Styles & Forms | Honky-Tonk | Country

At least until the 1930s and 1940s the dominant themes in country music were a celebration of bedrock rural values like family, faith, fidelity and the redeeming powers of true love and honest labour. The music served as much as anything to offer listeners comfort, reassurance and a soothing sense of place and identity.

But as America’s national zeitgeist began to reflect dramatic social shifts like the industrial-age migration from country to city, country music, especially in the unsettled, temporary, Second World War-era oil field, factory and shipyard settlements of Texas and the great American Southwest, underwent a similar transformation. The rise of honky-tonk music was a manifestation of that social upheaval. It is strident, electrified and utterly worldly music that drew its very name from the rough-hewn saloons and dancehalls, known as ‘honky-tonks’, in grungy working-class cities like Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas. Honky-tonk really became a force in country music during the 1940s and particularly during the era of the Second World War.

Honky-tonk’s emphasis on electrification and heavier percussion was also a departure from largely acoustic-based traditional country music. It was both a reflection of a faster-paced life as well as a practical means of being heard over the late-night din in an oil-field or factory-town bar room.

The Kings Of Honky-Tonk

The first major star to arise in the genre was Texas-born Ernest Tubb, whose illustrious recording career stretched from 1936 until 1982. A gruff-voiced yet plaintive singer, Tubb started out in the 1930s as an earnest disciple of Jimmie Rodgers, but he found his own laconic voice with earthy honky-tonk anthems like ‘Walking The Floor Over You’, ‘Wasting My Life Away’ and ‘Warm Red Wine’. Tubb further widened honky-tonk’s audience in the early 1940s when he became a member of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

But few if any artists would transfigure country music, write and sing the standards and define honky-tonk for decades to come in the way that Alabama-born former shipyard worker and itinerant musician Hank Williams did, beginning in the late 1940s. Williams’ timeless originals (‘Cold, Cold Heart’, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, ‘Jambalaya’, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, etc.) and his stark, lonesome and evocative singing style both personified and transcended honky-tonk’s earthbound parameters.

Despite Williams’ early and untimely death at age 29 in 1953, his immense musical legacy and ill-starred legend loom even larger with each passing year. His original compositions, in the half-century since his death, have been recorded hundreds of times by everyone from George Jones and Patsy Cline to Tony Bennett and Cassandra Wilson.

Humpty-Dumpty And Honky-Tonk Angels

Nearly as influential as Williams as a honky-tonk vocalist was Corsicana, Texas-born Lefty Frizzell. Like Tubb before him, Frizzell was heavily steeped in the Jimmie Rodgers legacy. Yet by the early 1950s, when he had an almost unprecedented flurry of hits like ‘If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time’ and ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’,...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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