The descriptive phrase honky-tonk to portray the type of music or an entertainment venue at which music was playing dates back to the 1890s at least. Honky-tonk was not co-opted specifically to refer to a particular kind of country and western style of popular music until the 1930s, however. The earliest known recording of a country and western song with the phrase in its title was a song called “Honky Tonk Blues” recorded by an unjustly forgotten singer named Al Dexter. Dexter was also responsible for codifying the early honky-tonk sound in such songs with delicious titles like “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Most people thoroughly unfamiliar with honky-tonk will easily confuse a variety of styles of country music with this rather specific genre. Sadly, even most people who pack into concert arenas to listen to the impotent brand of country and western music made today specifically to appeal to a broad commercial base can’t tell the difference between authentic honky-tonk and standard country. Making this all the more egregious is the almost ridiculous amount of songs with honky-tonk in their titles since 1980 that are definitely not honky-tonk.
Honky-tonk is country and western music denoted by its stripped down bare roots twangy guitar sound and vocal delivery by turns almost painfully sorrowful or outrageously raucous. Honky-tonk actually grew out of an earlier popular form of music known as western swing. As the “swing” might suggest, those bands were bit larger than the bands making honky-tonk. The streamlined sound did away with most of the instruments that weren’t guitars and drums, although it did retain western swing’s prominent placement of the steel guitar. Honky-tonk was primarily differentiated from the sound of western swing by virtue of slowing down the beat. This was initiated mainly to give a larger emphasis on the vocals; honky-tonk lyrics drive the song more than the instrumentals that drove western swing.
Honky-tonk had a decidedly Southern Bible Belt undertone. The raucous songs that could get people up and dancing with abandon represented the tendency toward hard partying during the Depression and the guilt-laden despair of the slower songs represented that distinct feeling of waking up on Sunday morning and going to church with a hangover. Although honky-tonk music would spread quickly across the country during the Depression, its birthplace is generally agreed to be Texas, with an almost immediately adoption by Oklahoma.
After Al Dexter’s success, almost all country acts as well as a good many western swing bands took to playing honky-tonk mostly or even exclusively. Among the most notable of the early honky-tonk artists were Ernest Tubbs and Lefty Frizzell, but one man rose above all others to essentially define for eternity what great honky-tonk music is all about. That man was, of course, Hank Williams, Sr. Hank Williams, Sr. was the master especially of that type of honky-tonk that represented the guilt and despondency of waking up drunk, although clearly Hank could handle the rowdy drinking part as well. His son Hank Williams, Jr. has tried his darndest to continue in the honky-tonk tradition of his dad, but, well, like Lon Chaney, Jr. sometimes it is best if the son doesn’t attempt to follow in the father’s gigantic footsteps.