Honky-tonk

gilleys

urban cowboy

The term honky-tonk has been applied to various styles of 20th century American music. A honky-tonk a type of bar that provides country music for entertainment to its patrons. Bars of this kind are common in the Southern and Southwestern regions of the US, and many country music legends, such as Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and Ernest Tubb began their careers as amateur musicians in honky-tonks.

Honky tonks were rough establishments that served alcoholic beverages to a working class clientele, and sometimes offered dancing, piano players, or small bands. Some were local hubs of underground prostitution. Dance researcher Katrina Hazzard-Gordon writes that the honky-tonk was ‘the first urban manifestation of the ‘jook” (‘juke joints,’ African American roadhouses and bars). Honky tonk originally referred to bawdy variety shows in the West and to the theaters housing them. The distinction between honky tonks, saloons and dancehalls was often blurred, especially in cowtowns, mining districts, military forts, and oilfields.

The origin of the term is disputed. One theory is the ‘tonk’ portion of the name may have come from a brand name of piano. One American manufacturer of large upright pianos was the firm of William Tonk & Bros. These pianos were not manufactured until 1889, contemporaneous to the first occurrences of honky tonk in print, at which point the term seems to have already been established. In recollections long after the frontiers closed, writers such as Wyatt Earp and EC Abbott referred often to honky tonks in the cowtowns of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, etc. of the 1870s and 1880s. Their recollections contain lurid accounts of the women and violence accompanying the shows. However, in contemporary accounts these were nearly always called ‘hurdy-gurdy’ shows, possibly derived from the term that was sometimes mistakenly applied to a small, portable barrel organ that was frequently played by organ grinders and buskers.

The first music genre to be commonly known as honky tonk music was a style of piano playing related to ragtime, but emphasizing rhythm more than melody or harmony; the style evolved in response to an environment where the pianos were often poorly cared for, tending to be out of tune and having some nonfunctioning keys. This honky tonk music was an important influence on the formation of the boogie-woogie piano style. During the pre-WWII years, the music industry began to refer to hillbilly music being played from Texas and Oklahoma to the West Coast as ‘honky tonk’ music. In the 1950s, honky tonk entered its golden age, with the massive popularity of Webb Pierce, Hank Locklin, Lefty Frizzell, Faron Young, George Jones, and Hank Williams.

During the pre–World War II years, the music industry began to refer to honky tonk music being played from Texas and Oklahoma to the West Coast ashillbilly music. More recently, the term has come to refer to the primary sound in country music, developing in Nashville as Western swing became accepted there. Originally, it featured the guitar, fiddle, string bass, and steel guitar (imported from Hawaiian folk music). The vocals were originally rough and nasal, as exemplified by singer-songwriters Floyd Tillman and Hank Williams, but later developed a clear and sharp sound, such as that of singers George Jones and Faron Young. Lyrics tended to focus on working-class life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity.

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