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Honky Tonk Music

By: Roughstock Staff

Last Updated: January 20, 2009 12:01 AM

Perhaps no other style of country music has had a greater influence on today's artists than the style known as Honky Tonk. Honky Tonk music embodied the spirit of dancing and drinking, and of loving and then losing the one you love. Its greatest practitioners owe their singing style to Jimmie Rodgers and much of the music to the steel guitar and drums of Bob Wills and Western Swing.

One of the most charismatic and enduring figures in country music -- his Opry performance of June 11, 1949, when his audience required him to reprise "Lovesick Blues" several times, is still considered the Ryman's greatest moment -- Hank was born Hiram King Williams in Georgiana, Alabama on September 17, 1923.

Barely a teenager, he won $15 singing "WPA Blues" at a Montgomery amatuer contest, then formed a band, the Drifting Cowboys, which played on station WSFA, Montgomery, for over a decade. Switching from Sterling Records in 1946 to the newly formed MGM label in 1947, Williams was booked as a regular on KWKH's Lousiana Hayride. After having scored with his recording of "Lovesick Blues," he signed a contract with the Grand Ole Opry in 1949.

After the runaway success of "Lovesick Blues," he began cutting Top 10 singles with almost monotonous regularity. With Fred Rose masterminding every recording session, arranging, playing, producing, and often participating in the songwriting, such hits as "Wedding Belles, "Mind Your Own Business" (click here to listen) "You're Gonna Change, and "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" all charted during 1949. More hits followed including "Jambalya," "Honky Tonk Blues," "There's A Tear In My Beer," "Baby, We're Really In Love," and "Hey Good Lookin'" (click here to listen).

Ironically his 1952 hit "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" was released just before his death on New Year's Day, 1953 from a heart attack brought on by drinking. He and his Drifting Cowboys had been booked to play a show in Canton, Ohio, and Williams hired a driver to chauffeur him through a snowstorm to the gig. He fell asleep along the way -- but when the driver tried to rouse him at Oak Hill, West Virginia, Williams was dead. After his death, his records continued to sell in massive quantities. "Your Cheatin' Heart" (click here to listen) "Take These Chains From My Heart," "I Wont Be Home No More," and "Weary Blue From Waitin'" all charted during the year that followed.

The last months of Williams life, though financially rewarding, were ultra-tragic. A drug user in order to combat a spinal ailment caused by being thrown from a horse at the age of 17, he was fired from the Grand Ole Opry in August 1952 because of perpetual drunkenness. He was also divorced and remarried soon after. Despite his troubles, Hank was well loved by the country music fraternity. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral in Montgomery, at which Roy Acuff, Carl Smith, Red Foley, and Ernest Tubb paid tribute in song. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961, his plaque reads: "The simple, beautiful melodies and straightforward plaintive stories in his lyrics of life as he knew it will never die."

Born in Crisp, Texas in 1914, Ernest Dale Tubb was the sixth member to be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and a regular member of the Opry from 1943 to the time of his death. Tubb's boyhood hero was the great Jimmie Rodgers. Although he had dreams of emulating Rodgers and sang at various local get-togethers during his early teens, Tubb was almost 20 before he owned his first guitar.

After limited success during the 1930s, Tubb's recording of "Walking the Floor Over You," a self-penned composition released in autumn 1942, became a million-seller, helping him gain his first appearance on the Opry in December. He gained reulgar memebership during 1943. Another hit from this era was "It's Been So Long" (click here to listen).  Also, in 1947, he opened the first of his now famous record shops and commenced his Midnight Jamboree program over WSM, advertising the shop and showcasing the talents of up and coming country artists.

From then through 1969, Tubb became the charts' Mr. Consistency, thanks to such discs as "Goodnight Irene" (with Red Foley in 1950), "I Love You Because," "Missing in Action," "Two Glasses Joe" (1954), Half a Mind, Thanks A Lot, Mr. and Mrs. Used-To-Be (with Loretta Lynn in 1964), and "Let's say Goodbye, Like We said Hello."

A tireless tourer, he and his Texas Troubadours played around 300 dates a year. Much loved, when he set out to record his "Legend and Legacy" album for First Generation records in 1979, virtually everyone who was anyone in Nashville dropped by to see if they could help out. The album line-up eventually featured the names of Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Vern Gosdin, Chet Atkins, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Johnny Paycheck, Linda Hargrove, Marty Robbins, Conway Twitty, the Wilburn Brothers, Ferlin Husky, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, George Jones, and many, many others. When he died, on September 6, 1984, the whole of Music City mourned the man writer Chet Flippo once accurately described as "honky-tonk music personified."

Acquiring the nickname 'Lefty' after disposing of several opponents with his left hand during an unsuccessful attept to become a Golden Gloves boxing champion, the Corsicana, Texas-born (1928) singer-songwriter-guitarist began life as William Orville Frizzell.

A childhood performer, at 17 he could be found playing the honky-tonks and dives of Dallas and Waco, molding his early, Jimmie Rodgers-stylings to his environment, thus formulating a sound that was very much his own.

In 1950, Frizzell's Columbia recording "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time" became a massive hit, claiming a chart position for some 20 weeks. Another big hit was "I Love You A Thousand Ways" (click here to listen)

The ex-pugilist followed this with two 1951 No.1s in "I Want to be With You Always," and "Always Late." He became an Opry star, and throughout the rest of the decade he continued to supply a series of chart high-flyers, many of these in honky-tonk tradition. The '60s, too, found Frizzell obtaining more than a dozen hits, though only "Saginaw, Michigan" -- a 1964 No.1 -- and "She's Gone, Gone, Gone" (1965) proved of any consequence. His last hit for Columbia was "Watermelon Time in Georgia" (1970).

After joining ABC Records in 1973, Frizzell began to make a comeback with "I Never Go Around Mirrors," and "Lucky Arms" (both 1974), and "Falling" (1975), when he died after suffering a stroke on July 19, 1975. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982, Frizzell's influence has played a major role in much of the country music of the '90s. You can hear strains of his work in the style of Merle Haggard, George Strait, Keith Whitley, and lately in the music of Clint Black and Doug Stone, among others.

Roughstock's History of Country Music
Introduction Bill Monroe and Bluegrass ('40-'60) Outlaw Country (1970s)
     
The Beginnings ('20-'40) Cowboy Music (1940-1960) Urban Country (1980s)
     
Western Swing ('30-'50) Honky Tonk Music (1950s) Garth And New Country (1990s)
     
Acuff & The Grand Ole Opry (1940s) The Nashville Sound (1960s)  

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