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Honky tonk

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Honky tonk

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A vintage belt buckle from Gilley's, a large honky tonk featured in the movie Urban Cowboy. A vintage belt buckle from Gilley's, a large honky tonk featured in the movie Urban Cowboy.

A Honky tonk was originally a type of bar common throughout the southern United States, also called honkatonks, honkey-tonks, tonks or tunks. The term has also been attached to various styles of 20th-century American music.


The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of the word honky tonk is unknown.

The "tonk" portion of the name may well have come from a brand name of piano. One American manufacturer of a large upright pianos was the firm of William Tonk & Bros. (established 1881) made a piano with the decal "Ernest A. Tonk". These upright grand pianos were made in Chicago and New York and were called Tonk pianos. Some found their way to Tin Pan Alley and may have given rise to the expression of "honky tonk bars".

Honky tonk bars

Honky tonks were rough establishments, mostly in the Deep South and southwest, that served alcoholic beverages to working class clientele. Honky tonks sometimes also offered dancing to piano players or small bands, and sometimes were also centers of prostitution. In some rougher tonks the prostitutes and their customers would have sex standing up clothed on the dance floor while the music played. Such establishments flourished in less reputable neighborhoods, often outside of the law. As Chris Smith and Charles McCarron noted in their 1916 hit song "Down in Honky Tonk Town", "It's underneath the ground, where all the fun is found."

Honky tonk music

The first genre of music to be commonly known as honky tonk music was a style of piano playing related to ragtime, but emhasizing rhythm more than melody or harmony, since the style evolved in response to an environment where the pianos were often poorly cared for, tending to be out of tune and having some nonfunctioning keys. (Hence an out-of-tune upright piano is sometimes called a honky-tonk piano, e.g. in the General MIDI set of standard electronic music sounds.)

Such honky tonk music was an important influence on the formation of the boogie woogie piano style, as indicated by Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 record "Honky Tonk Music" (recalling the music of his youth, see quotation below), and Meade "Lux" Lewis's big hit "Honky Tonk Train Blues" which Lewis recorded many times from 1927 into the 1950s and was covered by many other musicians from the 1930s on, including Oscar Peterson and Keith Emerson.

The instrumental "Honky Tonk" by the Bill Doggett Combo with a sinuous saxophone line and driving, slow beat, was an early rock and roll hit. New Orleans native Antoine "Fats" Domino was another legendary honky tonk piano man, whose "Blueberry Hill" and "Walkin' to New Orleans" became hits on the popular music charts.

In the last third of the 20th century the term Honky Tonk started to sometimes be used to refer to what had previously been known as Hillbilly music. More recently it has come to refer primarily to the primary sound in country music, which developed among rural populations relocated to urban environments in the southern US in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Originally, it featured the guitar, fiddle, string bass and steel guitar (an importation from Hawaiian folk music). The vocals were originally rough and nasal, like Hank Williams, but later developed a clear and sharp sound with singers like George Jones. Lyrics tended to focus on rural life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness and alcoholism.

During World War II, honky tonk country was popularized by Ernest Tubb. In the 1950s, though, honky tonk entered its golden age with the massive popularity of Hank Locklin, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones and Hank Williams. In the mid to late 1950s, rockabilly, which melded honky tonk country to rock and roll, and the slick country music of the Nashville sound ended honky tonk's initial period of dominance.

In the 1970s, outlaw country music was the most popular genre, and its brand of rough honky tonk gradually influenced the rock-influenced alternative country in the 1990s. During the 1980s, a revival of slicker honky tonk took over the charts. Beginning with Dwight Yoakam and George Strait in the middle of the decade, a more pop-oriented version of honky tonk became massively popular. It crossed over into the mainstream in the early 1990s with singers like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black. Later in the 90s, the sound of honky tonk became even farther removed from its rough roots with the mainstream success of slickly produced female singers like Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

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