THE SALT OF THE EARTH

Late 1940s - Mid 1950s
Honky Tonk Country

Honky tonk music represented a radical break from the course of traditional country music. Whereas traditional country music, evolved in the Appalachians, was a strongly religious, family-based, rural music, honky tonk was made by Southerners living in cities, was lyrically detailing the pleasures and miseries of urban life (many of the clichés we now think about when we think about country music - songs about women leaving and drowning your sorrows in alcohol - got their start in honky tonk) and was performed in "honky tonks", bars that offered live entertainment for people to dance to and drink and get rid of their frustrations during the weekend. Furthermore, it was the first country music genre to start using electricity, namely through the amplified steel guitar. (Drums and straight-ahead electric guitar were still a while away.)

Although the elements it brought to country never really left and it has remained part of its backbone, the genre itself was swallowed up in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a Nashville-led new brand of country-pop. Fiddles and singing about getting drunk and all those rough edges were out, pop orchestration, background singers, strings and love songs were in. The new artists of this watered-down country format included people like Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.

The classic honky tonk artists of the late 1940s and early 1950s included Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Faron Young, the young George Jones, and towering above them all, Hank Williams.

Ever since the demise of honky tonk, there have been recurrent left-field movements in country music that have aimed to break Nashville's homogenizing hold on country music, and all of these (1960s' Bakersfield revolution led by Merle Haggard, the 1970s' Outlaw movement represented by Willie Nelson among others, the 1980s' New Traditionalist movement represented by people like Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam fighting against the Barbara Mandrell and Alabama-dominated Nashville middle-of-the-road country-pop, the 1990s' alternative country scene rebelling against Garth Brooks' so-called "new country") have sought in some ways to restore an authenticity that honky tonk incarnated.
 
 

GEORGE JONES  (1931-2013)

George Jones, of course, is much more than just a honky tonker, although that is the era and style in which he got his career started. He is hailed, almost unanimously, as the greatest voice country music has ever had, and has enjoyed continuing, and vital success, throughout the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s, as well as still enjoying occasional hits in the 1990s. He is arguably the greatest country artist of all time.

Born in Texas, George Jones grew up on a steady diet of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. After Williams died in 1953, Jones became his heir apparent, kicking off his career in 1955 with the hit Why Baby Why. In the early 1960s, when the days of honky tonk were over, and a new form of country-pop was overtaking the industry, George Jones adapted to the style, as he continued to do in the 1970s. His material may not always have been stellar, but his incredible voice and natural singing gifts always managed to turn what he was singing into something memorable. In addition to being a solo artist, he had many hits as a duo with his then-wife Tammy Wynette. He achieved possibly his greatest success in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even as he was at the height of an alcohol and drug addiction that had lasted throughout his entire career, had wrecked his personal life, caused all sorts of bizarre behavior and constant concert cancellations that earned him the nickname "No Show Jones". Having somewhat calmed down as he has reached his sixties, he is still recording and performing today.

Even before he got into the blues, Mick was a fan of country music, and George Jones was a favorite of his. He's also been a favorite of Keith's over the years, who may have identified in the 1970s with Jones' turbulent life and the unabashed cry-in-your-drink quality of much of his music, and he frequently covered his songs in his personal recordings.

The Stones first met George Jones when they played on the same bill as him in 1964 on their first U.S. tour. Thirty years down the road, in 1994, Keith finally got the chance to play with his country hero. He traveled to Nashville during the Voodoo Lounge mixing sessions to contribute to Jones' star studded album The Bradley Barn Sessions, covering a song Keith had often recorded called Say It's Not You .

I'm very country-influenced, from quite young. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, so on. I heard these people, really, before I heard blues. Even Jim Reeves. Everly Brothers, and so on. Those kind of pop-country performers are very popular in England. Used to come along and play a lot on TV and their records would be around.

                                                  - Mick Jagger, 1994

 

HANK SNOW  (1914-1999)

Canadian-born Hank Snow may not have had the success or talent of fellow honky tonkers Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones, but his I'm Moving On in 1950 was a huge hit and paved the way for others. Snow traveled a lot and wrote songs whose themes reflected that. He was also much appreciated among the country community.

The Stones covered Snow's classic live in an almost hard rock style, which appeared on the album December's Children in 1965.
 
 

HANK WILLIAMS  (1923-1953)

In a span of about 4 years, Hank Williams basically defined the honky tonk genre and drew up the map for the future of country music, and left a legacy of songs unparalleled in the history of country music.

Born in Alabama, Williams started performing as a guitarist and vocalist in his teens, and his road to success started when he linked up with music publisher Fred Rose in 1946. Within a few years, the hits were starting and, although his performance itself was distinctive, the songs Williams wrote, songs often about marital problems and the despair that came with it, were works of poetry. If Chuck Berry is rock's poet, then Hank Williams is country's. The classic hits he wrote and recorded are too numerous to mention, but include Your Cheatin' Heart, Jambalaya, Honky Tonk Blues, Hey Good Lookin', Why Don't You Love Me and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Hank Williams had lifelong troubles with alcoholism, however, and he died at age 29 because of it.

Country was a love of both Mick, Keith and Bill as they grew up, one, however, which it took them longer to incorporate into the Stones' music. Possibly because of the corniness of the themes, the Stones applied heavy doses of irony to the music. By Beggars Banquet in 1968, songs like Dear Doctor and Factory Girl showered the clear influence of country music, including honky tonk strains. Then in December 1968, while on a trip to Brazil, Mick and Keith wrote an homage to honky tonk, and Hank Williams, which became one of their biggest all-time classics. Country Honk, reworked as Honky Tonk Women, possessed all the attributes of a Hank Williams song, but treated with irony.

The Stones, Keith in particular, have kept up their appreciation of country music throughout the years. The following is an excerpt from Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, detailing an afternoon during the Stones' tour rehearsals in Los Angeles in October 1969, when Gram Parsons was hanging out with the Stones.

Keith and Gram came in from the tennis court... and sat down at the piano. Mick sang along with them. The afternoon lengthened. It was one of those Scott Fitzgerald Sunday afternoons in Hollywood that go on and on. Just a kid actin' smart / I went and broke my darlin's heart / I  guess I was too young to know. The force of romantic poetry, its details cribbed by Coleridge and Wordsworth from the writings of William Bartram on the country and the legends around the Okefenokee Swamp, had landed Mick and Keith (whose dog Okefenokee I would later meet), the two English rhythm and blues boys, at the piano with a Georgia country cracker singing Hank Williams songs. Mick didn't look sure he liked it.


Written by Ian McPherson, 2000.
Like all files on Time Is On Our Side, it is the exclusive intellectual property
of Ian McPherson and cannot be duplicated, in any form, without his authorization.

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