Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Songs South: Honky Tonk Blues

Hank Williams, "Honky Tonk Blues"
Honky Tonky Blues, purchase

I lived ‘down South’ for a number of years, but I hated Southern music, or “Country” as it should be properly named. Wouldn’t even entertain it. Granted, I was down there when Grunge was bitch-slapping the popular music scene and Nirvana was sitting atop a new Olympus.

Country music was the stuff the sorority girls who wouldn’t give me a second glance were listening to. My general impression of country music was of those girls heading to Walnut Creek Amphitheater in straw cowboy hats, mini skirts and boots. Or rednecks in pickups.

I defined country music by the those who listened to it, with no understanding or knowledge of the roots and history, the depth or multitudinous of genres and styles, and I failed to read its influence on almost everything else I was listening to.

But, to be fair, my strongest impression of ‘country’ music at that time was Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee”, which made brave but strange reference to ‘hootchie coochie’, among other things my misplaced northern soul just couldn’t cotton to…

Which is too bad, as I feel I came to a grand tradition pretty late, and have been trying to make-up ground for a long time.

Luckily, I found Hank Williams, listened to more than the radio hits of the Allmans, and Lynyrd Skynyrd; I found Cash—but we all did, at some point. I found a lot of good stuff, mostly through what I was already listening to and following the influences of bands in the alt-country scene that I’d learned to love, like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and The Jawhawks. It is strange, in retrospect, how much I loved those bands yet still took such a circuitous route to country music.

However crooked, or slow, I did find my way.

And I can’t think of a better song to fit this month’s category of “South”, than Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues”.

The song is perfect: a strutting, ramble-rhythm, fiddles in the back pushing the melody, the purring shimmy of the pedal steel and Williams’ inimitable lamenting warble—I can’t call it a yodel. That voice was the veritable personification of pain and misery, light coming though it like a half-empty whiskey bottle on the windowsill. To say he yodeled would be to diminish the palpable spirit he brought to song. That voice, a transcendent, plaintive howl, personifies in a single instance, the searching earnestness of all his pain, misery, mischief, and occasional happiness. Some might hear Williams pull that ‘country shit’ and think, no, not for me. But, they are missing out on what amounts to pure poetry.

“Honky Tonk Blues” is exactly what it is: a shuffling lament of leaving the country for the big town, and wanting nothing more than to get back home. It’s ‘country mouse, city mouse’, a tale told and retold. It’s William’s warning about straying too far from what you know, but then, when you take Williams’ hard luck myth and real life blues, all of his songs are some kind of warning. Hank ‘s legend sometimes outshines the simple, sad elegance of his music. But songs like “Honky Tonk Blues” are pure magic, and do more than cast a spell. Rather, his music spells out the blueprint for country music.  He reminds me of all the stuff I missed when I was down South, and make me want to get back as soon as I can. Honky Tonk blues, indeed.

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