Updated: Jun 3
In our last installment in this series, we were blessed with a rare video of one of the first cheating song in country music. Floyd Tillman’s “Slippin Around” set the tone for a very distinctive form of country music that originated not from the Appalachian mountains, but rather the dusty trails of cattle drives, and dive bars across the western plains.
There is some debate on how honky tonk music got its name. But one thing is for sure, the first appearance of the phrase was in a newspaper as early as the 1890s.
Honky Tonk was used to describe the establishments of ill-repute that could be found on the path of the cattle drives. It is generally agreed that the music played in these shadowy spaces was referred to as honky tonk music.
More specifically, it was the way a piano was played in those hole-in-the wall, out-of-the-way places. Usually, the piano was missing several keys or grossly out of tune. The pianist had to rely more on the rhythmic exaggerated banging of the keys which was an essential component of the honky tonk sound. There are also some theories indicating that honky tonk music was named after the Tonk line of pianos. Given that the term honky tonk was already used in the early 1890s, and the Tonk company did not manufacture the pianos until 1899, it seems the theory is improbable.
Honky Tonk music borrows less from the emerald Isles, and highlands, and more from Boogie Woogie, Ragtime, Blues, and especially Western Swing. The latter indulged in improvisations, smooth vocals, and often pop/jazz tunes set to countrified instrumentation like a fiddle or banjo. The end game was to get the people drinking, and dancing, and that it certainly did.
Honky Tonk music was grittier, and louder than western swing. The instruments were electrified in order to be heard above the rowdy drinking crowd. These juke joints would often mantle chicken wire around the stage to protect the band members from flying bottles! The songs mirrored the lives of the patrons whom were urban hillbillies. These were country folk that moved to the city to work in the factories, construction, and other blue collar jobs. In a way, honky tonk music was quite possibly the first wave of independent country music. Music that was relatable, non formulaic, and about real life.
You see, the sounds coming out of the southeastern United States were old folk, and gospel songs infused with more contemporary arrangements as evidenced in this original Carter Family recording.
I know that many align country music with songs of debauchery, and infidelity, but in actuality drinking, and cheating songs were generally speaking banned from radio stations. Songs of that sort were for the jukebox crowd. "Juke" was derived from an old word used in the lower south that meant rowdy or wicked.. I found this very interesting, and it folds in nicely with the original use of the term honky tonk, don't you think?
The jukebox was introduced in 1940, which is also when honky tonk music became popular.. Some would argue that is when honky tonk music came into its own. After a hard day at work, you'd go to your local honky tonk, order a beer, and put a nickel in the jukebox to hear songs about the unsavory aspects of real life.. Often it was your own life story pouring through the glass..
As shared on Honky Tonkin' Vol I, Floyd Tillman is credited with writing, and recording the first cheating song in country music. But in actuality, it was the first song to unapologetically share the intent on continuing the illicit affair. The times were such that Floyd quickly followed up with "I'll Never Slip Around Again". Floyd's original version of Slippin' Around" made it to #5, on the "Most Played JukeBox Folk Records Chart".
Floyd's success provided yet another important differentiator for honky tonk music from western swing. The simple arrangements "three chords, and the truth", coupled with themes centered around the honky tonk lifestyle of drinking, dancing, cheating, and general fun, but hard times were not "yet" themes popular in western music.
It is important to remember, that honky tonk music emerged in the early 40's post Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression, but in the early stages of WWII. As a nation, we were still struggling financially, and the future seemed uncertain. To give you an idea on how dire the situation was 50% of would be military enlistees were rejected because they either had bad teeth or were malnourished!
Around this time, a tall drink of water from Texas was making his debut on the big screen in California. Ernest Tubb had made quite a splash in his home state that the buzz created prompted Hollywood to come calling. Fortunate for country music, after a handful of cowboy movies, Ernest was tiring of the scene. Being away from his wife, and children back home, also compounded matters further. Out of this lonesomeness came the inspiration for a song that started the honky tonk revolution.
"Walking the Floor Over You" was inspired by a disagreement Ernest had with his wife over finances. The lyrics share the singer's desire to be back with his love, and the uncertainty of that ever happening. The song was a hit and charted at #23 on the pop charts. The country charts were not established until 1944, and were named "Most Played JukeBox Folk Records Chart".. The chart initially included hillbilly, spirituals, and cowboy songs.
Though the song was recorded several times throughout the years by many artists including Ernest, the original version featured a stripped down sound that showcased the lyrics, and heartfelt sentiment of the song. Ernest played the acoustic guitar and Fay "Smitty" Smith played electric guitar which was the first time an electric guitar was used in hillbilly music.
The use of the electric guitar was also another important differentiator from early hillbilly music. And though, Ernest's vocal delivery was a bit ordinary, it was sincere, and resonated with the honky tonk crowd. Furthermore, he owned a honky tonk, and lived the life, he was honky tonk music.The song became a country music standard, and charted several times including a version in 1979 with fan Merle Haggard.
I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, since Ernest Tubb's success was hard won. The Texas Swing bands or dance bands didn't really think Ernest had any talent. And when they found out he was earning more than them per gig it did not go over too well. What Ernest did was trim down the instruments, slow down the beat, and focus more on the lyrics. One can surmise that Ernest's success prompted a mass exodus by musicians in western swing bands. Though a federal tax levied in 1944 on establishments that allowed dancing contributed to the waning of Western Swing. But even so, Bob Wills still remained popular.
Like Waylon said, "In Texas, Bob Wills is still the king".
Two western swing defectors in particular shaped country music for years to come. Ted Dafan from Beauregard Parish, LA started his career as a band leader at the insistence of Milton Brown, one of the fathers of Western swing. Ted Dafan reduced his band size and wrote what would become a standard in country music, and shape at least one theme in country music for generations.
"Truck Driver Blues" was the first country song about trucks recorded. It was written by
Ted Dafan, and popularized by band leader Cliff Bruner with Moon Mullican on vocals.
Ernest Tubb also recorded a version of the popular song as did many artists. And though Moon Mulican may have been on vocals, he is also regarded as the King of the Hillbilly Piano Players. Moon popularized a distinctive honky tonk piano style that is known as hillbilly boogie, a precursor to honky tonk music, and rockabilly.
Moon played with several Western swing bands including The Texas Wanderers, The Sunshine Boys, and Jimmie Davis. Moon became a highly sought after session player,
and is widely regarded as the pioneering force behind the honky tonk piano.
While Moon, and Ernest's early songs emphasized heartbreak, and the harder aspect of life, Al Dexter focused on the fun rollicky aspects of the post prohibition culture.
Like Ernest, Al owned a bar, and was instrumental in popularizing the honky tonk sound.
Al is also credited with several firsts.
In 1936, he wrote, and recorded what would be the first country song with the term honky tonk in the title. His breakthrough hit in 1944 "Pistol Packin' Momma" was the first number one song reported on the "Jukebox Folk Record Chart". That chart would ultimately become the Billboard Hot Country Song Chart. The song was initially banned by NBC radio due to the line "drinking in a cabaret." The tune was a huge hit! Bing Crosby's version went straight to #1, and a movie by the same name followed. Many of the early honky tonk songs came from Al Dexter'. When We Go Honky Tonkin, Honky Tonk Baby, and Meet Me Down In Honky Tonk Town are just a few of Al's creations.
Unlike Ernest Tubb, Al's songs did not come from personal experience. Al was known to sit at the bar in a honky tonk, and eavesdrop into conversations for inspiration. The characters in his songs were real people, and that is probably why the songs were well received. Al was also the first country artist to perform on Broadway. Additionally, Al was the first to break the color barrier in country music by choosing to be backed by an all black band. Of course he was ostracized for this, and endured broad scale scorn.
In our next installment Vol III, we'll go deep with the Honky Tonk Kings & Queens that took country music to stratospheric heights, and created (unwittingly) country couture. In a few short years honky tonk music would transform from urban hillbilly to mainstream popularity.
There were some consequences, but the ride sure was fun..
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