- 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
- 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.
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.
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
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
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/
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)
musician and carrier of the honky tonk flame.
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.
ND. Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox.
Honky Tonk Blues.
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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.