One of the most interesting melting points between country and jazz is a period of music in the late 1940s /early 1950s. The style is loosely known as Honky Tonk. These artists combined the eastern US country folk tunes with some of the sounds of Western Swing-yes “both kinds of music-country AND western!” They actually were separate once!Today we’ll look at the lap steel in some of the Honky Tonk recordings. This instrument serves as a precursor to the pedal steel and is one of the earliest electric instruments. The lap steel can be tuned in a variety of ways. Many western swing and honky tonk players use a tuning called C6-though there isn’t a standard C6 tuning. C-E-G-A-C-E is typical though.
Hank Williams is easily the most famous honky tonk musician. His lap steel player was Don Helms, who really set the stage for this music, and really almost all steel since. Here today we will look at some songs by Floyd Tillman an
d Carl Smith.
This Cold War With You
This song is a classic, with just about every honky tonker playing it, from Hank Snow to Ray Price to Willie Nelson. Might be one of the ‘must know tunes’ in this style. This version is the intro from Floyd Tillman’s version with John Standlee on the steel.
Thirds and 6th rule the world of honky tonk steel, as does moving in half steps. Here we walk into a D and F, giving a Bb sound. The line ends in Eb (again a 6th interval) before chromatically walking down to give us a dominant sound.
One great thing about the steel is the economy-you only use a couple of notes to get an entire harmony across. It’s definitely a study in ‘less is more.’
Here is another country standard. This one was originally released by Ernest Tubb. Again we’re looking at the Floyd Tillman recording with John Standlee.
This solo features the same stuff that we used earlier-mainly thirds this time, and a lot of chromatic movement. Notice in the third bar that he slips down to the b5 and b3 of the chord he’s resolving to. This is a classic country move that can (and should) be adopted into your country vocabulary. He’s really slipping there (pun definitely intended!)
Overlooked an Orchid
Carl Smith is a lesser known honky tonk singer. This tune features Billy Robinson on steel and the great Grady Martin on guitar. Martin tends to obscure the steel line a little bit. Again, we have similar steel moves-6ths, 3rds, and chromatic movements. This intro sets up the tune nicely in the key of G.
Dig into some of these guys. You won’t be disappointed-it’s some great music, classic country movements, and great sounds. Not to mention some of the best songwriting in the 1950s!
I’d love to hear about your favorite honky tonk artists, so please leave a comment.