Updated: Oct 11
In our previous installment, Honky Tonkin’ Part II, we took a closer look at where honky tonk music came from. Why, and how it evolved, and who were the early honky tonk pioneers. Picking up from where we left off, by the end of the 1940’s, there were three country music archetypes well established in the industry. One was of the Hollywood Singing Cowboy from the west, think Gene Autrey, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers.. Another profile was of the Remote Yodeling Mountaineer noted for yodeling, and singing old time gospel, and folk songs.,
The last evolving persona, and the most enduring was of the country sophisticate. These singers were slick adapted suburbanites with country roots. The latter was wildly popular, and produced crossover stars in what would be ultimately called country music. We saw the start of that subtle transition as early as 1949. The Jukebox,Most Played, and Album chart names were changed to Country & Western.
[Portrait of Ernest Tubb, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., Sept. 18-19, 1947]Contributor Names Gottlieb, William P. -- 1917- (photographer)
But even before then, I believe once honky tonk music made it to New York's Carnegie Hall by way of Ernest Tubb, perceptions started to slowly change. Ernest Tubb was a big proponent of ridding the industry of the Hillbilly tag due to the stigma it carried.
We have to consider that the term Hill-Billie, this is how it was written, first appeared in a New York newspaper with the definition as follows:
“Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy take”.
No one likes a label they did not choose, and this one for some reason stuck for a while. However with the three main music charts changing the name to Country & Western, and the “style” of the music metamorphosing into something more palatable to the masses, country music started getting some respect, finally.
As a matter of fact, mainstream artists like The Andrew Sisters, and Bing Crosby started recording country songs, and topping the pop charts with their versions. At the time, Eddy Arnold, and Red Foley were the progenitors of the country & western music’s sophisticated look, and sound.They dominated the charts, and were as I like to call them the crooners. They competed successfully with pop icons like Frank,Bing, and Dean, and echoed the desires of rural transplants to join the upwardly mobile middle class..Though for the sake of fairness, Red Foley never pursued success outside of country music, he just happened to achieve crossover success anyway.
This was pre Nashville sound, which did not actually take hold until the mid 1950’s, but certainly these were the early utterings of it. With this in mind, there were still artists that were not catering to Hollywood, and the cameras. These hard edged artists were singing to the working class jukebox crowd in honky tonks, now springing up all across America. As shared in Honky Tonkin II, the jukebox crowd were hard working, and hard living people, often w/ country roots, but now living in the cities eeking out a living, and looking forward to having a big time on the weekend.
By the end of 1949, Hank Williams had experienced his first no. 1 hit “Lovesick Blues”. It stayed in the topslot for sixteen weeks, shutting Eddy Arnold, and Red Foley out from the song of the year pick. Hank’s sharp nasally, but soulful vocal delivery ran counter to the smooth crooning of Eddy & Red. Hank was different, and he struck a resonating chord.
By May 1950 Hank was back on the charts with “Long Gone Lonesome Blues'', a song he co wrote w/ Vic Mcalpin. As the story goes, Hank, and Vic were on a fishing trip in Kentucky. Hank had already written part of the chorus, but put the song aside. On the trip, he got the inspiration for the rest of the song, and paid Vic $500 for his artistic contribution. It paid off literally, Hank stayed at no.1 for an unprecedented 18 weeks! Come August, Hank was back on the charts with “Why Don’t You Love Me”.
But let us consider life when Hank ascended to the top of the charts. America had been through The Dust Bowl, The Great Depression, Prohibition, two world wars, and so forth. We were growing up, hard fought wins, and battles weary. Life changed, and the Hollywood Cowboy, and Singing Mountaineer did not align with the new reality. All these changes under the guise of progress also changed what life really looked like in the 1950’s.
For starters, the average annual income was around $3200 for a family of three. Sugar, was still being rationed! Most homes did not have a TV or a fridge. Washing clothes was done by hand, and money for the cinema was a luxury. This was America in the year 1950, however that would quickly change which we’ll discuss in a bit.
The second unrealistic persona was the Singing Mountaineer as most of America had migrated away from rural living. After WWII, and the onset of factories, and manufacturing plants, an estimated 7 million southerners had moved to major cities up north, and out west. Ohio, and California had the largest southern expat concentrations. Clearly, the attraction was being able to earn a wage. Ohio had several industrialized centers, and California promised small parcels of land, and unionized employment.
When you take all these factors into consideration, you start to understand that the population had been through several life-changing experiences. As often stated, art mirrors life. I think people were ready to find solace in the kinship of sorrow. Enter Hank Williams.
Hank quite frankly was the living embodiment of the times, and honky tonk music told the story of the people. At its very core, that is what country music is truly about, and we have the predecessor honky tonk music partially to thank for that.
One can certainly say that Hank’s life was a country song. The well-documented problems with his wife Audrey, and escalated bouts with the bottle were enough heartache cred for any honky tonk singer.. Not to mention the pain he went through on a daily basis due to his spina bifida condition. I don’t think anyone could effectively argue against the fact that Hank knew pain. He knew what it meant to suffer, and it bled into his music. And incredibly enough, he sang about it all with a smile on his face.
In the early 1950’s, Hank was like a steamroller going off the top of a hill. Just about the only singer that could give Hank a run for his money was Lefty Frizzell. In 1950, Lefty closed out the country & western charts with a song he wrote w/ producer Jim Beck. “If You’ve Got The Money” held of hank with the top position for three weeks!
Lefty Frizzell came up hard. At one time, when his dad moved away to work, Lefty was supporting his mother, and brothers by running a paper route. He was barely a teen.The family was eventually reunited with his Father, but it wasn’t always happy. Red, Lefty’s father had drinking spells where he would beat on Lefty’s mom even while she was pregnant. Sometimes they would all hide in the woods until the old man passed out. One time Lefty had enough, and beat his dad.
Though Lefty was a slight fellow, he had a quick left hook. A school bully found that out one fateful evening, that is how William Orville Frizzell got the name Lefty. He was also gifted with a fluid voice. Country music before Lefty was heavily influenced by the vocal intonations of Jimmie Rodgers, which was loud, and high. It was a plaintive style of singing still heard today in Americana music. In stark contrast, Lefty’s vocal style was slow, and sexy. He knew how to milk a note, and effortlessly move on to the next note while still flirting with the previous. It is a technique that marked an important style differentiator for honky tonk music..
Style is important to consider when we talk about honky tonk music. It was not only a different type of music, but it also impacted the way artists dressed. Lefty especially was a dandy when it came to his clothing. He hardly ever wore the cowboy hat, and why would he with the gorgeous curly hair he had. He borrowed the Hollywood cowboy glitter, and added his trademark bandanna around his neck.
But he upgraded his look again in a few short years, and others followed suit, no pun intended.. Even Lefty’s guitar was part of his image. Lefty had a 1949 Bigsby/Gibson Custom SJ-200 Flat Top. It is a beautiful guitar, and Merle bought it for a cool $350K. The guitar can be viewed at The Willie Nelson & Friends Museum.
The aesthetic style of honky tonk music deserves a chapter of its own, and that is exactly what we’ll do for installment IV.
The Honky Tonk queens did not appear on the charts till much later. And we will dedicate installment V to the Divas. But I would be remiss, if I did not include one of the earliest trailblazers in honky tonk music. Rose Maddox was one of the first country women to record honky tonk music. The Maddox Brothers & Rose didn't chart singles like many did, but their stage shows were legendary.
The Maddox Brothers and Rose were comedic, and raucous. They played new music as well as gospel tunes. They have one of the earliest recordings of the Hank William's penned “Honky Tonkin”. They were also known for their bright stage outfits. Nathan Turk, who also designed clothing for many of the Hollywood cowboys of the day also outfitted the Madoxes. They are also credited as the first to use the slap bass technique popularized in Rockabilly.
In our next installment, we’ll take a closer look at the honky tonk couture, and cultural impact. The 1950s were indeed the golden age of honky tonk music, and country music was changed forever.
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