Hank Garland led a double life. As a first-call Nashville session guitarist in the 1950s, he cut scores of hits with top post-war country, rockabilly, and pop artists. But Garland was also an innovative jazzbo who jammed in New York clubs with Charlie Parker, and applied the lessons he learned onstage to his solo albums. Few guitarists make enduring contributions to both jazz and commercial music, yet Garland pulled it off in his brief, but spectacular career.
Born in 1930 in rural South Carolina, Garland was influenced by the country music that surrounded him as a child. According to Chet Atkins, Garland was drawn into music after hearing Maybelle Carter’s melodic picking on “Wildwood Flower.” At age six, Garland starting taking guitar lessons; in 1945 at age 15, he made his debut at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry with a hot Western swing band called the Arkansas Cotton Pickers. A year later, he moved to Nashville and began his studio career, playing both acoustic and electric guitar (the latter was still a novel instrument in 1946).
In 1949, Garland landed a contract with Decca and began recording his own music, including the instrumental “Sugarfoot Rag.” Hearing the catchy tune, country singer Red Foley had songwriter Vaughan Horton add lyrics. Accompanied by the nimble-fingered Garland, Foley cut this new version of “Sugarfoot Rag.” Released as the B-side of Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy”—which sold over a million copies and hit No. 1 on both the pop and country charts—“Sugarfoot Rag” established the 19-year-old Garland as one of country music’s hottest pickers.
During the 1950s, Nashville evolved into a recording center, and “Sugarfoot” Garland (as he was now known) stayed busy backing all the greats, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee, Duane Eddy, the Everly Brothers, Charlie Rich, Don Gibson, Webb Pierce, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Garland’s supple phrases and rich tones were captured on hundreds of records. Not content to be a virtuoso sideman, Garland began to explore jazz, recording Velvet Guitar in 1959 and Jazz Winds from a New Direction in 1960. Featuring a teenage Gary Burton on vibes and Dave Brubeck’s drummer Joe Morello, Jazz Winds revealed Garland’s wicked chops and thoroughly modern take on improvisation. Fans of Tal Farlow’s lightning lines and colorful altered chords found another guitarist to admire and emulate.
In the fall of 1961, at the height of his commercial and artistic success, Garland was in a car wreck that left him in a coma for weeks. Though he survived, he suffered severe brain damage and had to relearn to walk and speak. Subsequent shock therapy didn’t help matters, and though he again took up guitar, Garland was unable to regain his former abilities. After years of ill health, he died on December 27, 2004, at the age of 74.
Let’s pay tribute to Garland and his exquisite musicianship by exploring a handful of his bluesiest lines. To hear his magic, snag a copy of Move! The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland [Euphoria!]. The two-CD set contains three LPs—Velvet Guitar, Jazz Winds from a New Direction, and The Unforgettable Guitar of Hank Garland—plus previously unreleased material. This is essential listening for fans of jazz and swing guitar.