how you end up with 140 albums over a career, as Snow had. After a mere 45 years on RCA, the label dumped him in 1981, but he kept the recording going.

Snow also dedicated his money to helping abused children having more options than he did. He recorded songs about abused children. And he created Hank Snow Foundation for the Prevention of Child Abuse to help out kids. He also wrote an autobiography in 1994.

Very few Snow albums are heard today. Probably the most famous is his 1958 release When Tragedy Struck, which is pretty maudlin, to say the least. That’s the one I know best. His Jimmie Rogers cover albums (he’d pop one of these out about every decade) are reasonably well known too. But I’d say the actual music of Hank Snow remains largely unheard today, even by most country fans.

Snow also had one of the most ridiculous hairpieces ever made.

Snow continued to perform until 1996. He died three years later, at the age of 85, of heart failure.

Let’s listen to some Hank Snow.

Hank Snow is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

Snow was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1979. He was the only inductee that year. If you would like this series to profile other members of the Hall inducted around that time, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Grandpa Jones, inducted in 1978, is in Goodlettsville, Tennessee and Roy Rogers, inducted in 1980 as part of Sons of the Pioneers, is in Apple Valley, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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