Country  •  Honky Tonk

Honky Tonk

Birthed in the rowdy Southern bars christened with the same name, Honky Tonk is the single sound most associated with country music. It's become an enduring staple, the style to which mainstream country inevitably returns time and time again to refresh itself, a source of inspiration and renewal when popular trends begin to take country music away from its roots. The basic honky tonk sound features acoustic and/or electric guitar, fiddle, string bass, and steel guitar (which was imported from Hawaiian music), while the vocals often draw from the so-called "high lonesome" sound of traditional country, sounding either rough and nasal (Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb) or smooth and clear (Lefty Frizzell, George Jones). Like the music, honky tonk lyrics are emotionally simple and direct, often with a plain-spoken vulnerability and a sense of emotional release. Instead of depicting rural life, though, honky tonk's subject matter was rooted in its immediate surroudings -- taverns. Celebrations of romance, parties, and good times were quite common (as were novelty songs), but honky tonk became especially well-known for its fascination with the flip side: heartbreak, infidelity, pain that could only be numbed with alcohol, morning-after remorse, and religious guilt. Although it's generally thought of as a rural music, honky tonk was actually more the result of rural migration to Southern urban centers, particularly those of Texas. The music initially became popular during World War II, with Ernest Tubb becoming its first star; however, the '50s proved to be honky tonk's golden age. Singer and songwriter Hank Williams hit his absolute prime at the dawn of the decade, and Lefty Frizzell forever altered the way country music was sung with his smooth, lengthy melodic phrases and rich, pure tenor. George Jones rose to prominence in the middle of the decade, becoming a near-consensus choice for country's greatest-ever interpretive singer by adding a startling emotional intensity to Frizzell's phrasing innovations. Honky tonk slowly declined in popularity as rockabilly and country-pop captured mainstream audiences, but its signature sound informed virtually every reaction against country-pop in the decades to come: Bakersfield country in the '60s, progressive and outlaw country in the '70s, and New Traditionalist country in the '80s and '90s.