Honky tonks sprang up around east Texas oil fields in the 1930s as places for hard-drinking, tough-talking men to get loose after a long day’s work. Hank Williams’ country hit “Honky Tonkin” could have been their theme song. But, in 1952 country singer Kitty Wells looked like somebody’s aunt when she debuted, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels". Wearing a lady-like gingham dress, but daring to sing about adultery and divorce from a woman’s point of view, she captured the nation's attention and started a revolution in country music. Interviews include performers Pam Tillis and Jean Shepard and the music of Kitty Wells, Hank Thompson and Pam Tillis.
Segment production: David C. Barnett

Sound Clips

Audio - When a teenaged Jean Shepard broke into the Nashville scene 50 years ago, she broke some rules along the way. In a conversation with David C. Barnett backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Shepard recalls that her producer Ken Nelson tried to dissuade her from recording "controversial" material.

Audio - Pam Tillis represents a younger generation of female musicians in Nashville who have benefited from the strides made by veterans like Jean Shepard. Still, she says, women today are up against a business establishment that isn't shy about using sex to sell records.

Listen to Part 1

Honky-tonks: places for music, dancing, drinking, and, sometimes, rowdy behavior which originated in white dance halls of the southwest. They offered a place for hard-working people to unwind at the end of a long, hard day on the job. The music that developed in these dance halls served as country music’s backbone for more than half a century. And the honky tonk dance halls spawned an incredible group of singers, among them Floyd Tillman, Ernest Tubb, Al Dexter, Hank Thompson, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, and Carl Smith. The honky tonk sound was even infused with bluegrass through the work of Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys.  

Women were remarkably important in the evolution of honky tonk music. Patsy Montana, Rose Maddox, and Texas Ruby, among others, helped establish both the honky tonk sound and a new country music sound in which women took the lead and sang laments. The honky tonk sound and esthetic created by women live on today in the music of Lucinda Williams, Tanya Tucker, The Dixie Chicks, and many others.

Humanities Themes:

A look at women’s contributions to honky tonk and country music.

How women overcame both the sexist society and the sexist music industry.

The evolution of honky tonk from it’s beginnings, focusing primarily on how women shaped the music

Background and Source Quotes:

Definition of honky tonk. Honky-tonks are places for music, dancing, drinking, and sometimes rowdy behavior, that originated in Southwestern dance halls. They offered a place where hard-working people could spend their time relaxing at the end of a long, hard day on the job. Honky tonk served as country music's backbone for more than half a century. Roadhouses and taverns in the Southwest were spawning grounds where honky tonk thrived. Honky tonk reflected the rural, religious upbringing of its listeners. Although honky tonk began before World War II, it flourished after the war, and spawned a cache of phenomenal singers such as Floyd Tillman, Ernest Tubb, Al Dexter, Hank Thompson, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, and Carl Smith. (source: http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Bayou/3796/history.html)

Honky Tonk Women Overview:

Kitty Wells: it’s the name that comes to mind when you think about women in honky tonk music. Her 1952 recording of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (the answer to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life”) stayed for weeks at the top of the country charts. It was, in fact, the first song by a woman to reach the #1 on the Billboard country chart).

Wells became the first female singing star of the Grand Ole Opry during the 1950s. With the string of best-selling singles that followed, including such smashes as "Release Me," "Making Believe," and "I Can't Stop Loving You," Wells garnered top female vocalist honors in the country trade magazines from 1952 to 1965. (source: http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/08-30-99/nash_cover.html)

But Kitty Wasn’t the First. Other female artists influenced Kitty’s style.

Patsy Montana's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" moved a million units in 1935.

Rose Maddox was only 11 (in the mid 1930s) when she and her brothers started playing in places where patrons had to be 18. She was a major influence on performers including Bonnie Owens, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton, and Janis Joplin.

Texas Ruby was billed as the "Sophie Tucker of the Feminine Folk Singers." She was a regular on the Opry from 1944 to ’48, and she sang honky tonk material around the Houston area from the late ’40s to the early ’60s.

Charline Arthur was 15 in 1945 when she hooked up with a medicine show, leaving Paris, Texas, behind. By the late ’40s, she was playing Texas clubs and had made her first recordings. She was the first female country singer ever to wear trousers on stage. She was given to jumping from guitar amps and singing lying down. And she always maintained that she was “shaking that thing on stage long before Elvis even thought about it.” (source:http://www.sonicnet.com/cmt/art/search/art.bios.jhtml?ai_id=504292)

But Kitty paved the way by capturing the nation’s attention. She offered the first sustained feminine perspective in country music history. (Source: N. Dawidoff, In the Country of Country)

Those Who Followed:

Jean Shepard recorded "A Dear John Letter" (1953) with partner Ferlin Husky and its sequel, "Forgive Me John." Born in Oklahoma, she grew up in Southern California, where Hank Thompson discovered her. Her streak of hit singles led to an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. That same year, she joined Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee and recorded Songs of a Love Affair, arguably the first concept album in country music history. Its 12 songs -- which were all written by Shepard -- depict a marriage torn apart by a love affair. Nearly all her songs, no matter the topic, crackle with honky tonk angel spunk. (Source: http://ubl.artistdirect.com/ music/artist/bio/0,,492285,00.html?artist=Jean+Shepard)

Wanda Jackson, native of Oklahoma, had her own daily radio show when she was 14. Hits include “Let's Have a Party," "Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad,” "In the Middle of a Heartache," and "Right or Wrong."

Bonnie Owens was born in Oklahoma City to a pair of sharecroppers and was once married to both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. She sang in honky tonks and even served drinks to the fruit pickers and oil field workers who helped make the Bakersfield Sound what it was. (source: http://movieclub.bakersfield.com/FP/baksound/bonnie.htm)

Tanya Tucker. “Her father, Beau, was determined that she and her sister La Costa, also a budding singer, would succeed ... After singing in every honky-tonk and piano bar she could find, Tanya's first big break came when Billy Sherill signed her up at age 13 and gave her the song ‘Delta Dawn,’ which became her anthem and a huge runaway hit.” (source: http://www.tanyatucker.com/gbook.html) 

Lucinda Williams was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana to renowned poet Miller Williams and a talented pianist mother. Lucinda had a ferocious love for music and words at an early age. “I loved Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams, but also Bob Dylan and the Doors and Jimi Hendrix," she says. "I don't see anything wrong with loving all kinds of music." (source: http://www.lucindawilliams.com/bio.html)

Interview Subjects

Lucinda Williams, musician and carrier of the honky tonk flame.

Resources, Bibliography, Discography, Archival: 


Green, Douglas. 1976. Country Roots: The Origin of Country Music. New York: Hawthorne Books.

Malone, Bill C. 1985. Country Music USA (Rev. ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Oermann, Robert K. 1996. America’s Music: The Roots of Country. Atlanta: Turner Publishing.  

Tosches, Nick. 1985. Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll. New York: Da Capo Press. 

Whiteside, Johnny. ND. Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox. Vanderbilt/CMF Press



Honky Tonk Blues. ND. Music Heritage: MH602.

Stompin' at the Honky Tonk (Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 7). 1996. President: PLCD 563. 

Texas Music, Vol 2: Western Swing and Honky Tonk. 1994. Rhino: R2 71782/A\ 24956.

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