What Is Honky Tonk?

The Genre of 1950s Dive Bars

A typical Honky Tonk album
A typical Honky Tonk album. source: mixzona.ru

Not to be confused with the blues piano style of the same name (which later birthed boogie-woogie), honky tonk country music is a style which arose from the "Western Swing" movement of the '30s, flowered in post-WWII America and became the standard for modern country and western in the Fifties.

Indeed, many of the conventions still associated with country and western are present in honky tonk: upbeat songs with a mid-tempo, purposeful, gently-swinging shuffle and slower ballads, all scored with fiddle and pedal steel guitar and dealing almost exclusively with infidelity and drinking.

Origins of the Genre

Honky tonks themselves were bars that served the same purpose for the rural White community of the era that the juke joint served for the Black community, featuring strong liquor, live entertainment, and sometimes prostitution. Since the pianos in the bars were often out of tune, the ragtime style of emphasized rhythm over melody dominated the music played there.

Country music coming from the western United States became known as hillbilly music and by World War II was being referred to as "honky tonk" music. Ernest Tubb's "I'm Walking The Floor Over You" is known as the first honky tonk song, jumpstarting the genre in 1941, but it wasn't until the 1950s that honky tonk took to mainstream popularity with acts like George Jones and Hank Williams popularizing the genre.

Popularity and Famous Artists

The typical song of the genre is mired in hopelessness, both romantic and alcoholic; much of it is music to drink and cry to.  "She Thinks I Still Care," by George Jones mourns the feeling of still being in love with someone, angrily denying he still cares while "Swinging Doors" by Merle Haggard tells the woman who broke his heart, "Thanks to you I'm always here till closing time."

There were, of course, happier songs in the style, mostly centered around the idea of a night on the town, but with dire consequences, leading to an undercurrent of regret in even the jolliest of the genre's songs. Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man" and Hank William's " Honky Tonkin'" epitomized the genre, which was, in its inception, seen as sinful, much like jazz and the blues were, and it's no coincidence that many stars of the genre also performed gospel.

Legacy and Impact

Honky tonk proved to be vastly influential nevertheless, giving inspiration to the "Bakersfield Sound" of the Sixties and the "outlaw" movement of the Seventies, as well as laying the groundwork for rockabilly (which swung harder and faster and with a more pronounced R&B influence), and thus rock and roll itself. Songs like " If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time" by Lefty Frizzell and

The genre continues to be revived every few years, and is widely seen as the backbone of "true" modern country, the same way bluegrass is considered the foundation of traditional country music.