In Search of Real Honky-Tonk at the Arizona State Fair

A few years ago, the great Alan Jackson and the incomparable George Strait, the true standard-bearers of tradition in contemporary country music, recorded a tune called "Murder on Music Row," in which they blamed the suits in Nashville for killing traditional country music and offered this scathing refrain: "The steel guitars no longer cry and the fiddles barely play / But drums and rock 'n' roll guitars are mixed up in your face / Ol' Hank wouldn't have a chance on today's radio / Since they committed murder down on Music Row."

Traditionally speaking, "honky-tonk" describes simple, twangy songs about drinkin' and cheatin' and brawlin' and heartache, fleshed out with weeping, high-lonesome pedal steel guitar and fiddle. It used to mean Hank Sr., George Jones, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard. Now, apparently, honky-tonk means John Michael Montgomery, Mark Wills, Jeff Bates, and Trent Willmon, who constitute the "Honky Tonk Tailgate Party" bill at the Arizona State Fair.

If you listen to contemporary country radio, you have heard of John Michael Montgomery, a good country singer who (before his career cooled off after the 2004 hit "Letters from Home") rode the wave of the early-'90s neo-traditionalist country movement, to the tune of seven Number One singles. And you may have heard of Wills, who had a handful of decent country hits in the '90s and who last hit the charts in 2002 with the country-pop "19 Something."

John Michael Montgomery
John Michael Montgomery

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John Michael Montgomery is scheduled to perform at the Honky Tonk Tailgate Party on Saturday, October 24.
Arizona State Fair

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But chances are you've never heard of Bates or Willmon. That's a shame, because they are the most honky-tonk artists on the State Fair bill. Both have scored little airplay in their careers and suffer from the dreaded Nashville disease "too country for country," which means they aren't metrosexuals with frosted tips and designer jeans and don't play a style of "country" that has more to do with Journey and Billy Joel than it does Hank Sr. and Lefty Frizzell.

It's safe to say you'll never find boy-band Rascal Flatts, sugarcoated pop duo Sugarland, rocker Keith Urban, or teen queen Taylor Swift featured on a honky-tonk bill. (In fact, that might've been the only accurate mention of those artists and honky-tonk in the same sentence.) But then again, those are the artists packing arenas, the artists whom you can't go a single hour of listening to KNIX or KMLE without hearing, which goes to show how much contemporary country music has changed, even within the past decade.

So if we're to believe the ads promoting the "Honky Tonk Tailgate Party," it looks like we're left with Montgomery, Bates, Willmon, and Wills to, at least by contemporary country standards, carry the honky-tonk torch.

To be sure, none of these dudes plays pure honky-tonk; more like the neo-traditionalist country of the late '80s and early '90s that launched the careers of mega-selling singers like Jackson, Randy Travis, and Garth Brooks (great artists, but not honky-tonk in its truest sense). But compared to what masquerades as country music on today's Billboard Top 30, the singers on the "Honky Tonk Tailgate Party" are about as good as it's gonna get at a State Fair that will also host more popular "country" artists such as Lady Antebellum, Rodney Atkins, and Billy Currington. Comparatively, at least Montgomery, Bates, Willmon, and Wills are pretty damned real.

Fans of pure, traditional honky-tonk might do better to seek out such great Arizona country artists as Rick and Tony Martinez, Jim Bachmann, Suicide Driver, and Hashknife Outfit. The good stuff is out there, and a lot of it is in our own backyard.

 
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