If peanut shells surround your feet; someone is rag dolling on a mechanical bull and, most importantly, patrons are two-step dancing to country music, you’re in a honky tonk. You can find honky tonks all over the United States, but the term may have originated in 1889 in Fort Worth Texas where locals petitioned the re-opening of “The Honky Tonk Theater” on Main Street. Listening to the Honky Tonk station on Pandora takes me there.
When early country music started to go electric, an amplified lap-steel guitar (often the same kind played in Hawaiian music and western swing) and a punctuated two-beat rhythm section was added to the already existing template built on acoustic guitar, fiddle and high-lonesome vocal harmonies. Add to this a dexterous electric guitar picker like the late, great Don Rich who could make a Fender Telecaster bend, squawk and snarl. Before they became legends, artists like Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn would originally play this style of music in seedy old roadhouses and dive bars called “honky tonks” (which were likely named after the first one in Fort Worth).
It wasn’t long before what was commonly panned as hillbilly music, further evolved into a more produced and clear sounding version sung by artists like George Jones and Patsy Cline. Honky tonk music soon got the same fancy studio treatment associated with The Nashville sound. At its core, the semi-formulaic foundation was still intact, but now artists like Charlie Rich and Tammy Wynette were singing honky tonk songs over lush string arrangements and gauzy voiced, Lawrence Welk-ian, backing, choral singers.
Even though the production was gussied up, much of the lyrical content in honky tonk stayed the same. Listen closely and you’ll hear singers musing regularly on heartbreak, sin, redemption, driving big rig trucks and the drinking of beer, whiskey and wine. In fact, the main reason why so many Bakersfield honky tonkers like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens sang about drinking wine is because of the city’s close proximity to Napa Valley – Wine Country finds its way into honky tonk country pretty regularly.
Many of today’s honky tonk bands emulate the best parts of past roadhouse crooners. And although there are no honky tonks in Oakland, we’ve got a good handful of Bay Area bands that play old-school, beer-joint twang – replete with vintage gear and classic stage style. Since 1993, Red Meat has been gracing us with a timeless take on Bakersfield inspired country music. We’ve also got Tom Armstrong who sings the kind of twangy tear-in-your-beer tunes that sound so ageless; it’s hard to believe he recorded them in the 21st century. Though they refer to their music as “Hillbilly Bop & Country Boogie,” San Francisco’s B Stars do dabble in period-correct honky tonk. And then there’s Mississippi Mike And The Midnight Gamblers, a band so authentically honky tonk that they should only be allowed to play behind chicken wire.
As country music evolves into different subgenres (country pop, country rock, new traditional, newgrass, etc.), there are still a handful of contemporary artists who continue to water the original roots of honky tonk. Besides the aforementioned, you’ll hear upcoming crooners like Sturgill Simpson and Sunny Sweeny on Pandora’s Honky Tonk station. Sweeny is such a big Merle Haggard fan, she’s got a “Mama Tried” tattoo (the title of his most popular song next to “Okie from Muskogee”) on her wrist.
Maybe someday I’ll pursue my fantasy of opening up a honky tonk in Oakland. It would need a chicken wire stage, a mechanical bull, live music and bingo nights. Until then, our new Honky Tonk station will be the soundtrack to my dreams.