Honky Tonkitis Still Has Country In Its Grip

This appeared in Country Weekly - June 30, 1998

Tawdry? You bet. Country music? Some of the best--as Hank Williams proved when his "Honky Tonkin' " hit the charts 50 years ago. He created a tradition that has been kept alive by five decades of country singers--including Marty Stuart.

Marty's 1996 duet with Travis Tritt, "Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best," capped a fascination with tonks that began when he was just a kid in Mississippi. "I knew these places that people would go to on a Saturday night were completely opposite from where my Mama took me on Sunday morning," says Marty.

"I'd notice that there were a lot of cars there and characters hanging out in front by the blinking lights. It was the other side of the world I was living in."

Marty managed to stay clear of the clubs when he started touring at age 13 with Lester Flatt and later with Johnny Cash. "But when I started my own band, I knew it was a lesson I had to learn, and it was a school that I wanted to go to," Marty tells Country Weekly.

"I wanted to work from the worst to the best honky tonks to really get a handle on what those guys historically had talked about."

So Marty did just that. "I swear to you, when you stand onstage at a dive, and you see all those neon signs advertising beer or pool or whatever, and you're singing 'Swinging Doors,' those signs really come to life," he says.

"When you look out there across the dance floor and at the people sitting around on those stools, you really understand that everybody ought to be in church. But everybody ain't, and that's why they made honky tonks."

Marty's honky tonk history got off to a shaky start. "I was a new act and I thought we'd take Texas and Gilley's by storm, so we went down there in our rhinestone coats and pants stuck in our boots, playing hard rocking one minute, hardcore traditional the next. I thought we'd coast on the fumes of Waylon's and Willie's outlaw phase, but I found out real quick that was over and George Strait and starched shirts had come in.

"This old-timer was standing in front of the stage, just staring at us like we were Martians or something. All of a sudden, he'd say, 'Play me a George Jones song.' So we'd play 'The Window Up Above.' Then he'd say, 'Play a Hank Thompson song,' And I'd do 'Six Pack To Go.' He did this to me all night long. He'd challenge me titles, and I'd sing bits and pieces of the whole songs." Finally the man approached him offstage. "Damn, hoss, I don't know what you are," said the Texan, "but I like you."

Marty laughs at the recollection: "Well, I had been baptized."

Yet his real baptism under fire came later at the roughest honky tonk he ever played. "Maybe we just hit this place in Nacogdoches, Texas on a rough night, but I remember they had a lady bouncer and she was not to be messed with.

"There were pool tables, a bar, a stage propped up on beer boxes, a chainlink fence and some swinging doors into the showroom. I was walking in from the bus to go to the dressing room and this big woman had this guy handcuffed to the fence until the cops got there to pick him up.

"She had slugged him and he had blood coming out of his nose. Seems like she was having a pretty good time doing that because I noticed a lot of people kept leaving. I came back and told my manager, 'There's one place I don't think I need to work again.' "

Marty's favorite honky tonk songs? "The two honky tonk anthems of all time are 'Honky Tonkin' ' by Hank and my honest-to-God second favorite, Carl Butler's 'Honky Tonkitis' ...'I don't like your way of living--you've got honky tonkitis in your soul.'

"That's pretty hardcore Saturday night as far as I'm concerned."

By Gerry Wood

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