Updated: Feb 15
The top 5 honky tonk songs of the decade..
Through this IIX part Honky Tonkin' series, we've learned about the genre's early cowboy roots. And the sort of shady places the music was born in, and evolved from. It makes sense that the pervasive song topics shamelessly detailed the challenges of "Slippin' Around." Smoke dense roadside honky tonks where you might slip off your wedding ring, and just make believe for a couple of hours were par for the course, and quite frankly expected. The dance halls were where you danced with your wife. The honky tonks, you danced with somebody else's wife. Well, at the very least there were no pretenses, you knew what you were there for, and so did everyone else.
We also learned about the three undeniable kings of Honky Tonk music: Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell. Even Elvis charted on the country charts in the 1950's, but this series is squarely focused on honky tonk music. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and some others that come up in the 1950's country music conversation were either Rockabilly, Countrypolitan, Pop emigres, or Nashville Sound crooners. And for the record, there is nothing wrong with any of it. Good music can be found in almost any category..
I was also struck by how many women were part of the early years of honky tonk music. I'm happy some music fans, and historians had the foresight to keep track, though the information was hard to come by. This is the second to last installment of the series, and I want to share five songs that shaped the era, and in some instances also shaped country music moving forward.
For the purposes of this installment, I looked at Most-Played Juke Box (Country & Western) Records. As the name implies, these were the top songs played in the honky tonks, and bars across America.
Again, my focus was squarely on honky tonk music which after Hank William's death seemed to be carried on by Webb Pierce, and Ray Price among others.
Webb Pierce was the most successful artist in the middle 1950's even keeping Elvis from the top spot several times over. And speaking of Elvis, by 1954, the chart was changing with more Rockabilly, among other sounds.. It would not be hyperbole to say honky tonk music was being squeezed out.
Another way of looking at music after Hank,( yes that is what I call it) is that it was an inevitable progression that still owed much to the honky tonk sounds of the three kings. Rockabilly for one is just honky tonk music on acid, and countrypolitan is honky tonk music on downers...lol..
All kidding aside, it seems to me as if Rockabilly took the carousing, and light heartedness of honky tonk music, and ran with it! In the early days, honky tonk music was cool among the teens w/ Lefty positioned maybe unwittingly as a veritable hearthrob. Rockabilly required rapidly rhythmic dance moves popular with the school-aged crowd among others.. It definitely is a close cousin to the honky tonk sound..
Countrypolitan took the heartache part of honky tonk music and added some strings, and a more polished vocal delivery. There was also a certain look that came with the music. Cocktail dresses or gowns for the ladies. The men wore sports jackets, collared shirts, shiny shoes.
One awesome innovation that did emerge around the same time was Ray Price's 4/4 shuffle beat. I absolutely love Ray Price! What a voice, and such a super classy presentation. He was very good friends with Lefty, and early on recorded some of Lefty songs. Here's a mashup I did of one of the Lefty songs Ray recorded. First you'll hear Lefty's heartfelt vocal and then Ray's.
In 1958, Billboard consolidated the sales, and airplay chart into what we now know as the Hot Country Songs chart. The first number one reported was none other than Ray Price with City Lights What follows are a few honky tonk chart topping songs
that in some instances helped shape the sound or narrative of the genre in the 195o's.
Backstreet Affair (1952)
The song was originally offered to Hank Williams who started singing it on his morning radio show. However, Fred Rose would not let Hank record it as it was considered too risqué at the time. Webb's version became his third number one. The song's narrative is about a forbidden extramarital affair, but in this case, he wants to make good. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with such an affair makes it almost impossible to live down.
City Lights (1958)
Written by Bill Anderson, the song became the newly created C&W Sides chart's first #1. The song sat at the top spot for over thirteen weeks, and charted a total of 34 weeks! The song closed out 1958 at number one. It was also a top hit for Mickey Gilley in 1975. Look at that nudie suit..
By 1959, you needed a microscope to find a bonafide honky tonk song topping the charts. Thankfully Louisiana native Faron Young held down the number one slot for four weeks with Country Girl. It was a honky tonk song written by Roy Drusky about a love lost to another. Faron Young's voice sounds almost too polished against the soaring steel, and twangy guitar. Also the Everly Brothers type harmony on the song gives it additional polish. The song is significant for the time as it charted for over 30 weeks, and was one of the very few top charting songs in the honky tonk vein..
Country Girl (1959)
Lefty Frizzell's debut single "If You've Got The Money I've Got The Time" shot straight to #1, and charted for 22 weeks.. The song may well be one of the most iconic, and genre defining songs of the honky tonk era. The song gleefully lays out the fun he'll have going from bar to bar (Honky Tonkin') ,listening to awesome music, dancing, drinking, and having a big time. Lefty perfectly encapsulated the fun side of honky tonk culture.
If You've Got The Money I've Got the Time (1950)
In 1952, Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" sat at #1 for 15 consecutive weeks. That was longer than any other single that year.
The song is about a housewife who leaves her life behind for the honky tonk lifestyle. The song inspired the answer song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels". The first song by a female singer to top the Jukebox chart. It was considered controversial, and henceforth, generated very little airplay. The jukebox crowd was instrumental in taking the tune to #1. Love the rinky tink styled piano playing in the song which was made popular by Lefty's piano player Madge Sutee..
The Wild Side of Life (1952)
Very few songs can capture the heartbreak, and the isolation that follows after a failed relationship. Honky tonk music has an underbelly that is wrought with good ole fashion pain. There's a line from an old Vern Gosdin song that succinctly parlays the scenery.
"It's a place where losers go When they know there's nothing left And after losing you I just lost the will to live
The narrative in Your Cheating Heart is one that plays out every weekend all across the world in your local bar, and live country music is the background noise. Once the deed is done those background songs become part of the very complex soundtrack of your life.
There are so many reasons why Hank's songs still resonate. He was in so much pain due to a spinal condition. He self medicated just to keep going. And his problems with his first wife are legendary.
He lived it! Your Cheatin' Heart came from a conversation Hank had with his then fiancé Billy Jean. He described his ex wife Audrey as a Cheatin' Heart, and that one day she would have to answer for her indiscretions. Hank dictated the lyrics while Billy Jean wrote them down.
The song was recorded at Castle Recording Studios in Nashville. Your Cheatin' Heart was one of five songs that shot up to #1 in 1953 posthumously. The song is regarded by critics as "the" definitive country song
Your Cheatin' Heart (1953)
On our next, and final installment, we'll visit the defining moments of honky tonk music. Additionally, I'll share the ten albums you MUST have, if you love honky tonk music.
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