Updated: Nov 6
Honky tonk country is a style that many have associated with authentic traditional country music. I would add my name to that list, and know in my heart that we owe an enormous debt to Texahoma, Louisiana, and California for the privilege. Though the music has taken many turns, and amalgamations, most would agree at its core it is three chords and the truth.
As I've shared on these pages through the Honky Tonkin' Series,
Honky tonk music is much more than just a subgenere of music. It is a lifestyle that encompasses many moving parts. Whether it's a dancehall, festival or honk tonk, style, and swag play an important role. But most of all it is about the smiles, and tears sometimes for years that inspire these songs..
Those of us that love the music will tell you that there is nothing like a song about love gone bad to numb the pain. It's a curious thing really, and hard to explain. Someone else's heartache is proof that you are not alone in your feels. As a matter of fact, it can make you feel like your in this special club that only the true blue lifers can really understand..
Honky tonk country did birth two very important sub generous: Rockabilly, and Hard Country. The latter is the focus for this blog post. I am sharing five albums from my personal library that are a must have for die hard purists. These are albums you have to sit down and listen through all the way.
The releases featured are not necessarily the most successful commercially.
As y'all know the very best music does not always get the support it deserves. These albums really define that hard country sound we love so much in their own respective times. For our hand-picked selections, we step back to the 50's, 70's 80's, and fast forward to now.
I hope you'll pick them up, and give them a spin. And please share them w/ your family, and friends. That's one of the ways we keep this thing going. For me, music is like a family heirloom or legacy you pass down to the people you love. Music is impactful, emotional, and personal. If we all take the time to pay it forward, there is no way traditional country music will ever die.
I Am What I Am- GEORGE JONES
Release Date: September 8, 1980
This was an important album for George for several different reasons.
Firstly, it marked his comeback. Generally speaking, George was viewed by the country music industry as someone who had his 15 minutes of fame, and was past his prime.
George also had not had a number one single since 1974's The Door. It is well documented that post Tammy, he developed an intense cocaine habit to go along with his preexisting heavy drinking. And to make matters worse, he had picked up another bad habit not showing up for shows henceforth the name "No Show Jones".
This album turned things around for George as he had temporally gotten clean, and was hopeful towards life again. He Stopped Loving Her Today, a song that George thought was too morbid to be widely successful, has since sold over half a million copies, if not more. And the album is George's only release to reach platinum status. The song also earned George his first Grammy. Buy the record here.
Chiseled In Stone-VERN GOSDIN
Release Date: January 15, 1988
Affectionately known as "The Voice", and regarded as a singer's singer by those who know. Vern is as real as it gets. I know it is hard to believe, but Vern is not known as much outside of hard country circles. He hardly ever makes it to any of the top country male singers or songwriter's lists. Of course, this is a shame, and a big miss in country music as far as I'm concerned.
When this album was released, Vern was 50, three failed marriages deep, and packing up to leave Nashville, when Bob Montgomery from Columbia Records reached out. That fateful call resulted in a change of mind, and the beginning of a new project Chiseled In Stone. Vern Gosdin wrote every song on the album, often with his buddies Max D. Barnes, and Dean Dillon.
The album spawned several hard country standards such as
Set'em Up Joe, and the title cut which won the CMA;s 1989 Song of the Year award. Chiseled In Stone. The album was Vern's only top 10, and his first, and only gold certification barring two greatest hits releases. Buy it here.
Moanin' The Blues- Hank Williams
Release Date: September 8, 1952
A literal masterpiece. The album was released just mere months before Hank died, and contained mostly previous hits that were originally released as singles. Like most of our five picks, the songs were almost entirely written by the artist. What I love most about this album are the heartfelt laments of Hank's own broken heart nestled
in poetic verse, and rhyme.
Hank had a perfect blend of story teller, and poet further punctuated
in a song like I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Almost the entire album is centered around intense feelings of heartbreak, and loneliness.
But there are a couple of songs where Hank gets his bearings and says I'm tired of this. I'm a Long Gone Daddy is a great example where Hank declares "I don't need you anyhow!"..
All in all, you would be hard-pressed to call yourself a traditional honky tonk country fan without this one in your playlist. The tracks were recorded between 1947-1951, and also showcase the production wizardry of Fred Rose. A handful of star players on these original recordings such as Jerry Rivers on fiddle, Don Helms on steel, and Owen Bradley on piano really make the songs shine. Included here is an expanded version, but the first eight songs listed were in the original 1952 release. Buy it here.
Where Have You Gone- ALAN JACKSON
Release Date: May 14, 2021
When I sat through, and heard Where Have You Gone in its entirety,
I was moved to tears, and flooded with gratitude, and a renewed respect for Alan Jackson, and the stirring musical art he creates, and shares with the world. I think this is an album that will be singled out as a harbinger of an unavoidable reemergence of traditional honky tonk country.
The reason why Where Have You Gone is significant is because it is an intentionally sobering look at the current state of country music.
Don't sleep on the actual point here. We are not talking about just the arrangements, and instrumentation, though both factors are key in the classic honky tonk country sound. We are talking about country music's soul. Writing, and singing about things that actually matter in real life from a deeply personal, and often lived in level.
Family, life, and love are routinely traded in for a formulaic quest for the next big hit. And of course, it's not ALL like that. A song like Flower Shops making it to number one is further proof that there is STILL an audience for hard country music. Back to the point that is important not to miss, Alan's recent album is decidedly traditional country along the lines of "Here In The Real World" his Arista debut.
A nod of awareness or understanding that he is seeing, and hearing the same things we are. Lots of music under the country music genre does not sound like country music at all. I for one love all types of music from the blues to classic rock, and more. But have always seen traditional country as a safe haven or my home. When done right, it anchors you, and soothes your soul. We cannot let the greatest music on planet earth die, and Alan Jackson's Where Have You Gone is saying we don't have to. Buy it here.
The Classic Style-LEFTY FRIZZELL
RELEASE DATE: April 4, 1975
It was sadly Lefty's last album, and showcased a soulful, and painfully somber vocal tone throughout the 10 songs included. Lefty was still charting, but the hey days of the 50's were long gone. I've read several notes stating that Lefty had lost his voice, and his writing mojo. It's just not true as clearly evident in this album.
Sure, there are less vocal acrobatics, which is understandable as almost the entire tone of the album is more reflective, and less showy. Some standouts are the Charlie Rich penned Sittin' and Thinkin', I'm Not That Good at Goodbyes", and Life's Like Poetry written by Merle Haggard.
But my hands down favorite is My Wishing Room. It was written by Lefty and Whitey Shaffer. Whitey was surprised when Lefty insisted on including it on the album. It is the most achingly beautiful song I've heard Lefty sing. And his vocal delivery is emotive, but understated, which allows the listener to really listen to the impactful and heart-wrenching lyrics. The album, last time I looked was not on Spotify, but you can buy it here.