Hank was survived by two daughters, Cheryl Gruendemann and Debra Garland along with four grandsons and great grandchildren. The epitaph on Hank’s gravestone reads, “THE GREATEST GUITAR PLAYER THAT EVER WALKED PLANET EARTH.”
Garland, who was widely respected by his peers and Nashville producers such as Chet Atkins, Don Law and Owen Bradley, and who would perform with Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Moon Mullican, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison began playing the guitar at the age of six. He grew up in an area dominated by hard-core country music, which had quite an impact upon young Hank. Chet Atkins, who worked closely with Garland through the years, recalls that “Hank said his first inspiration was, the Carter Family. He heard Maybelle picking the ‘Wildwood Flower’ when he was a little kid, and he dreamed that night he was playing it and he couldn’t wait, of course, to get a guitar.” Garland’s father-bought him a used Encore steel-string when Hank was six, and young Garland began taking lessons from one Mr. Fowler, who taught him basic chords and positions.
Early on, Hank was attracted to the playing of another young guitarist who was beginning to make his mark as a musician. Arthur Smith was just 17 when he began playing over radio station WSBA in Spartanburg, and Hank listened closely to him. Smith’s electric lines captivated Garland to the point that the younger musician attempted to electrify his acoustic. Atkins remembers Hank’s account of this event: “He told me he hooked an electric cord to the strings and plugged it in the wall and almost burned the guitar up.”
As World War II began, Hank was heading into adolescence as a true guitar addict. By the time he was in his teens he was proficient enough to join Shorty Painter’s band, a local group that gave him his first taste of performing experience. Garland remembers getting his first electric guitar during this time, although he isn’t sure if it was an archtop Gibson or Epiphone. He did, however, have a De Armond pickup on it, and ran it through a small Gibson amplifier.
His first real break as a professional musician came quite by chance. He had gone downtown to Alexander’s Music Store in Spartanburg to buy a string, and while there he was introduced to Grand Ole Opry member Paul Howard.
Howard was passing through with his western swing-styled Georgia Cotton Pickers group, and after handshakes were exchanged someone quickly produced a guitar and amp. Garland picked a little, and Howard, who played a major role in ending the Opry’s long-standing ban on electric guitars, was impressed. He offered Garland a job with the Cotton Pickers in Nashville, and told him he would call in two weeks to finalize the deal. It was 1945, and Hank was only 15 years old.
Garland went home ecstatic and explained it all to his parents, who had some initial reservations because of their son’s age and the fact that he would have to leave school. But Hank’s pleading over the next two weeks softened them, and when Howard finally called telling him to come to Nashville’s Tulane Hotel, they reluctantly assented. When Hank arrived at the Tulane, however, Howard didn’t remember him. Hank was crushed, but went on to ask Howard if he could play on the Opry that night anyhow. The bandleader agreed, and that evening Garland was featured on a boogie woogie instrumental that brought the audience at the Ryman Auditorium to its feet. Backstage after the performance Howard dubbed Hank the “Baby Cotton Picker” and, told him, “Kid, you have a job here as long as I got one”. For the next eight weeks he worked on the road and on the Opry with the Cotton Pickers, but because of extraneous circumstances his initial stay with the group was cut short. At 15 Garland wasn’t old enough to join the Musicians Union, and child-labour laws banned anyone that age from working full time. Crestfallen, Hank returned home to Cowpens, his only consolation being Howard’s promise to recall him to Nashville when Garland turned 16. On November 11, 1946, Hank got his call, from Howard, and a short time later he was back in Nashville with the Cotton Pickers.
He moved to Nashville at age 16, staying in Ma Upchurch’s boarding house, where he roomed with upright bassist Paul Buskirk, and mandolin player & fiddler Dale Potter. At age 18, Garland recorded his million-selling hit “Sugarfoot Rag”. Garland appeared on the Jubilee with Grady Martin’s band, and on Eddy Arnold’s network and syndicated television shows.
Garland is perhaps best known for his Nashville studio work with Elvis Presley from 1958 to 1961, which produced such rock hits as: “I Need Your Love Tonight”, “A Big Hunk O’ Love”, ” I’m Coming Home”. “I Got Stung”, “A Fool Such As I”, “Stuck on You”, “Little Sister”, “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame”, and “I Feel So Bad”.
However, he worked with many country music as well as rock ‘n roll stars of the late 1950s and early 1960s including: Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Mel Tillis, Marty Robbins, The Everly Brothers, Boots Randolph, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Moon Mullican.
1958 marked the height of the rockabilly era. Garland’s guitar drove such classic recordings as Benny Joy’s “Bundle of Love” and “I’m Gonna Move”, Jimmy Loyd’s “You’re Gone Baby” & “I’ve Got A Rocket In My Pocket”, Lefty Frizzell’s “You’re Humbuggin’ Me” Simon Crum’s “Stand Up, Sit Down, Shut Your Mouth”, and Johnny Strickland’s “She’s Mine.” He also backed major crossover artists as well. Don Gibson’s “Sweet Sweet Girl” & “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles”, Patsy Cline’s “Let the Teardrops Fall” Ronnie Hawkin’s “Jambalaya” and Faron Young’s “Alone with You” spotlighted Garland’s adept guitar work. Relatively obscure artists such as Jimmy Donley have reached cult status due in no small part to Garland’s guitar artistry. Donley’s 1960 record “My Baby’s Gone” showcases another of Hank’s superb riffs. It is believed that Garland was the first to explore the use of the power chord in popular music.
He also played with jazz artists such as George Shearing and Charlie Parker in New York and went on to record “Jazz Winds From a New Direction”, showcasing his evolving talent, along with Gary Burton on vibraphone, Joe Benjamin on acoustic bass and Joe Morello on drums.
His jazz combo was scheduled to play the Newport Jazz Festival but found itself on the sidelines after riots closed the festival. His album astonished both jazz and country circles, and a follow-up album, “The Unforgettable Guitar of Hank Garland”, was issued.
At the request of Gibson Guitar company president, Ted McCarty, Garland and fellow guitarist Billy Byrd strongly influenced the design of the Byrdland guitar, which derived from the Gibson L-5 guitar.
In September 1961, he was playing for the soundtrack of Presley’s movie, “Follow That Dream” when his 1959 Chevy Nomad station wagon crashed near Springfield, Tenn., throwing Garland from the car and leaving him in a coma for months. He recovered with the help of his brother Billy, but not sufficiently to return to the studios. It was believed that electroconvulsive therapy, prescribed by his doctors, may have caused more damage to his brain. Billy claimed that the crash was actually an attempted murder by someone in the Nashville music scene. He had photos showing bullet holes in the car.
When noted Nashville journalist Peter Cooper asked Chet Atkins a number of years ago who he thought the best guitar player to ever come to Nashville was, Atkins stated without hesitation, “Hank Garland.” “Chet wasn’t wrong,” said Harold Bradley, an A-Teamer who, after the accident, took over for Garland as the most recorded guitarist in Nashville. “I am very humble about my playing because Hank Garland is the standard.”
“I can’t even imagine what he would have become had he not been in that accident,” said Brad Paisley, a guitarist and contemporary country hit-maker who received a Grammy nomination for his own version of “Sugarfoot Rag.” “You’re talking about 40 years of lost innovation that could have come only from him.”
In 2008, Garland’s life story was the basis for the movie “Crazy.”