Updated: Aug 31, 2020
I've been listening to more Motown than anything else the past week, and I'm talking early Motown - records by The Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, Barrett Strong and others that scored hits in the early '60s that helped put the label on the charts.
But I've also been continuing to explore the classic honky tonk records in my collection to bring you a third edition of Honky Tonkin': Great Classic Honky Tonk Albums. If you missed Volumes 1 and 2, I've also included links below those editions.
Check out these previous editions of Honky Tonkin' as well:
- Kendall Webb
David Sings Lefty
David Frizzell made his first records in the 1950s, but it wasn't until the early '80s that he found commercial success with his own records. In particular, his duet albums with Shelly West, the daughter of Country Music Hall of Famer Dottie West, brought him to the upper reaches of the country charts including their mega hit "You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma."
Frizzell, of course, was related to country music royalty himself being the younger brother of Lefty Frizzell. Lefty, in fact, was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982, the same year that David scored his only solo No. 1 hit with "I'm Gonna Hire A Wino (To Decorate Our Home)." It was, perhaps, inevitable that David would eventually record a tribute to Lefty, and sure enough, in 1986, the younger Frizzell issued David Sings Lefty. The album offers up his own interpretations of Lefty's best-known songs including "Always Late (With Your Kisses)," "Saginaw, Michigan," "I Never Go Around Mirrors" and "If You've Got The Money I've Got The Time."
The One And Only Lefty Frizzell (1959)
Of course, the best way to experience the magic of Lefty Frizzell's version of honky tonk country is to go back to the originals. And one of the best albums in Lefty's catalog is the 1959 record titled The One And Only Lefty Frizzell.
This album includes well-known tracks like "If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time," "Always Late (With Your Kisses)" and "I Love You A Thousand Ways" among others, and it presents Lefty Frizzell at the height of his powers before decades of alcohol abuse caused his voice and his overall health to deteriorate. On July 19, 1975, he succumbed to a massive stroke in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 47.
Gilley's Smokin' (1976)
Starting in 1970, Mickey Gilley lent his name to a sprawling honk tonk in Pasadena, Texas. Gilley's was listed at one time as the world's biggest honky tonk in the Guinness Book of World Records with capacity for more than 6,000 guests. It provided much of the backdrop for the 1980 film Urban Cowboy featuring John Travolta and Debra Winger.
So it would have been hard to leave Gilley off this list, but fortunately, he has the honky tonk goods on record to back it up. He delivered a string of hits on the short-lived Playboy label starting in the mid-1970s, and his 1976 album Gilley's Smokin' is as good a place as any to start. It features the No. 1 hit "Don't The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time" and a cover of Sam Cooke's soul classic "Bring It On Home To Me" which also topped the charts.
Chiseled In Stone
Long before The Voice premiered as a reality singing competition on television, a country singer named Vern Gosdin laid claim to the moniker. Nicknamed "The Voice," Gosdin first hit the charts in the late '60s in a duo with his brother Rex. After retiring from music for a time during the 1970s, he eventually returned to performing and singing in 1976 delivering a handful of Top 10 singles through the mid-'80s. When his record label went bankrupt in 1987, he signed with Columbia Records, and promptly delivered his career masterpiece. Chiseled In Stone is one of the greatest honky tonk records of the entire decade, and illustrates all the qualities that led to Gosdin being dubbed "The Voice." That includes the heart-rending title track and the Ernest Tubb tribute "Set 'Em Up Joe." The problem for Gosdin at that time was the fact that he was 54 years old when Chiseled In Stone finally brought him the credit he had long deserved, and he quickly faded from the charts thereafter.
Back To The Barrooms
Merle Haggard was a disciple of Lefty Frizzell above, but this album also has connections to the Urban Cowboy era spawned, in part, by the success of Mickey Gilley's nightclub that I presented above.
But while Urban Cowboy spawned a short-lived craze with counterfeit cowboys filling suburban dance floors across the country in its aftermath, Haggard's version of honky tonk presented here was the real deal. By the time this album was released, Haggard had been a star in country music for almost two decades, and this album stood in contrast to the efforts of many of his contemporaries who were looking to cross over to pop audiences and capitalize on the latest country craze spurred by the success of Urban Cowboy. The album starts with a classic honky tonk drinking song (Misery And Gin) and ends with another (I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink). In between, Haggard burnishes his honky tonk bonafides with a set list that stands up as one of the best in his entire catalog.