If you were to thumb through my record collection anytime after 1983, somewhere between John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf you would find an old album from a balding man with a perma-5 O'Clock shadow spotted wearing a garish cardinal red suit. The man leaning against an Oak tree didn't look like a hipster musician. If you had to guess you'd probably peg that man for a life insurance salesman. At about this moment, you, like most of my teenage friends at the time, would turn to me with mocking laughter and say "what the heck is this? Johnny Horton?". It was always a tough record to defend. Ninety-percent of the record was filled with corny historical songs about gold mining in Alaska and the Bismarck sinking. But hidden in there was a real gem. It was his first single ever (from January of '56) and it was a hardcore honky tonk diamond called Honky Tonk Man. The same song that, at that same time of the mid-80's would become a mini-hit for a budding young country musician named Dwight Yoakam. (Dwight and I knew what was cool even if others didn't!)
It took a lot of years but I finally mustered enough courage to dig deeper and see if this traveling salesman looking dude had any other honky tonk numbers. Did he ever. Horton (who, to the best of my knowledge, never heard a Who), it turns out had a real nice career for a couple of years cutting honky tonk numbers with limited success in Nashville and Louisiana before he struck gold with his history schlep songs at the onset of 1958.
Two solid years of brilliant honky tonk numbers, one after another. Very few of which make it onto the proverbial Greatest Hits records. Our Song of the Week is one of those numbers cut in his honky tonk phase. The song is 1957's Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor cut for Columbia records in Nashville. Serious listeners (and the astute Flip-Side reader) might say, "hey, Morgan, this sounds kinda like the Johnny Burnette Rock-N-Roll Trio's work on Train Kept a-Rollin' that you wrote about a few weeks ago." Well, my clever friends, you are correct. That is because it was recorded with the same session guitarist; one Mr. Grady Martin.
Martin's guitar propels the song along with his dark low-octave runs that feel as if the middle has been chiseled out of the tone leaving only a low and high range. His lead is sublime in it's attack, tone and feel...and the echo is just right. Horton's acoustic, rhythm guitar is solid and the piano fills out the barrel-house feel with, as Horton says in the song, a "Jelly Roll". And what honky-tonk song would be complete without lyrics about...honky tonk: "You've got two black eyes that you picked up from a little guy the week before/So you swear off drinkin' but when you get to thinkin' 'bout the good times you had galore. You keep a-havin' your fun you lucky son of a gun on a honky tonk hardwood floor."
Shakespeare couldn't have written about honky-tonks any better. Nor could he sing it better than Horton who's voice is more than quite pleasing. Like Shakespeare, Horton died in a Texas car crash in 1960, limiting his career to four short years of recording (two as a honky tonk man, two as a gimmick singer). If you like this song, I suggest you check out any of his recording between '56 and '58.
That's it for this week. Merry Christmas.