Memphis, Tennessee

Honky Tonk Women by The Rolling Stones

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I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride Read full Lyrics
In a deleted scene from Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman's character, Mia Wallace, poses a series of questions to John Travolta as Vincent Vega. One of those questions stipulates that you can either be an Elvis man or a Beatles man, but you cannot be both. You can like both. You cannot like both equally. Somewhere along the line, you have to choose. I pose the same question here of the Stones. Are you a Beatles person or a Stones person? A Beatles person can like the Stones and a Stones person can like the Beatles, but you always like one more than the other. I'm a Beatles man, but Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones kicks some serious ass.

Night scene of Beale Street<br>Photo: <a href="">Curt  Hart</a>, <a href="">CC BY 2.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsNight scene of Beale Street
Photo: Curt Hart, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
"Honky Tonk Women" isn't the typical song I prefer to discuss. Its lyrics are uncharacteristically straightforward and without any additional layers of meaning, symbolism, or allegory. Jagger and Richards set out to paint a scene with a song and they succeeded in spades. From the opening line to the catchy blues riff and easy-to-spot cowbell, HTW is simple and brilliant… both versions. Yes, there are two distinctly different versions of the song.

The Stones released Let It Bleed as well as a greatest hits album (Through the Past, Darkly) in 1969 and it is on these two collections that "Honky Tonk Women" can be found. The first, from the hits album, is the standard version most - if not all - people are familiar with. It's a face-value song about a prostitute in a dive bar (inspired, ironically enough, by a trip Jagger and Richards took to Brazil). The second, on Let It Bleed, is rarely heard on Top 40 and mainstream rock radio stations. With the alternate title, "Country Honk" boasts a substantially different instrumentation (much more country than blues) and opening lyric, "I'm sittin' in a bar, tipplin a jar in Jackson." You may ask, who cares? What's the difference? Well, I'll tell you.

The Blues is a musical genre made popular in the southern United States and predominantly performed by African-American musicians beginning in the mid-1800s, but hitting its peak between the 1920s and 1950s. Different areas laid claim to different styles of Blues: Kentucky Blues, St. Louis Blues, Mississippi Delta Blues, and Memphis Blues to name a few. Based on location, the nuance evolved in much different directions.

The blues in larger cities like St. Louis and Memphis evolved from smoke-filled bars - like those found on the famed Beale Street - to well-lit theater stages. In particular, the livelier Memphis Blues as mimicked in HTW, was heavily influenced by jug bands, and as the sound headed north toward Chicago, became the most sophisticated and urban style of blues ever created. While this happened, country blues, the style that began in the rural swamps of the Mississippi River, headed the opposite direction and utilized slide guitars, banjos, and a sparse style often played without rehearsing in any way whatsoever - as unsophisticated as you can get.

Possibly more important than the blues as a genre itself is the music's influence on rock beginning in the 1950s and carrying through to today. Before there was funk… before there was soul… before there was Motown… there was rhythm and blues. R&B in the '50s sounded much different than the R&B of the 1990s and 2000s, and had more in common with early rock and roll as well as rockabilly than it does now. Early rhythm and blues bridged the gap between the blues and rock. Mixing elements of country with jazz, acts like Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Chords (doo wop), and Chuck Berry turned R&B into a national sensation.

Rhythm and blues was found in all popular music between 1945 and 1969. It's not surprising that Jagger and Richards composed the same song twice, one more country and the other more urban, paying tribute to the hundreds of blues artists who came before. Most of the bands in the British Invasion were at least marginally influenced by the blues or 1950s R&B, including the Who, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Nowadays, it's virtually impossible to find any rock music, regardless of sub-genre, that hasn't spawned from the blues.

While the Stones were writing and recording music in the 1960s, the Memphis blues morphed, incorporating much more soul and funk. The Memphis Sound, as it was dubbed, is stylish, but without the hard edge of more Southern soul music and features melodic unison in the horn lines, organ, and bass, with a driving beat. When learning about Memphis' place in the history of popular music, it's hard to believe that Nashville is known as Music City instead of its in-state counterpart.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Booker T and the M.G.'s all got their start in the Memphis music scene. Beale Street (mentioned earlier) has become a national landmark and Stax Records (not as famous as Detroit's Motown) created a much grittier and horn-based sound in Memphis than had been previously heard in rhythm and blues.

It's unclear if Jagger and Richards intentionally tapped into this rich tradition in either (or both) versions of "Honky Tonk Women" or if they just wanted to write a cool jam full of horns and guitars. In any event, Let It Bleed reached No. 1 on the UK charts, dethroning the Beatles' Abbey Road (temporarily), and went on to double platinum. The album, which includes cuts "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Gimme Shelter," and "Midnight Rambler," is largely regarded as one of four of the Stones' greatest artistic achievements. I couldn't agree more.

Justin Novelli
April 12, 2016
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