Updated: Oct 11
Understanding the ebb, and flow of country music throughout the times takes a concerted, and surgeon type precision as I found while researching for this series. It’s easy to just lump country rock, southern rock, countrypolitan, bluegrass, americana, traditional country, and so forth into one ambiguous heap of sounds. However, in doing so we weaken the unique characteristics of a mournful twang set in three chords.
Understanding the nuances of a well played fiddle, and the sorrowful sound of a steel guitar resonates too deeply within me to gloss over for the sake of time. That is why this series is divided into eight snack sized bites. My goal is to understand deeply what life was like during the emergence, and rise of Honky Tonk Music.
For example, what was going on in the world that may have influenced the changes in country music? Think dust bowl, WWII, and the introduction of the television set for starters. Whom, and how did the artists respond to the societal shifts taking place? I’ve always felt that music as well as other forms of art are the voices in the wilderness that announce the changes the mainstream don’t see yet..
Offering an exhaustive history lesson on the origins of the genre is silly as there are many well noted references readily available. If you are looking for a place to start, I certainly recommend The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Ken Burns Country Music, and Finding Her Voice. All are solid sources on country music’s many amalgamations, and cultural impact.
Historians though tend to concur with the assertion that the origins of country music can be found in the hills of the south. And if we are looking for something that sounds real close to what the mountain music of yesteryear sounded like, I think we can safely point to bluegrass, and some folk music. But even the high lonesome sound has not escaped the transmutations of genres.
For the purposes of this series, the focus is squarely on New Traditional Country Music with a spotlight on Honky Tonk Music. If you are a child of the 80’s, you may know the sub genre as neo traditionalism which was a term often used to describe artists that recorded stylized hardcore country.
Many of these artists such as Keith Whitley, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum, and Ricky Skaggs attracted a younger demographic due to their use of contemporary themes, hip image, and polished production. Ricky Skaggs even used New York City break dancers in his “I’m Just a Country Boy” video which was revolutionary.
The perpetual push back to more traditional or rootsier forms of country can be found in every decade since the discovery of hillbilly music. But even the definition or sound of new traditional country music was changing as early as the 40’s. A good example is honky tonk music which was arguably a blend of ragtime, swing, and mountain music.
As early as the 1930’s newspapers were differentiating the music played in Texahoma, and throughout California as honky tonk music. Whereas the mountain music of the appalachia were often derived from old folk tunes passed down through the generations, and gospel songs.
In stark contrast, the music from the west was akin to an obnoxious cousin. You know, the kind that says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and tells inappropriate jokes. However honky tonk music is no joke. In its earliest form circa 1940’s, it dealt openly with adult subjects such as marital problems, and cheating. As a matter of fact, the first cheating song is a honky tonk tune by Floyd Tillman.
The song was unique in the sense that it unrepentantly sang about an illicit affair between two married adults. And it was clear that neither had any intentions of ending the affair. If anything, the protagonist is trying to figure out how to slip around more effectively.
But I am getting ahead of myself as the next installment is dedicated to Ernest, Floyd, and other early progenitors of the honky tonk sound. For now, I’ll leave you with the auspicious song that dropped the country music industry on its head, and set the honky tonk bars aflame.
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