What in the Heck is Honky Tonk?

What in the Heck is Honky Tonk? : A Detailed Explanation for New Patrons

As Kansas City’s premiere venue for free, live roots music, Westport Saloon hosts the best traditional and neo- traditional Americana that our nationwide community has to offer. Bluegrass, Western Swing, Hillbilly, Folk and Honky Tonk populates our stage 7 nights a week. Over the past three years, we’ve become a key agent of change when it comes to introducing Kansas City party goers to REAL country music… and we’re proud of that.

For those of you just getting turned on to our fine establishment and wondering where the heck this music came from, we thought we’d spend a little time each week giving you a quick understanding about the different types of music hosted at Westport Saloon.

Honky Tonk seems like a logical place to start because of the many uses of the term.

See the thing about Honky Tonk is, that it is a type of music, a place, a person AND an activity. Let’s examine:



A honky tonk is a rough and tumble adult establishment, often associated with booze, hillbilly music and nightlife.

To give a little history, the term originally meant a seedy place to hang out. The first known written use of the word was in 1889 in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette. The article spoke to a petition, asking for the Honky Tonk Theater to be re-opened. The term being capitalized, leads us to believe it was the proper name for the establishment. Later uses in the same paper in 1890 and 1894 lead historians to the conclusion that a “honky tonk” was a place where the cattle drivers would unwind and listen to live music.




The cowboys in Texas didn’t have a 5 piece band to listen to in the late 1800s. Typically these saloons would be equipped by one lone piano, often out of tune and in disrepair. An instrument in such disarray caused the music to be more about rhythm than notes, as opposed to melody. The term “tonk” is believed to have came from the clunky, out of tune sounds being banged out on broken ivory keys.


Fast forward to pre WWII and you’ll see that as the music culture evolved, the term Honky Tonk came to mean, pedal steel, bass, acoustic guitar, and fiddle. Vocals were nasally and told stories of sadness, heartbreak, addiction and religious guilt. The early sounds recorded by Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb laid the groundwork for the evolution of Honky Tonk music. Honky Tonk purists often share the opinion that true honky tonk sounds vanished from pop radio along with Dwight Yoakam Randy Travis and George Strait. Modern music posing as “country” still utilizes a lot of the traditional instrumentation, without any of the traditional songwriting, subject matter or authenticity. Please don’t be confused, there is a huge difference between traditional country and pop country.

Today, true Honky Tonk music is absent from mainstream radio, but very much alive in the dive bars, dance hall’s, opry’s, juke joints, barn dances and hey… the honky tonks.


I’ll use it in a sentence:

“Sorry boss, I can’t come in today. I went honky tonkin’ last night.”

Honky tonkin’ is simply bar hopping. The debate could be had that, in order to go honky tonkin’ one must be drinking in dive bars and listening to good country music. If you were going to a dance club with a DJ you probably wouldn’t say you’re honky tonkin’. But let’s say you were stopping by Harry’s Country Club to pregame and rock their bad ass jukebox filled with the country classics you love, then catching a Rockabilly show at Knuckleheads before closing down a free show at The Westport Saloon with some solid regional up and commer. I’d think it was safe to say that you’d be honky tonkin’.honky-tonk-wesptort-saloon-kansas-city-free-live-music-show

Honky Tonk (title): A person that engages in Honky Tonkin’, goes to Honky Tonks or enjoys Honky Tonk music.

If you like the sound of all of this, then don’t forget about our open honky tonk jam on Thursday nights. Our weekends are always full of great local, regional and national honky tonk. Check out The Twang Daddies on first Fridays and Scott Hrabko and The Rabbits on 3rd Saturdays, both at 8 pm.

We hope this helps you understand the term better. We also hope that it causes you to get caught in the Youtube wormhole, and discover your favorite Honky Tonk artist. We’ll help you get started. Watch this video

Next week, we’ll talk about Bluegrass music. We’ll start at the beginning and bring all of you new fans up to speed!

Be sure to swing by sometime and enjoy some free music, great whiskey, and killer eats from Eat Me Gourmet!