The South Carolina family had seemingly come all the way to Nashville for nothing. It was 1945, and an Opry star had invited their guitar-mad, 15-year-old son to join his band on the Ryman's hallowed stage. Now that star Paul Howard, leader of The Arkansas Cotton Pickens, could not remember the invitation he'd extended - in person in Spartanburg, South Carolina and then by phone-to young Walter Louis "Hank" Garland. His parents, skeptical at the invitations, had nonetheless brought their son to Nashville. Only when Hank's father reminded Howard of the phone calls did he remember: On tour, Howard had stopped at Alexander's Music Store in Spartanburg where Hank was buying a guitar string. The clerks praised the teenager's playing and handed him a guitar. After hearing him play, Howard offered him a job on the spot.
That night on the Opry, young Hank Garland's intense electric guitar boogie instrumental blew away Howard, his musicians and the Opry audience. The bandleader made good on his job offer until the Musicians' Union discovered Garland s age. He had to be 16 to qualify for working papers. Hank went back, dejected, to Cowpens, South Carolina, where he'd been born on November 11, 1930. He'd grown up influenced deeply by Maybelle Carter, and became good enough to play in Shorty Painter's country band in nearby Spartanburg. That's what he'd been doing when he met Howard.
True to his word, Howard phoned Hank on November 11, 1946, to summon him back to Nashville. Chet Atkins, himself new to the Opry, remembered the teenager as overeager, playing tough and focusing on fast and flashy licks. He made his first recordings with Howard's band for Columbia, playing in a twin guitar ensemble with the gifted, underrated Nashville guitarist Robert "Jabbo" Arrington. After a few months with Howard, Garland joined Cowboy Copas' excellent band for two years.
In 1949, Paul Cohen and his assistant, Owen Bradley, began using Garland on Decca recording sessions, and Cohen signed him to Decca as a singer-guitarist. The singing was a mistake. His vocals were mediocre, his instrumentals far better. In 1949 he recorded an original instrumental "Sugarfoot Rag." Red Foley recorded it with lyrics late that .year, Garland again playing the guitar solo and receiving billing. When the record became a huge hit for Foley, it earned Garland recognition and a nickname. Though Garland's own Decca recordings didn't sell, they included outstanding instrumentals.
Still obsessed with jazz, Garland listened to Belgian jazz master Django Reinhardt for hours. He also spent much of the early 50's in Eddy Arnold's band. He took advantage of Arnold's trips to New York City for recording and TV appearances to hear jazz in clubs and to take lessons from jazz guitar virtuoso Barry Galbraith. After leaving Arnold in the mid-50's, Hank worked with pop and jazz units around Nashville, but spent mast of his time in the growing studio scene.