Kitty Wells sang about its angels, the Rolling Stones sang about its women and Waylon Jennings sang about its heroes. The mere mention of honky tonk conjures up images of neon lights, a smoky bar, a never-ending river of whiskey and beer and lonely hearts that can only be mended with a steel guitar. But what does honky tonk really mean?
The true origin of the honky tonk is debated. Some believe the term began in north Texas, while others credit Oklahoma for the term. Early references to honky tonks describe cheap, seedy establishments that catered to rough cowboys who frequented the saloons to carouse with women after a long day on the cattle trail.
In 1893, the Iola Register in Iola, Kan. traced “honky tonk” to Oklahoma, stating “when a particularly low grade theater opens up in an Oklahoma town, they call it a “honky-tonk.” The name didn’t ‘come from’ anything. It just growed.”
But an earlier reference appears in an 1889 article in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, which reported that “a petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theater on Main Street be reopened.”
An 1894 article in Ardmore, Okla.’s Daily Ardmoreite refers to an establishment as a ‘honk-a-tonk.” One theory is that “honk-a-tonk” is an onomatopoeic name for the thumping drive of the music played inside the bawdy barrooms.
Slippin’ Around: Honky Tonk Culture in Country
Ragtime or “boogie woogie” piano was the first music associated with honky tonks, but by the 1950s the sounds of the saloon gave way to a whole new sub-genre of country music.
In a BBC Four documentary on the history of country music, historian Ronnie Pugh says honky tonk broke barriers in the typically conservative, moralistic genre.
“What became honky tonk music was about new subjects: alienation, drink, pessimism, divorce, infidelity, cheating,” Pugh explains.. “It was about different subjects and it approached it directly. It just came right at you.”
Songs like Floyd Tillman’s “Slippin’ Around,” a celebratory account of infidelity, is a far cry from The Carter Family’s wholesome songs about family and church. While there’s no shortage of cheating songs in country music, “Slippin’ Around” is unique in that the song’s subject doesn’t express regret for his transgressions.
What would a honky tonk be without a song about heartache and loss blaring from the jukebox? Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” remains a honky tonk standard today. If you’re ever in a tried and true honky tonk, chances are you’ll hear some Ernest Tubb.
Tubb’s frequent collaborator Loretta Lynn made her debut with 1960’s “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” a tale of a heartbroken woman turning to the honky tonk for solace. Lynn later released a different response to barroom culture with 1964’s “Wine, Women and Song,” in which a wife denounces her husband’s womanizing ways and threatens to take up honkytonking herself.
Tammy Wynnette echoed Lynn’s sentiment with “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” The 1967 song featured a fed up-wife’s plan to get “painted up (and) powdered up” and journey to the “wilder side of life.”
By the time honky tonk-king Gary Stewart hit the charts with his 1975 album Out of Hand, country music had become synonymous with the hard living, debauchery of the honky tonk scene. Stewart’s trembling vibrato delivered these songs of loneliness, regret and jealousy with a devastating ache.
While the heart of honky tonk music remains the same, the business behind it has grown tremendously. Massive honky tonks like Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth provide a veritable wonderland for the Buds and Sissys of the world, complete with mechanical bulls and nearly three acres of dance floor. Smaller venues, such as Austin’s Little Longhorn Saloon provides an intimate setting and a stage for up-and-coming honkytonkers.
Artists such as Dale Watson, Whitey Morgan, Margo Price, Kelsey Waldon and Cody Jinks are doing their part to keep honky tonk music at the forefront.
Whether you’re honkytonkin’ to hit the dance floor or forget a lost love, one thing is certain: as long as there’s heartache and cold beer, the honky tonk will live on forever.