Let’s go honky-tonkin’, that strain of country music mongrelized from Texas hillbilly music and Western Swing en route to Nashville. The canonical good vs. Evil/Beatles vs. Stones analogy for honky tonk music is a settled matter: soulful, shyly winsome Lefty Frizzell and shambolically Faustian Hank Williams. Beneath these twin peaks were founders like the Blue Ridge Playboys and Bob Wills from the hillbilly and swing camps as well as artists who crawled down from the honky tonk kingdom to make greater (George Jones) or lesser (Faron Young) contributions to the Nashville Sound. But the competition for the number three spot in the honky tonk pantheon is intense, so let’s run through the contenders.
There’s Ernest Tubb, the honky tonk founder of sorts some say, his formidable career rivaling that of contemporaneous blues kings Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Beyond the classics you probably know— “Walking the Floor Over You” (which did not chart in 1941) and “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” (#5 in 1946)— are some pretty harrowing tales: 1944’s “Soldier’s Last Letter” is a death ballad for the WWII era. But let’s face it, Tubb is musically monochromatic: he became a father figure too early in his four-decade career to epitomize the sexiness and defiance that made honky tonk influential to an audience outside the rigid boundaries of Nashville (where Tubb remains beloved).
Merle Travis also gets consideration. He had a Koufaxian peak that coincided precisely with the consolidation of honky tonk as the rowdy musical edge of post-WWII Southern social conservatism. He was a troubled man, an archetype for one-and-done innovators like Carl Perkins and Mick Taylor, with whom he had equal influence as a stylist willing to take per diem gigs as his career evolved. Travis wrote a handful of classics (“Divorce Me C.O.D.”, “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed”) but his best credits are largely forgotten, and if he really penned “Sixteen Tons” (as I suspect he did) then I bet his bones regret it. What set him apart from honky tonk peers in the 40s was a core band that brought Western Swing precision and jaunt to Travis’ gritty, frank Appalachian P.O.V. Ultimately his smooth, slightly diminished vocals never fully stick to the ribs, and his brief peak argues against canonical status.
After careful consideration, my vote for the number three spot goes to the most obscure among the honky tonk elite, the avuncular and bemusedly complacent Floyd Tillman. As broadly gifted as Travis, he gets over on his superior songwriting, his durability and his lazy, loopy vocals, which open up a stream between pop crooner and country styles that inspired Willie Nelson and George Jones, among others, and crossed back over to mainstream pop in its own weird way.
Tillman saw himself first as an instrumentalist, learning blues harmonica long before it was cool to do so and becoming one of the very first guitarists to go electric on record. (He never dominated and not infrequently played with a second lead guitarist, prefiguring the early Rolling Stones of all bands, but his melodic leads were enormously influential: check out the fills in 1947’s “Gotta Have Somethin’” which would have fit in perfectly on an early Beatles tune or a George Jones Musicor side.)
Tillman also wrote some stone classic country songs. He took his remarkably nonjudgmental cheating song “Slippin’ Around” to #5 on the charts in 1949, but both Ernest Tubb and the duo of Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely had #1 versions that year, and pretty much everyone has had a go with it since then, including a sinful version by Jerry Lee Lewis. (Less well known is the follow up “I’ll Never Slip Around Again”, where the same couple eventually get married but keep right on cheating.) Tillman had even worse luck with a song that now belongs to the Great American Songbook, “It Makes No Difference Now”, which he wrote in 1938 and promptly sold off the rights for $300 to future two-term Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis. “It Makes No Difference Now” would almost immediately become the most valuable copyright in country music, being recorded soon after by Bing Crosby and later by Ray Charles for his “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music”, among many others. Tillman himself wouldn’t get around to recording the song until 1957, at Chet Atkin’s prompting, but at that time Tillman was running out of steam and his authorship of the song was largely unknown thanks to Davis demanding songwriting credit when he took ownership of the publishing rights. Weave around this over 100 other songwriting credits, at least a dozen of which are undisputed country classics (“This Cold War With You”, “I Love You So Much It Hurts”, “A Small Little Town”, the starker bookend for John Mellencamp’s similar song), and it’s at least understandable that Tillman joined the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame fourteen years before the Country Music Hall of Fame finally acknowledged him in 1984.
Why it took the Country Music Hall of Fame over 20 years to recognize Tillman finally gets us to the issue of his voice. Tillman made no bones about the fact that he only ever started singing in the Texas Playboys because no one else could. Having said that, his vibrato-less vocals, which mimicked his guitar lines in their slurring and regularly lagged behind the beat, recontextualized Bing Crosby for the honky tonks: Willie Nelson’s vocal on “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain” would be difficult to imagine otherwise. Tillman’s style was easy to ape though, and the conventional wisdom is that c. 1950 Tillman began to parody himself at the microphone. The evidence doesn’t speak to this: some of his most subtle vocal turns occur during his putative downturn (check out his rerecording of “Each Night at Nine” from 1950 and compare it to his original from 1944 to appreciate how his vocal evolution works to his favor). And besides, Tillman wound his career and influence down of his own accord.
Indeed, at the end of the day, Tillman is probably less well known now than he should be due to complacency, or just plain lack of ambition. By the latter half of the ‘50s, he had effectively semi-retired to a life lived regretlessly on royalties in various Texas trailer parks. He married and divorced his first wife Marge (most likely the inspiration for “Slippin’ Around” in spite of half-hearted denials) multiple times, before finally taking a second wife Frances. And when Frances died after 40 years of marriage, Tillman turned around and married Marge again. Tillman did a couple of “and Friends” albums in his later years, neither of which are inspired in any way. The great unanswered question is why did Willie Nelson never rescue Tillman with a duet album like he did Webb Pierce and Hank Snow and so many others, and until we know better we have to assume that Tillman was just fine without that on his mantlepiece.
Tillman’s catalog presently is a shambles. Vinyl-era compilations are incomplete, and the best representation of Tillman on CD, “The Best of Floyd Tillman” on Sony Special Products, is abysmally selected. Bear Records, as usual, trots out the whole shebang (“I Love You So Much It Hurts: His Recordings”) and it’s lovingly crafted but at 6 CDs for fanatics only. I’ve appended to this what I proffer as an ultimate Floyd Tillman selection, and I hope you get to hear as many of these great songs as you can. But I do want to point out that Tillman didn’t totally go dark after he left Columbia Records in 1954: He continued to do various one-offs for small labels when he had the energy and inclination, as long as he didn’t have to travel far. Much of this is dross, but he did pull off one cheapo session that is a gem. Recorded in Houston by the notorious Huey P. Meaux of Sir Douglas and kiddie porn fame, the best parts from this session of Tillman classics and country chestnuts were released in 1975 duplicitously as “Floyd Tillman Golden Hits” on Crazy Cajun Records. And that’s still the best way to hear these tracks, although the sessions have been released in fuller form on CD by Edsel as “The Crazy Cajun Recordings”. Ragged, joyful, spirited, Meaux captures the Floyd Tillman who could have stood tall among the outlaws in the ‘70s and ‘80s if that is what he had wanted. But he didn’t, and every picture of Floyd Tillman had him wearing a smile that would make Eddie Van Halen turn his guitar in, so it must have worked out alright for him.
The Real Best of Floyd Tillman, chronologically:
Each Night At Nine (1944)
Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin
Go Out And Find Somebody New
The Stars Fell Out Of Heaven
Gotta Have Somethin’
Sentenced To A Life (Without You)
I’m Checkin’ Out On You
There’s Blood On The Moon Tonight
I Love You So Much It Hurts
This Cold War With You
I Gotta Have My Baby Back
It Had To Be That Way
I Almost Lost My Mind
The Last Straw
I’m Falling For You
Each Night At Nine (1950)
I Love You Just As You Are
I Finally Saw The Light
A Small Little Town
I’ll Never Be The Same Without You
It Makes No Difference Now