- Historic Sites
It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
When Wills, who’d been appearing in Hollywood Westerns, moved to Los Angeles in 1943, Southern California became America’s Western Swing capital. The term Western Swing , in fact, was first applied not to Wills but to the California bandleader Spade Cooley. Yet Wills was indisputably the king; in World War II American pilots over Europe celebrated their hits by crowing “Ah- hahh !—Wills’s famous falsetto cry.
Wills loathed the term hillbilly , hardly a fair characterization of a sixteen-piece orchestra, complete with reeds and brass, that could swing like Ellington’s. He protested in vain. “Juke box operators are up a tree as to how to judge a hillbilly record,” said a 1944 Billboard article about Wills. “All they want is to get their hands on a slough of ‘em, pardner.” In one of the first country-music stories in a national newsmagazine, Time reported on March 24, 1941, that Bing Crosby’s hit “San Antonio Rose” was “written by Texan Bob Wills and recorded a year ago (in’ Columbia’s hillbilly catalogue) by Wills and his Texas Playboys.” Groundbreaking or not, Time ’s article is heavy-handedly patronizing: “Most Southern minstrelsy sticks to an ancient form: a 16-measure ballad, repeated over & over”—an interesting description of Wills’s complex arrangements.
The Southwest gave birth to another, even more influential country style. In Texas of the thirties and forties, honky-tonk denoted not merely a hangout but a special kind of hangout. According to Texas law, a honky-tonk was a place where “conduct... [is authorized that is] lewd, immoral or offensive to public decency”—in other words, the hundreds of gin mills spawned by the oil boom of the twenties and thirties, outskirts-of-town joints where oil workers and factory hands, many of them uprooted Southeasterners, flocked at night. The songwriter Al Dexter told the writer Nick Tosches that he’d never even heard the phrase honky-tonk before 1936, when a buddy defined it for him as “those beer joints up and down the road where the girls jump in cars and so on.” Like rock ’n’ roll, whose name originally denoted sexual intercourse, honky-tonk music was born in sin.
In the honky-tonks’ sexually charged atmosphere, old-time hillbilly music and its frequently sentimental themes seemed out of place. Honky-tonk patrons wanted tougher fare, music that reflected their new lives. “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” was replaced by “Driving Nails in My Coffin,” “The Wild Side of Life,” “Worried Mind,” or the almost unbearably sad honky-tonk classic “Born to Lose.” The honky-tonk song title, at its best a precise balance of self-pity and wordplay, would come to supply satirists with rich material—when it wasn’t intentionally parodying itself, as in “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me).”
Honky-tonks changed the sound, not just the sense, of country music. Singers had to be heard over the clink of glasses, the noise of brawls, the cacophony of working people unwinding. When the Texan Ernest Tubb, the first famous honky-tonker, revolutionized country music by hiring an electric guitarist, his motive wasn’t aesthetic; Tubb simply wanted to be heard inside a honky-tonk. (Similar forces were at work in black music of the day. In the South of the twenties and thirties, blues singers played unamplified guitars; when Southern blacks flooded Chicago and Detroit in the forties, the bluesmen went electric to cut through the city’s din.)
If a royal road runs through country music, it is honky-tonk. In its sound and lyrics honky-tonk embodies country’s great complex of themes: the opposing tugs of country and city; the collapse of traditional supports like family, community, church; rural Americans’ hard adjustment to urban life. Ray Price’s fifties honky-tonk hit “City Lights” states the theme perfectly:
When Ernest Tubb joined the Grand Öle Opry in 1943, honky-tonk’s plangent strains were adopted by country singers everywhere. The honky-tonk sound, in which a fiddle and a steel guitar usually figured prominently, dominated country music until the mid-fifties. Honky-tonk hit its creative peak with Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell in the early fifties, was forced underground by rock ’n’ roll, and re-emerged in the sixties—which only shows that a good sound and a strong dose of self-pity are timeless. A century from now honky-tonk will probably be considered the classic country-music style. It has been endlessly parodied as maudlin and tasteless, but the titter of sophisticates may only reflect their discomfort with honky-tonk’s directness, their embarrassment at so naked an emotional display.