Updated: Jun 6
Part Seven of An 8 Part Series
This has been a fun series to research, and write about. Mostly due to my genuine interest in how the music I love most of all got started, and why, and where it all started, and so on. This is the second to last installment of the series. All of the installments are now available here. My valentine gift to the hardcore country purists that exist all over the world now!
I know this because honky tonkers from all over the world listen to my
show. Almost every continent is represented, which really tells me that Traditional Country music is here to stay. You can't keep good music down. It will rise to the top sooner or later. However, the definition of "The Top" is up for debate.
My conversations with some of my favorite artists through the #OnTheBrink Podcast has taught me that topping the Billboard charts is no longer the gold standard.
It's creating music you love, and sharing it with people that love your art as much as you do or even more than you, if possible.
For other artists it's playing their local bars, and connecting with people on a somewhat regular basis that spells success. Yet others revel in charting high on a variety of secondary country charts, and hearing their songs across the airwaves of small town radio stations everywhere. All these things are epically awesome, and fuel a vibrant, and emerging community of honky tonkers, and hardcore purists that won't change a note or chord to fit in.
It's personal y'all! The songs are about life, and sometimes a way of life that some don't understand. It's about being independent, and blazing a new trail from the old, and often forgotten. Honky tonk music grew out of adversity, isolation, and darn near loneliness. Southern, and small town transplants moved to wherever they could find work. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania on the east cost. California, and Washighton on the west coast among other places.
The transplants took their music with them, and it started taking a different tone, and feel when the notes hit the concrete pavements of the city. What we know as Honky Tonk music is an amalgamation of Western Swing, Minstrel Music, Ragtime, Blues, and Gospel.
In the 1950's Honky tonk music was exciting, and new. It wasn't what your parents grew up listening to..not really. Honky tonk music was a movement that influenced music, fashion, and culture.
I thought it would be fun, and informative to share some of the defining moments in honky tonk music. These are mile markers that helped move the music forward.
At the time, I don't think those involved knew the lasting impact their music, choices, and life would have on generations to come. 60 years later, and we're still talking about it, and the conversation is just getting started..
What follows is the early defining moments of honky tonk music. Every milestone played a part in forming, and shaping the music we love so much today.
1935 As we know without Western swing there would be no honky tonk music.
Patsy Montana records her self penned song "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart" for ARC Records. It is widely regarded as the first female sung country song to sell over 1 million copies. It was a top ten pop hit, and was included in the National Registry as a culturally significant song..
1936 Al Dexter records the first country song with the name honky tonk in it.
Honky Tonk Blues was a hit, and took Dexter from Texas Square Dances to dancehalls, honky tonks, and later T.V. Al is a forefather of honky tonk music.
1938 The first Billboard "Music Box Machine" chart is established to keep track of the most popular songs played on jukeboxes across the country. This would prove to be an important step forward for Honky tonk music as it was performed in juke joints across the south first. It would eventually make its way to the jukebox well before it ever reached radio.
1940 What we know as the Jukebox is introduced, and instantly becomes a hit among independent tastemakers.It replaces the coin operated music boxes, and the Piano roll. It was a new way for record companies to break a new artist. Also, independent artists could have a single included on a local jukebox. Most of this music was not played on radio at the time.
1941 Ernest Tubb is the first to use an electric guitar in Hillbilly music. He trims down the instruments, from Western swing and slows down the beat to literally create a new music style: honky tonk music. Ernest's sincere vocal delivery struck a chord because the music focused on lyrics about real life
1947 Ernest Tubb, and the Grand Ole Opry Stars play New York's Carnegie Hall.
The first in Hillbilly music to do so. Looking out into the standing room only packed halls reserved for Beethoven Sonatas and Duke Ellington level Jazz, and Ernest says:
"Boy this place sure could hold a lot of hay!"
And the crowd goes wild..
1949 Floyd Tillman records and releases "Slippin' Around" the first unrepentant cheating song in country music. The song caused quite a stir, with even a disc jockey by the name of Gordon Baxter either cutting off or putting sounds effects over the line "Are you tied up with someone I'm all tied up too" as he just didn't think it was good for family life. Ironically, that brought more attention to the line, with listeners mailing in complaining he didn't play the whole record.
1951 The Honky Tonk Kings Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell go on tour together. A tradition they had during this tour was flipping a coin to see who would perform first. The general consensus is that the time of their lives was had. Here's a quote from 1951 that aptly shows the friendly banter between the two peers.
Here boy, why don’t you just stay down in Texas, this is my territory up here, Hank says.
Hank, the whole damn country is the back yard of both of us; can’t you realize there’s enough room for all of us?, Lefty replied
Hank: Well, I was just kidding. Actually, it’s good to have a little competition. Makes me realize I got to work harder than ever. And boy, you’re the best competition I ever had.