The word “honky-tonk” can be traced back to the early 1900s. It was used to describe a tawdry nightclub or dance hall, one that usually features country music.
Honky-tonks were — and still are — prevalent in the South in all shapes and sizes. Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth is known as “The World’s Largest Honky-Tonk” and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville is lauded as the oldest. Many dance halls that honky-tonk artists thrived in — like Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, which is one of the oldest in Texas — are still in business today in an ever-changing country music market that, on the radio, seems to keep getting further away from its roots and moving towards the pop music you hear on your Top 40 radio station (one of the terms for modern country is “bro-country.”)
However, the Americana, alt-country, and red dirt country styles have made an impact. There’s a resurgence in collecting vinyl from country music artists and many festivals from coast to coast feature only these types of bands.
To get to the true roots of honky-tonk music, you have to turn to the 45, those small, 7-inch slices of vinyl found in the jukeboxes of these honky-tonks that hold the history to this cherished genre. As many record collectors know, when you find “honky-tonk” records, they are generally piano- and ragtime-based ones that are usually cast-off to the bargain bins. The evolution into what we define honky-tonk as today began with the addition of the fiddle and the pedal steel guitar, particularly in Texas. You will often still find the piano and harmonica records from certain areas of the United States, but some of these records did not, have that rowdy, Western swagger so many came to love.
To get to the true roots of honky-tonk music, you have to turn to the 45, those small, 7-inch slices of vinyl found in the jukeboxes of these honky-tonks that hold the history to this cherished genre.
We all know names like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, and Hank Snow because those legends certainly got their music to the masses through radio play. The 45 is what put these artists in the spotlight. This technology was a way for singers and bands to get a record made in smaller towns in hopes of getting played on radio stations in the much bigger ones. Eddy Arnold’s “Texarkana Baby” was one of the first country 45s ever made, although it did have that honky-tonk flavor that we refer to today. However, there were tons of artists that never saw that kind of fame but were talented in their own rights. (Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary is a great source of information on this topic.)
There has been a resurgence in honky-tonk nostalgia. Collectors are looking for the classic twang of a singer’s voice or that mesmerizing sound of the pedal steel. Others are looking for rarities from artists that performed under a different name, like George Jones when he performed as Thumper Jones and the harder-to-find Hank Smith.
Some new artists have even tried to recreate that vintage sound and appearance. One that comes to mind is the band The Country Side of Harmonica Sam, hailing from Sweden, which not only gets the sound as close to the 1950s as possible but also the clothing as well. We have seen a great amount of new vinyl from country artists in the last few years, which is much needed in this sometimes overlooked genre.
Something to remember when collecting honky-tonk records is that many artists never released a full album; some had only one 45 in existence, while others could have spread their work across different record labels.
However, as a musical style, honky-tonk is still filled with mystery. There are so many records, mostly 45s, that are not listed on Discogs or anywhere on the Internet. Some info was never recorded, such as the number of albums pressed, and many honky-tonk labels have very few details. However, this makes it fun to find artists you have never heard before in bulk 45 collection, which can be very cheap, if you know where to look. I always enjoy buying a box of 45s in the hopes of hearing an artist or label that will put me on the hunt for more. Something to remember when collecting honky-tonk records is that many artists never released a full album; some had only one 45 in existence, while others could have spread their work across different record labels.
I have been a DJ for almost 30 years, playing every genre you could imagine in popular dance clubs, bars, live venues, even raves back in the heyday. My love for honky-tonk music was planted early in my life by my father, who, with one of his old friends, would play in dive bars around the Texas and Oklahoma border; my dad played harmonica and his buddy played guitar. Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, we always had WBAP 820 AM on (back then, the station played music before evolving into talk radio). Those were the seeds that ended up growing into a collection of records.
I started collecting certain labels styles, with an emphasis on Texas-based artists or labels with pedal steel and fiddles; these instruments were my go-to criteria for a good honky-tonk song. Using my years of DJ knowledge and quality gear, I got the idea to approach venues, ask to open up for bands, and strictly play 45s. I called it The HonkyTonk Jukebox, and it became a hit — the bands loved hearing music they never heard before and the crowds loved taking pictures of the little black pieces of vinyl producing musical history over the speakers. I became connected with some local radio stations and began doing guest spots on KNON in Dallas and KUZU in Denton, which then led me to start posting mixes of these rare 45s on to Mixcloud.
Here are my favorite top 20 honky-tonk 45s, in no particular order, that every collector should have in their collection:
- Buck Owens – Together Again (Capitol Records 5136)
- Johnny Paycheck – Jukebox Charlie (Little Darlin’ LD-0020)
- Webb Pierce - Honky Tonk Song (Decca 9-30255)
- Lattie Moore - Here I Am Drunk Again (King Records 45-5413)
- David Wills - There’s A Song On The Jukebox (Epic 8-50036)
- Hank Williams – Honky Tonk Blues (MGM Records KGC 109)
- George Jones - White Lightning (Mercury 71406X45)
- Ernest Tubb - Walking The Floor Over You (Decca 9-46006
- Ray Price - Crazy Arms (Columbia 4-21510)
- Gary Stewart - Drinkin’ Thing (RCA Victor APB0-0281)
- Merle Haggard - The Bottle Let Me Down (Capitol Records 5704)
- Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues (Sun 232)
- Loretta Lynn - Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (Decca 32045)
- Hank Thompson – A Six Pack To Go (Capitol Records 4334)
- Patsy Cline - Walkin’ After Midnight (Decca 9-30221)
- Johnny Horton - Honky-Tonk Man (Columbia 4-21504)
- Faron Young - Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young (Capitol Records F3056)
- Lefty Frizzell - If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time (Columbia 2-770)
- Johnny Bush - Jim, Jack, And Rose (Stop Records ST 354)
- Kitty Wells – It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (Decca 9-28232)