#5-1 Honky Tonkin: The Pioneering Chick Singers
I guess things do come full circle as there was a time in Honky Tonk music history when you would be hard pressed to hear a chick singer on the country music charts..
A session singer from South Nashville changed all of that when she sang a response to Hank Thompson’s Wild Side of Life.
Though many have had a rightful claim to the title since, Kitty Wells is the original Queen of Country Music dubbed so by the King of Country Music himself Roy Acuff one night on the Opry stage. Born Muriel Deason, her stage name was taken from a 1951 folk song by E.L. Simons.
It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels was written by J.D. Miller, a Cajun musician from Crowley, Louisiana, who is probably best known for recording some of the finest musicians in Swamp Blues. Kitty was working as a demo singer in Nashville, and recorded the song at the insistence of Decca Producer Paul Cohen. Kitty, and her husband were both at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop as was Paul when a conversation took place concerning recording the song..
Kitty was happy to earn the session pay for it, and was shocked when it became a hit. She had recorded several songs for other labels prior to, and nothing had come of it.
At the time, not many songs were written for girl singers, but that changed after the song topped the charts on August 23, 1952
Technically, it is correct to say that Kitty Wells was the first female country artist to top the Billboard chart. But that is not to say that female country artists had not been successful previously. As I shared in Honky Tonkin’ Part III there were early female pioneers in country music that predate the Billboard Country charts.
Of course, the first family of country music The Carters come to mind. Starting with the Bristol Sessions in 1927, Mother Maybelle, Sara, and A.P. Carter recorded old time folk, and gospel songs that have since become standards. But for the sake of this series, we are truly zeroing in on the Honky Tonk Queens whose roots are more likely to be found in the western traditions of cowboy culture, and the bubbles in a beer..
I am not sure, if there is another song that defines more sharply the desire of every little girl that fell in love with the Westerns. “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” was written by Arkansas native Patsy Montana in 1934 when she was missing her boyfriend. Though she was born Ruby Blevins, Radio host Stuart Hamblen changed her name after she performed on his show, which he co-hosted with cowboy star Monte Montana.
By her own admission, Patsy had never done many of the things the song states. Don’t think that’s odd at all, the same is true for Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers among others.
I think it takes an enormous amount of talent to convey something you’ve never really experienced. With that being said, the popularity of westerns at the time catapulted the song to stratospheric heights.
“I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” became the first country song recorded by a female to sell over 1 million records! The sentiment resonated so strongly that a tsunami of awards ensued for Patsy Montana including the CMA Cliffie Stone Icon Award decades later. Though in an interview with Jerry Jeff Walker, Patsy said she was especially proud of being inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Patsy Montana’s early success laid the groundwork for singer/songwriter honky tonk queens that would slowly, but eventually emerge, and soften the rough, and rowdy culture associated with western country music. I think it’s important to note that there were women “shaping” the sound of honky tonk music, and often it did not translate into hits on the charts. It did however lay the foundation for progressive themes, and attitudes in music.
One such “shaper” or trailblazer was “Radio’s Original Cowgirl” Texas Ruby. Her career started in 1937 when she recorded for Decca Records. Her songs were sassy to say the least, especially for the era, but her singles did not chart well maybe because of the themes.. The lyrical concepts of empowerment sound like something Loretta would have written. “It’s Over Forever”, and “Don’t Let That Man Get You Down” are all songs about leaving a bad situation, unheard of for a woman at the time.
Texas Ruby, and her husband Fiddler Curly Fox developed a stage act that commanded top billing at the Opry, and the popular tent shows of the time. At one point they were earning $500.00 a night more than any Opry star at the time.Ruby was a larger than life personality off stage too. By all accounts, she lived a honky tonk life-hard drinking, and good times.She tragically died a short time after Patsy when a fire broke out in her home. She was only 54.
Though Ruby was a larger than life presence on stage, not all the women in the honky tonk world were performers. Some women worked behind the scenes or stayed under the general public’s radar. Regardless of how the musical contribution to honky tonk music was made one thing is for certain, the “shaping” of honky tonk music really did begin with western swing.
Many defectors spurred by the success of Ernest Tubb started their own honky tonk bands as early as the 40s. One songwriter that played an instrumental role in the country hits of the 40s & 50s was Cindy Walker. She is credited with writing over 400 songs that charted in the top ten. Her entry into the music business was rather lucky. While visiting Hollywood with her parents, her mother pitched a song to Bing Crosby, and the rest is history.
I would wager that being a Texas girl influenced her writing style. Even though her compositions found success in mainstream pop the vast majority of her songs were country, and more succinctly Western Swing. Why Bob Wills alone recorded 50 of Cindy’s songs!
She lived a relatively private life despite her phenomenal success as a songwriter. She was able to count luminaries such as Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson,and even George Jones among the artists that recorded her songs..This one is a favorite, and really shows the honky tonk flavor present in some of Cindy’s songs.
When we think about true honky tonk music, we must consider the instrument that some feel contributed to the sound of the music. The honky tonk piano was often the centerpiece of the song. The pounding of the keys was more rhythmic than precise inviting anyone within earshot to partake in the fun.
And if you’ve followed this series then you know that we’ve dispelled the theory that honky tonk music was named after the Tonk line of pianos. However, there is little doubt that the piano played an important role in the honky tonk music of the 50s.And even fewer would argue the fact that Hank, and Lefty ruled the charts in the 50s. Lefty was the only one that could give Hank a run for his money.That being said, Lefty’s polished, but nonetheless hard driving sound was most certainly harpooned forward by the very sharp, and energetic playing of Madge Suttee.