“Honky-tonk” is a cheap or disreputable bar, club, or dance hall, typically where country music is played. It’s also ragtime piano music. Lyrics tended to focus on working-class life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity.
Honky-tonks are common in the South and Southwest US. Many eminent country music artists, such as Jimmie Rodgers, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Horton, and Merle Haggard, began their careers as amateur musicians in honky-tonks.
Honky-tonk music was an important influence on the boogie-woogie piano style, as indicated by Jelly Roll Morton’s 1938 record Honky Tonk Music and Meade Lux Lewis’s hit Honky Tonk Train Blues. New Orleans native Fats Domino was another honky-tonk piano man, whose “Blueberry Hill” and “Walkin’ to New Orleans” were hits on the popular music charts.
The honky-tonk sound has a full rhythm section playing a two-beat rhythm with a crisp backbeat. Steel guitar and fiddle are the dominant instruments.
The origin of the term is unknown. The earliest use in print appears to be an article in the Peoria Journal dated June 28, 1874, stating, “The police spent a busy day today raiding the bagnios and honky-tonks.”
Early uses of “honky-tonk” in print mostly appear along a corridor roughly coinciding with cattle drive trails extending from Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, into south central Oklahoma, suggesting that the term may have been a localism spread by cowboys driving cattle to market.
One theory is that the “tonk” portion of the name may have come from the brand name of piano made by William Tonk & Bros., an American manufacturer of large upright pianos (established 1881), which made a piano with the decal “Ernest A. Tonk.”
The first music known as honky-tonk was a style of piano playing related to ragtime but emphasizing rhythm more than melody or harmony. The style evolved in response to an environment in which pianos tended to be out of tune and have some nonfunctioning keys.
The honky-tonk was the predecessor of the present-day cabaret or night club, the principal differences being that honky-tonks had lower prices and no pretence of “class.”
Sounds like my kinda joint!