The first thing we hear on At The Golden Nugget is the spin of a roulette wheel, and throughout this great live album we hear the many sounds of Las Vegas' Golden Nugget casino: slots paying off, phones ringing, even the murmuring of gamblers too preoccupied with their own bets to pay much attention to Hank Thompson's unique blend of honky tonk and western swing. Captured flawlessly by Capitol producer Ken Nelson (Merle Haggard, Buck Owens), this loose, engaging atmosphere is certainly among the many charms of this classic disc, an about-time reissue of a 1961 live LP that was the first-ever by a solo C&W performer.
At least at first, though, the casino setting is also the recording's only real weakness. Checking out the band, after all, was a distant second on this crowd's mind--these folks were in town to gamble. As a result, some of the earlier cuts here sound a bit lifeless and perfunctory, as if Hank and His Brazos Valley Boys were having a tough time getting it up for yet another round of music-to-wager-by. This tired, one-more-set feel is perfectly understandable, too. For one thing, Thompson was in the middle of a grueling six-shows-a-night engagement at the casino and, for another, the crowds he was laboring for were not necessarily country fans (From the slight applause, only one table in the room recognizes Thompson's gorgeous 1959 hit, "I Didn't Mean To Fall In Love With You"; later, it takes this bunch almost to the chorus to recognize "Lost Highway" with some "Hey, we know THIS one" applause--even though Hank'd already introduced the damn song.)
But four cuts in, during a nearly incendiary "Orange Blossom Special" (featuring great fiddlin' by Curly Lewis), the disc takes off -- and then some. It sounds like the band suddenly decided: "Hell, they might not be here to listen to us, but damned if we ain't gonna make `em listen to us, and like it too." Which is exactly what happens, since the applause and hollering from this tourist audience increase exponentially throughout the show (two shows actually, recorded on back-to-back nights and then stuck together to simulate one long set, according to the ubiquitous Rich Kienzle's fine notes). Everything after "Orange Blossom" just smokes: a galloping "John Henry" as good as any you'll ever hear; a "Nine Pound Hammer" that swings and gently rocks behind a Merle Travis guitar solo that's quietly perfect; and plenty of "senter-mental ballerds" such as the standard "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" ("a mighty pretty song, and a mighty pretty idea for a song," Hank says) and Thompson's own "Just One Step Away."
All along, Thompson's honky-tonk-plus-western-swing style is in particularly fine form. While Bob Wills and earlier swing masters managed to synthesize their country and big-band jazz elements into a new sound altogether, Thompson's approach was to simply combine the two styles in the same song, creating wonderfully bracing moments when a trad honky tonker could be unexpectedly hijacked by a trumpet solo. In fact, the amazingly wild and Vegasy "Steel Guitar Rag" that's included here (which highlights Bobby Garrett's downright incendiary pedal steel) almost sounds like two bands are playing at once -- one following, say, Ernest Tubb, the other Benny Goodman.
After closing with his beer-drinkers' anthem "Six Pack to Go," Thompson says goodnight to the crowd as professionally, and stiffly, as if he were tram-ming amusement park patrons back out to their cars after a fun day of rides and overpriced soft-drinks: "If we've entertained you, it's certainly been our privilege and our pleasure... Have a lot of fun and be sure to come back to the Golden Nugget." Then he introduces his crack bandmembers to the crowd by name, and from the long and excited round of applause that follows, it's clear that, while they may have come to lose their shirts, these gamblers now know they've hit the jackpot.