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#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.

Madge’s piano playing style was sometimes referred to as rinky tinky, but it was all honky tonk, and really helped to shape Lefty’s early sound. Madge Suttee hailed from Wichita Falls, TX, and worked as a session player at Jim Beck’s recording studio in Dallas,Texas.  

She played with several top era performers like The Miller Brothers,.Billy Walker, Tommy Duncan, and even Bob Wills! She had a deep influence on Pianist Floyd Cramer, who  was a key player in the offshoot of honky tonk music the Nashville Sound. Before working at Jim Beck’s studio, Madge fronted a swing band named Madge Suttee, and her Swing Quartet. They released a 78 on the Nashville Bullet label. 

I was also fascinated to find Madge had worked on the honky tonk album of one of the most enigmatic female singers of the era. The Female Elvis was fiery. And a highly unorthodox singer from Henrietta, Texas. Charline Arthur did things like jump off the amps, slide on her side across the stage, and did a 50s style twerk that put Miley to shame. To say Charline was different is an understatement. Some even say she was 

before her time. She wrote songs that were riddled with sexual innuendos that were still

off limits for women in the 50s. When she appeared at the Grand Ole Opry one of the songs was censored as was the review that followed.

Her volatile work relationship with Chet Atkins also did not help her career..Her biggest criticism was that Chet’s playing style did not work well with her songs. Additionally, he picked songs for her that she did not want to do. The tempestuous work situation became fodder for the Nashville establishment, and she was seen as a difficult person to work with. Her last session w/ Chet ended with Charline departing in tears.

In looking at Charline’s performance footage, I see an energetic, and confident performer. I am bewildered at why she wasn’t marketed more passionately in Rockabilly where her stage antics, and lyrical themes would have been more readily accepted?

It seems like a missed opportunity. The other thing that stood out about Charline was her stage attire. The clothing were masculine bordering on androgynous..Charline wore cowboy style clothing, and boots, and a necktie. The clothing was loose fitting, and mostly pantsuits. Even Wanda Jackson wore dresses as did all of the female Opry stars. 

She did not represent the 1950s concept of femininity. Her stage presence, and demeanor coupled with the sexually suggestive lyrics alienated female fans.

Consequently, she did not chart well, and was dropped by RCA. It’s important to note that at the pinnacle of her career, Charline shared a stage with Elvis Presley, and was voted the second best female country singer. Kitty Wells held the top spot. 

Patsy Cline was influenced by Charline as was Elvis. When she was dropped by RCA, she divorced her husband, and was not able to secure another major label deal. She played wherever she could. Her last show was at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop after which she retired in Idaho. She died at the age of 58, and was living on disability.

Though commercial success was elusive to Charline mostly due to female audiences not being able to connect with her, success did rear its head for a blonde teenager from Oklahoma. 

Born Ollie Imogene Shepard in rural Pauls Valley, Oklahoma Jean Shepard was one of the first women to front her own band, and not as part of a husband, and wife team or the token chick singer in a band. Her first band was The Melody Ranch Girls- an all-female country band from California while she was still in high school. Jean was not only the lead singer, but also played bass guitar.

Jean spent most of her formative years in California as many originally from Oklahoma made the trek during the dust bowl era. Hank Thompson heard Jean sing, and helped her get a recording contract with Capitol Records.

Jean was barely out of her teens when she released her first single “Crying Steel Guitar” in 1952. Legally she was not able to play the liquor serving honky tonks. Her parents signed over custody to Ferlin Husky. They developed a lifelong friendship, and had chart success.

Her only #1 hit Dear John came in 1953, iIt was a duet w/ Ferlin Husky. She also charted several top 5, and top 10 hits. A total of 73 singles were released to radio. Her style was very straightforward, with edgy vocals. I like to shuffle singers under two categories: the Hank /Williams Style, and The Lefty Frizzell Style. Jean was squarely in the Hank camp. Jean sang about the heartache in relationships from a feminine point of view. All these characteristics together are clear differentiators between honky tonk music, and other styles of country music at the time. 

Unfortunately Jean had some heartache of her own to get over.. Jean married Grand Ole Opry star Hawkshaw Hawkins, and also became a member of the Opry. Hawkshaw of course lost his life in the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of several musicians including Patsy Cline, and Cowboy Copas. They had only been married for three years, and had one son, and another on the way.

It’s really important to look at Jean’s contributions from a proper lens. In the early 50s generally speaking, women were not playing the honky tonks as solo artists. Though she may have had a lucky break when she was discovered by Hank Thompson, she did pay her dues playing the honky tonk bars in California, and beyond. In that respect, she was truly a fearless honky tonk pioneer.

Jean did receive recognition for her contributions to honky tonk music while still alive. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with Reba McEntire, which most certainly gives at least the impression that it was long overdue. Additionally, she lived to be a 60 year member of the Grand Ole Opry, at the time longer than anyone else. I however don’t feel she gets the proper recognition. She is often not included in the top female country artist lists. Maybe due to the fact that the artists that came after Jean’s success achieved multiple top charting singles, and albums. Some also led rather notorious lives. Jean was a nice girl from Oklahoma, with an honest voice, a good wife, and mom, nowadays that is saying a lot. Usually, the pioneers blaze a trail for others to walk on, they often do not have blockbuster level success.

While conducting the research for this post, there was a name that kept popping up. It was a little known singer that first appeared on the scene around 1952. Her name was Jeanette Hicks. I decided to take a deeper dive, and see who she was. She was born in Texarkana, Texas, about 200 miles from where Lefty Frizzell is from. She learned to sing listening to the Grand Ole Opry.

Jeanette’s good friend knew Tillman Franks who performed with his band The Balles Brothers on the debut show of the Louisiana Hayride. Since that memorable night, he worked promoting shows at the Municipal Auditorium in Texarkana. When he heard Jeanette sing, he invited her to perform on his show, and did one better. Tillman was impressed by her performance, and invited her to Shreveport for a spot on The Louisiana Hayride two weeks after the death of Hank Williams.

 Two weeks after her performance on the Hayride, she had a contract with Columbia Records. In 1953 according to Discogs, Jeanette released a couple of singles on the Columbia records Okeh imprint. The sound was decidedly honky tonk in the style of Hank Williams. Jeanette got married, had a child, and went back to work at The Louisiana Hayride. She managed to record a regional hit with Billy Walker titled “Let’s Make Memories”.

The contract with Columbia was short-lived, and George Jones brought Jeanette to the attention of the label he was on Star Day. George knew Jeanette from the Hayride. At Starday, she recorded a duet with George Jones Titled “Yearning”. It was George’s first duet. That same year 1956, Jeanette performed at The Louisiana Hayride as the opening act for Elvis, when he made his debut. 

“Yearning” peaked at #10, Starday was packaging a tour with George Jones, and other established artists to promote the record. Previously, Jeanette had done a show with Johnny Cash that drew over six thousand fans.

With two little girls at home, and her husband Edsel working full-time to support the family, he told her that he did not want her to go on tour. And that was the enId. It’s a shame as Jeanette received favorable reviews on most of her singles. Her daughter said her mother was totally in love with her husband, and never hesitated. When he said no to touring, she chose her family first. Her friendship with George Jones continued on. Every time he did a show in Texarkana, he’d send tickets for her to attend with her family. This is what he had to say about Jeanette Hicks:

 “Jeanette is one of the great lost talents of country music.”..

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at the powerhouse vocalist, and singer’s singer that barrelled through the smoky bars, and juke joints, to take honky tonk music to a brand new level of awesome. Of course, I am talking about Patsy Cline who got her start rising from the ranks with many disappointments along the way. Our next installment will focus on “The Cline’s” early days in the middle 50’s when her sound was straight up honky tonk music. We’ll also take a look at the ladies that carried the torch forward.

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