The words “honky tonk” will always feel hokey to me. A ragtime style originated from dive bars of the early 20th century, it evolved into “Okie” or “hillbilly music” through it’s simplicity and straight rhythms. It didn’t really have a place in country or popular music until the legendary Ernest Tubb brought it to Nashville. Much of the Nashville sound in the 50’s and 60’s steeped itself in the minimalist style, eschewing strings and large bands for simple instruments and solid stories. Since then, the style, moreso than the word itself, became ingrained in American culture. Buck Owens gave it a pair of telecasters and global appeal, Gram Parsons asked us to “close down the honky-tonks” in 1969, the Byrds lost themselves in a honky tonk, the country bad boy Waylon Jennings put out a record called Honky Tonk Heroes, and even the Eagles gave the Bakersfield style a try. The legend sealed itself into American consciousness.
Son Volt’s latest release, Honky Tonk is more than just a throw back. It is a uniquely American record, each song loaded by Jay Farrar’s expert song writing in a way few records have offered in years.
Honky Tonk feels 19 years in the making. A true homage to the Bakersfield sound, there is no straight hit single. Instead, each of the 13 tracks are filled with instantly memorable one liners. Band leader Jay Farrar proves his mettle as a songwriter time and time again. Every song has a line to remember. “Waiting for love / that sound of danger,” “love’s a Spanish word to be sung,” “you’re proof that there’s grace in this world outside livin’ free,” all ring out on the first three tracks. Backed by strummed acoustic guitars, fiddles, and the low, smooth hum of a pedal steel, the style is instantly recognizable, familiar, an almost viral marketing of Americana.
The most popular instruments of the honky-tonk style remain the pedal steel guitar and the fiddle. The instruments are featured prominently on the record. “Down The Highway” declares “There’s a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune” as guitars take second stage to a graceful fiddle solo. “Bakersfield” gives Buck Owens a revival in its dueling guitar lines as the singer finds “no cup of gold or candy mountain.” Brad Sarno and Mark Spencer kill it on pedal steel. But maybe it’s “Barricades” that holds the record together. Pedal steels and fiddles ride alongside each other, Farrar croons less like an emotional reactionary but speaks with the clarity of a composed wanderer of the world. “Don’t let the barricades of life keep the wild spirit still,” indeed.
An early contender not just for the best country or roots record of the year, but I, for one, will consider this one of the best releases of 2013.