NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Flying the Honky-Tonk Flag

Hardcore Artists Gretchen Wilson, Ed Burleson, Zona Jones Toe the Line

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

If all you listen to is mainstream country radio, you may worry now and again about the state of the health of honky-tonk music. It’s there, in traces, but not in the hardcore sense that it used to be.

Honky-tonk music has long been the strong, uncomplaining backbone of country music — it’s the heavy lifter, the one that did the hard work that nobody else wanted to do and for which it was not always thanked. The honky-tonkers have done the down and dirty work — Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson and Faron Young and Willie and Waylon singing about living the life of the roadhouses and sending back musical postcards from that edgy honky-tonk world. The songs were ripped from their hearts about the carnal pleasures of Saturday night’s sinning followed by the guilt-racked confessions of Sunday morning’s redemption.

The likes of Hank Williams Jr. and Montgomery Gentry are trying to hold the honky-tonk flag high in Nashville. The music is alive and well seven nights a week in Texas, where artists such as Jack Ingram, Pat Green, Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Dale Watson maintain the tradition.

Is there a honky-tonk revival underway? I dunno, I just know I’m hearing some seriously good new stuff these days

Sony Music Nashville’s new artist Gretchen Wilson is a star waiting to hit, and she virtually grew up in honky-tonks — even working as a teenaged bartender. She has a voice that can crack concrete, and she’s got ample attitude to spare. In her new single “Redneck Woman,” when she sings, “I know all the words to every Tanya Tucker song,” listeners believe her. That song is going to be a No. 1 hit, no doubt about it. I know some of the women who will stand up in bars and shout along with her: “I’m a redneck woman.” I’ve heard from some of them — they like Wilson and they are very much like her. “Redneck Woman” is not a derogatory thing. It’s a badge of solidarity with blue-collar women who don’t identify with Faith Hill or Shania Twain. In some ways, Wilson reminds me of Avril Lavigne — who is more or less the anti-Britney in what passes for rock these days. Avril has rough edges, is thinking somewhat independently and is the complete opposite of the boy-toy sexpot Britney. Vocally, however, Gretchen Wilson could scorch Avril Lavigne at 20 paces.

Wilson herself is not necessarily the anti-Faith or anti-Shania, nor is she putting down the glamorous country divas Faith and Shania. I think she’s saying there’s a lot of women country fans whose lives don’t connect with what Shania and Faith are singing about and what they represent. “Redneck Woman” — as a broad, attention-getting first single — is not completely representative of everything Gretchen Wilson is, but it is captivating a lot of women who have not been hearing songs about their own lives. And I’ve heard some of Wilson’s other material, and she’s as down and gritty and country soulful as Tanya Tucker or Patsy Cline. As she sings, there are a lot of women whose lives are more Wal-Mart than Victoria’s Secret and they want to hear songs that deal with that — songs that deal with their everyday lives. And — I tell you what — besides everything else, Gretchen Wilson has balls. She is one serious woman.

Moving on to another good honky-tonker, Zona Jones does not write songs. What he does do is sing solid honky-tonk. His new CD Harleys & Horses (D Records) draws upon several strong Nashville songwriters His current single “House of Negotiable Affections” is a witty composition by the great songwriter Bobby Braddock and is the first good country song about a whorehouse that I can recall in recent years. The title song is the gem here: It’s a replacement for Garth’s rodeo songs — if there’s still an audience for that.

Ed Burleson does write songs, and he writes some very good ones. And he sings them with a hardcore honky-tonk edge that you may not have heard in a long while. His new CD The Cold Hard Truth (Palo Duro) is probably the strongest honky-tonk album I have listened to in the last five years. Whenever you hear radio executives and record label wonks complain that some country music is simply “too country,” it’s a singer like Ed Burleson they’re talking about. He is way far too country for record industry wimps. No Saab or Hummer drivers need listen here. Burleson is an uncompromising Texas roadhouse singer whose first album was produced by the late Texas Tornado Doug Sahm just a few years ago.

Sahm himself was too country for Nashville, with songs like “Cowboy Peyton Place.” On Burleson’s new CD, a taped Sahm introduces Burleson’s live version of “Heart Break Highway” as “too country for his own good.” And that song is all that modern honky-tonk should be — balls to the wall, rockin’, spiritual, roadhouse honky-tonk. Long live righteous excess.