By Kurt Wolff
If his name doesn’t ring a bell for the average country fan today, that’s understandable, as Tompall has been out of the spotlight–and pretty much the entire music world–for many years. But the influence of this soulful, husky-voiced singer, businessman, and musical visionary was significant. Considering how many aspects of the music business he was involved with during his career, it’s a wonder he’s not better known.
For starters, Tompall was a member of acclaimed vocal group the Glaser Brothers, who had a string of chart hits in the 1960s. He was also a studio owner and independent publisher (his big win here being the John Hartford song “Gentle on My Mind”); a solo artist; and, perhaps most notably of all, a key member of the 1970s “outlaw” country community, which culminated in the 1976 compilation album Wanted! The Outlaws. Featuring Glaser alongside Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Jessi Colter, that album collected a few of each artist’s key songs and became country’s first-ever million-selling album.
Born and raised in Spalding, Nebraska, Tompall and his brothers Chuck and Jim sang together as kids, and they first earned acclaim backing up cowboy singer Marty Robbins, who encouraged them to move to Nashville. They eventually began recording on their own as the Glaser Brothers, having hits with such folk-flavored country songs as “Gone Girl” (written by “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who also passed away just last week), “Through the Eyes of Love,” “California Girl (and the Tennessee Square),” and the impossibly catchy “Rings.” The latter was their highest-charting song, peaking at No. 7 in 1971.
Tompall also wrote some well-known songs (such as “The Streets of Baltimore” with Harlan Howard) and, starting in the 1970s, recorded as a solo artist. His 1976 album The Great Tompall And His Outlaw Band may have sported a somewhat inflated-sounding title, but the music inside was groundbreaking, as it mixed R&B, rock, and blues sounds (two of the bandmembers came from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s band) alongside country and western swing influences and wound up stretching the genre in new directions.
Tompall and his brothers, though, also shook up the Nashville establishment on the business side as well. In 1969 they opened their own studio, Glaser Brothers Sound Studios, which was eventually dubbed Hillbilly Central. Adopting a looser, less-regimented approach to the recording process, here the hair was longer, the working hours more flexible, and the general vibe far more laid-back than was typical across Music Row. No wonder Waylon Jennings spent a lot of time here and even chose the studio to cut his landmark album Dreaming My Dreams (produced by the late Jack Clement, who also felt right at home at Hillbilly Central).
In addition to their own studio, the Glasers also formed their own publishing company, which again flew in the face of the status quo. Their big coup in this department came when one of the songs they represented, John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” turned into a smash hit thanks to a version cut by Glen Campbell. The now-classic song has since been covered by literally hundreds of artists.
The Glaser Brothers reunited for a few years starting in 1979, and they had one final hit with their version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” After that, though, the brothers parted ways — again.
Tompall’s brother Jim described that time in a 2004 interview with Country Weekly. “When I got to Nashville I was 20 years old, and I saw a lot of old dudes that were superstars that were performing past their prime. I said I wasn’t going to do that. So in the late ’80s, when I lost my record deal, I quit.” Jim did, though, eventually return to music.
Since the 1980s, Tompall recorded and released only a small handful of additional albums, including the 2007 gospel release Outlaw To The Cross.
The family’s musical spirit lives also in the music of four of the brothers’ nephews, who call themselves the Brothers Glaser. The original Glaser Brothers are also the subject of a recent documentary. In terms of their vocal harmonies, “the Glaser Brothers in my opinion were right there with the Everly Brothers,” says country singer Bobby Bare in the film’s trailer.
Jim Glaser posted a short note on his Facebook page about Tompall, thanking fans and friends “for your kind thoughts and prayers at this time.”
A private family memorial is being planned.