Although the sterile country-crap radio in our fair city may not know honky-tonk music from the Muzak in an elevator, suddenly there are a number of stellar honky-tonk records out. Arty Hill’s Bar of Gold spent several weeks atop the Freeform Americana radio chart, not bad for someone from Baltimore. Here in town, Leslie Sloan has released Between the Whiskey and the Wine, a strong offering of classic barroom music.
But, indicative of the gloom and doom sentiment that real country music is dead - which, it should be pointed out, is hardly anything new - Austin aces and Continental Club regulars Heybale have released a totally legit album of honky-tonk music titled The Last Country Album.
Certainly anyone who has the slightest clue about the music business knows honky-tonk is on the endangered species list, and in fact has already pretty much been put out of its misery in many sections of the country. But for artists like Hill, Sloan, and others, hope springs eternal, the songs keep coming and these singers keep practicing their art in spite of all the road signs that say "dangerous curves ahead."
Arty Hill believes several factors coalesced to take honky tonk out of the country music spotlight. "I’m not sure if Garth Brooks was responsible for this, but it seems that around the time of his ascendance, it became uncool for country singers to sing about human weaknesses in any meaningful way," he says.
"On mainstream country radio, it's okay to be unrealistic and melodramatic about love," Hill continues. "Hell, you can sing shallow songs about drinking too much or having meaningless sex and you can preach to people about what they should and shouldn't believe, but you can no longer sing anything with moral ambiguity.
Hill goes on: "Case in point: I responded to a Row Fax ad from a studio in the Southeast looking for traditional country tunes for a male artist, so I submitted my tune 'Hall of Fame of Nothing.' The producer said he liked it, but he noted that he was trying to get his singer into the mainstream. He wrote to me that 'Alan Jackson would never sing a song that said he was in the 'Hall of Fame of Nothing,' right?’ And I thought that's the whole problem in a nutshell, right there."
[Ed. Note: Actually, of any mainstream country star, Jackson probably would.]
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Hill says one thing that is not a factor in killing honky-tonk off as far as the mainstream goes is the quality of the songwriters themselves. "I’m sure the songwriters in Nashville today are just as talented as they were 30 years ago," he says. "But if they want to make a living, they can't spend time writing anything substantial – a honky-tonk song or otherwise -- because nobody famous will cut it.
"This reminds me of a video of a Bob McDill interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame I saw recently," Hill reflects. "He discussed how hard it was to get a lot of his tunes cut, even back in the Eighties. He talked about his relationship with Don Williams, and how Williams would cut a song like 'Good Ole Boys Like Me' that other singers would think was too serious or not commercially viable.
"Of course, McDill retired," sighs Hill. "I guess as one of the most important country songwriters of the last 40 years, he doesn't feel like beating his head against the wall anymore trying to convince people they should cut good material instead of crap."
Hill shakes his head. "Just talking about this depresses the shit out of me."
Prolific producer R.S. Field recently made a honky-tonk record with Justin Townes Earle, and his description of the creative impulses and processes seem totally the opposite of the current hit-making formulas practiced in Nashville.
"On Justin's record we just all did it so fast that there were no Bolsheviks-in-a-circle ruminative or philosophical moments, although Justin was very clear on what he liked and wanted to do and equally what he didn't want to do," Field says. "I just tried, along with [co-producer] Steve Poulton and engineer Richard McLaurin, to make the sonic zeitgeist match the styles and artists Justin admired, although without as much of the inimitable craft of the honky-tonk Mount Rushmore-level C&W singers that he admired.
"To his credit, Justin really had his manifesto together and he is totally for real in what he is trying to do with it."
But Field, whose career ranges from his early days in Austin as the drummer for Omar and the Howlers to being the man behind the throne in the development of Nashville outlaw act Webb Wilder to producing Billy Joe Shaver, Sonny Landreth, Hayes Carll and Mando Saenz, says he would never advise anyone to plan on being a honky tonk artist as a career.
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"I don't know if going for being a honky-tonk artist is something to aspire to as opposed to aspiring to being a hit Nashville artist doing the good, the bad, and the ugly and whatever else it takes to have hits," he says.
"If an aspiring young musician wants to be an artist playing what they consider to be honky-tonk and they are willing to admit to the possible commercial and financial limitations of a genre that, unless you are playing the country hits of today, will only have so many places that you can play exactly and only what you want to play, then they should go for it.
"Getting to play anywhere," concludes Field, "is fun if you are doing your own thing, even if it is other people's music, as long as it is what you want to do. Didn't Ayn Rand write a book about the honky tonk individualist?" - William Michael Smith
[Ed. Note: Stay tuned for parts two, three and four in the weeks to come.]