A honky-tonk is both a bar that provides country music for the entertainment of its patrons and the style of music played in such establishments. As for the music, it will be mostly or exclusively Country-Western. But not all Country-Western music is honkytonk music.

This kind of music has become an enduring staple. The style to which mainstream country inevitably returns time and time again to refresh itself. It is a source of inspiration and renewal when popular trends begin to take country music away from its roots.

Here’s George Jones’ “Honky Tonk Song”, a song lampoons what is perhaps the infamous and celebrated drinking story involving Jones.

Honky-tonk music themes

As you can observe, the basic honky tonk sound features acoustic and/or electric guitar, fiddle, string bass, and steel guitar. The vocals often draw from the so-called “high lonesome” sound of traditional country, sounding either rough and nasal (Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb) or smooth and clear (Lefty Frizzell, George Jones). Like the music, honky-tonk lyrics are emotionally simple and direct. Often, it is with a plain-spoken vulnerability and a sense of emotional release. Instead of depicting rural life, though, honky tonk’s subject matter rooted in its immediate surroundings — the taverns.

Celebrations of romance, parties, and good times were quite common. The genre, however, became especially well-known for its fascination with the flip side.  Heartbreak, infidelity, pain that could only be numbed with alcohol, morning-after remorse and religious guilt are some of its themes.

Honky-tonk music during World War 2

The music initially became popular during World War II.  Ernest Tubb became its first star; however, the 50’s proved to be honky tonk’s golden age.

Singer and songwriter Hank Williams hit his absolute prime at the dawn of the decade. And Lefty Frizzell forever altered the way country music was sung with his smooth, lengthy melodic phrases and rich, pure tenor. George Jones rose to prominence in the middle of the decade. He became a near-consensus choice for country’s greatest-ever interpretive singer by adding a startling emotional intensity to Frizzell’s phrasing innovations. Honky tonk slowly declined in popularity as rockabilly and country-pop captured mainstream audiences.

The genre continues to receive revisions every few years. It becomes widely seen as the backbone of “true” modern country. The same way as bluegrass considered the foundation of traditional country music.

Honky-tonk as a bar

On the other hand, honky-tonk can also refer to a kind of bar, but not all bars are honky-tonks. Nobody seems to know the origin of the term honky-tonk. It was recorded in print as early as 1889. It should not be confused with “honky,” a supposedly derogatory term sometimes used by American blacks to describe white people. Actually, if someone called me a honky, I’d probably just laugh at them.

In all 50 states, you can definitely find honky-tonks.  Mostly, they are in the South and Midwest. In a honky-tonk, the music is likely to be loud, anti-smoking laws ignored, and the beverage of choice is beer. The clientele composed of mostly working-class people, and the occasional fight or brawl happen all the time.

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