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Hank Snow; Country Music Legend, Colorful Showman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Country music’s flamboyant “Singing Ranger,” Hank Snow, who was born in a tiny Canadian fishing village but created a half-century Nashville career with his rhinestone suits and rollicking hits such as “I’m Movin’ On,” died Monday. He was 85.

A staple of the Grand Ole Opry, Snow died at his home, the Rainbow Ranch in Madison, Tenn. His son, the Rev. Jimmie Rodgers Snow, said the initial indications point to heart failure as the cause of death.

Inspired by western film stars such as Tom Mix, Snow escaped an abusive childhood home and a teenage stint as a cabin boy on Arctic fishing schooners to become one of the biggest stars of the country scene in its post-World War II growth years.

As a young songwriter, Snow drew on musical influences ranging from country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers to the pop tunes of Tin Pan Alley to create his distinctive sound--which caught the ear of country legend Ernest Tubb, who pushed to have Snow added to the Grand Ole Opry roster in 1949.

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That same year, Snow’s signature song, “I’m Movin’ On,” spent a record 21 weeks at No. 1 on the country charts. The song--about hopping aboard a train to leave a lover--would become the biggest hit of the year and would eventually be recorded in 36 languages. Among the artists who recorded the song were Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Emmylou Harris.

The success of that hit launched Snow on a prolific career that would see him record more than 100 albums and log hits through 1980. Among his best-known songs: “I’ve Been Everywhere,” "(Now and Then, There’s) A Fool Such As I,” “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” “Hello Love,” “Let Me Go Lover” and “Golden Rocket.”

Snow is largely unknown to many of today’s country music fans, even those who are familiar with Hank Williams Sr., Tubb, Roy Acuff and other stars of the 1940s and 1950s, and that’s a regrettable blind spot, said Willie Nelson, who recorded a 1985 duet album with Snow.

“When you talk about traditional country music, Hank Snow is right in the middle of that picture,” Nelson told The Times on Monday. “It’s people’s loss if they don’t hear it, because Hank Snow music is the traditional country in its greatest form. It’s really a shame that everyone doesn’t know this music.”

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Kyle Young, the director of the Country Music Hall of Fame, on Monday called Snow “one of the best songwriters in the history of the music” and added that Snow’s use of unusual rhythms and other musical experiments are under-recognized.

“When most people think of him, they think of the tremendous impact that Jimmie Rodgers had on him or they think of ‘I’m Movin’ On,’ arguably his greatest hit,” Young said. “But he was a real experimenter. That is an anomaly in our field now and it was an anomaly then. He was so versatile: Latin rhythms, jazz, blues, Hawaiian, recitations, mambo, gospel.”

Born Clarence Eugene Snow in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia, in 1914, the future singer endured a bleak, brutal youth. After his parents divorced when he was 8, Snow endured ongoing abuse from a stepfather he later described as “cruel, heartless and ignorant.” At 12, he sought out “a last resort for survival” by joining the crews of fishing ships, a job that allowed him to save the $6 needed to buy his first guitar, according to his autobiography, “The Hank Snow Story.”

The youthful travails inspired him in 1978 to create an international foundation for child abuse prevention. “I know what it is to do a man’s work as a young boy,” he once told an interviewer. “I have never forgotten the abuse I received as a child.’

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Better days awaited the young Snow. He honed his guitar and harmonica while playing for his shipmates and in bars, and his first break came in 1936 when he landed a job playing his songs on a radio station in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For $10 a week, he would do 15 minutes each day.

Snow modeled his sound on the music of Rodgers, the famed “Singing Brakeman,” whose impact on Snow was profound. Indeed, Snow eventually named his eldest son after the country music icon and, in 1953, dedicated a memorial to Rodgers in the singer’s native Mississippi. For years, he returned to the site for the annual celebration of Rodgers’ life and music.

If Rodgers molded Snow’s sound, it was Hollywood’s vision of the Wild West that shaped the colorful profile he cut on stage. “I would go to any movie when I lived in Canada if it showed anything of America,” he said. “Texas was always big on my mind.”

So Snow bought cowboy boots and Western wear and a trick-performing pony named Shawnee, creating a reputation for gaudy showmanship that would become a hallmark of his career. Today, his florid, purple-sequined costumes and a canary yellow 1947 Cadillac are centerpieces at the Hank Snow Country Music Centre near his hometown.

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Months after his radio debut, Snow signed a record deal with RCA Victor, but any success south of the Canadian border defied Snow until Tubb became an advocate for him. His first U.S. chart success came in 1949 with a modest hit called “Marriage Vows,” which was quickly followed by the breakthrough success of “Movin’ On.”

Snow was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1979 and, after walking on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in six decades, Snow became the first artist to be honored in that venerable institution’s museum.

Longevity was a mark of Snow’s career; his 45 years on the roster of RCA Records are widely acknowledged as an unmatched record in the industry. He logged seven No. 1 songs, the last being “Hello Love” in 1974 when he was 61, which gives him the distinction of being the oldest performer to score the chart’s top spot.

Snow is survived by his wife, Min Aalders Snow; his son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow; a sister, Marion Peach, and several grandchildren.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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