A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about the beginnings of rockabilly. Yesterday I was surprised to see a PBS show that covered the same subject. I think the show was actually a few years old, and it’s just a coincidence that I wrote about the same subject (unless I have suddenly acquired ESP). In any case I was glad to see that the show, which was much more detailed and involved than my article, seemed to pretty much agree with my conclusion. They too pointed to Elvis and “That’s Alright Mama” as being a pivotal point.
But rockabilly was actually foreshadowed by another type of music, a sub-genre of country music that was around for a lot of years. It’s a variety of music that I remember well from my childhood, not only from listening to it on the old Philco at my grandparents’ house, but also because I had a cousin who owned one of the establishments where that type of music originated. That’s right, he ran a honky-tonk joint.
Honky-tonks are a long established American tradition. The name has been applied to a variety of different places in different locales, but it’s usually meant to describe a watering hole that caters to working-class folks, especially those who like to party and enjoy lively music. Through the years, that’s usually meant live music, but a lot of places did just fine with a well-stocked jukebox instead.
My cousin’s place was at the lone intersection in a tiny country village, and on weekends drew pretty good crowds from the surrounding vicinity. It was a farming area but also had lots of coal mines, and farmers and miners both know how to party after a long, dirty work week. Unfortunately, I was too young to go into the place, but I sure had big ears and heard a lot of gossip about it, and between the fightin’ and the feudin’ they had some lively Saturday nights. And I’m not talking about the music they featured, although I’m sure that was pretty high-spirited too.
In post-war America, honky-tonk music grew to popularity in places like that, but actually it started even earlier as an offshoot of ragtime. The raw sound of someone pounding a piano in bordellos and early saloons in the West and South was described as honky-tonk by some and as a variation of boogie-woogie by others, and pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton helped popularize it. Eventually it began to evolve, and with the addition of fiddle and guitar it came closer to what we now think of as honky-tonk.
Country music stars such as Ernest Tubb (who was known as “ET”) began to make honky-tonk the music of rural America. Tubb hit the music scene in Nashville and began appearing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. His addition of the electric guitar – the first to do so on the Opry – helped continue the evolution of honky-tonk, and he had a huge hit with a song he also wrote, “I’m Walking The Floor Over You”. He ended up as one of the biggest country music stars of all time.
Others followed as the sound of honky-tonk became the sound of mainstream country music. Singers such as Lefty Frizzell, Hank Locklin, Hank Williams and George Jones all became stars through the 1950’s and 1960’s, and in the years since, the influence of early honky-tonk can be seen in the music of George Strait, Dwight Yoakum, and Garth Brooks.
Honky-tonk music will always be with us in one way or another, and I’d like to think my cousin’s joint had a little bit to do with that.