Inside Honky-Tonk Highway
Honky-tonk: noun (hon·ky–tonk \ häñ-k-täñk, hoñ-ké- toñk).
1. a usually tawdry nightclub or dance hall; especially:
one that features country music
2. a district marked by places of cheap entertainment
3. country music that has a heavy beat and lyrics
dealing usually with vice or misfortune
This is truly not the most flattering description in the world, but if Messrs. Merriam and Webster had ever visited Nashville, they’d have surely shown more respect for the music of Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and Patsy Cline.
It’s said around here that all you need to honky-tonk (here used as a verb) is a stage, a bar, and a party. Honky-tonk music is the soul of Music City, and the Honky-Tonk Highway is the beating heart. You’ll know you’re here when you hear live music mixed with plenty of hootin’ and hollerin’ from one club after the next on lower Broadway.
It’s true that honky-tonk, the noun, has origins in the crude music houses of the Wild West. The cliché is probably not far from the mark–seedy, smoky dives, rough clientele, booze, and country music. Sometimes there was dancing. Sometimes there was prostitution. Almost always, the piano was out of tune.
Actually, music experts point to that poor, abused piano as central to the honky-tonk sound, which has roots in ragtime and boogie-woogie. The music is the love child of country music and misery. Hank Williams sang about Your Cheatin’ Heart; Ernest Tubb begged someone to Pass the Booze. Johnny Cash had the Folsom Prison Blues while Buck Owens claimed Mental Cruelty.
In spite of such sorrowful themes, Honky-Tonk Highway is a 365-days-a-year party–and with no cover charge. The saloons open as early as 10 a.m. and families are welcome before 8 p.m. It’s not unusual to see toddlers with sippy cups happily kicking up their heels to the beat. By 8 or 9 p.m., however, the over-21 crowd starts filling the stools and the aforementioned hootin’ and hollerin’ gets going. The party escalates into the wee hours, with nary a sippy cup in sight. So where are the best stops on the Honky-Tonk Highway? Here are some of the most popular:
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge
The world-famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge played an important role in honky-tonk history; Willie Nelson scored his first songwriting gig here and the clientele included the likes of Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, and Kris Kristofferson.
Nudie’s Honky Tonk
Nudie’s Honky Tonk keeps the legacy alive, not just with music, but with memorabilia, as well. Founder Nudie Cohn was clothier to the country stars back in the day. Among his custom-made suits on display: Elvis’s $10,000 gold-lamé threads.
Legends Corner offers straight-ahead country music all day and night, an expanded drinks menu, and classic country album covers lining the walls.
Layla’s skews toward honky-tonk’s cousins: bluegrass, hillbilly, rockabilly, and more. Up-and-coming artists can be caught here, as well as established acts like Hank Williams III, Chris Scruggs, and Drive-By Truckers.
Robert’s Western World
Robert’s Western World offers traditional country music and Latin-infused Brazilbilly, plus comfort foods like fried bologna sandwiches and pork chops.
Whichever venues you visit, and whether you think of it as a noun, a verb, a type of music, or a place to enjoy it, honky-tonk is the voice of Nashville.