(Host) In the 1950s and ’60s, dozens of working class bars dotted the Vermont countryside. They smelled of beer and cigarette smoke and every weekend featured live music and a crowded dance floor. The music was called honky tonk.
VPR’s Steve Zind visits with three veterans of Vermont’s honky tonks who still carry on today.
(Singer Danny) “There used to be a country music park out in Orange that had stumps with planks across them for seats and a stage. It was called Hillbilly Heaven.”
(Zind) The three middle-aged members of the Starline Rhythm Boys are sitting in a Barre restaurant reminiscing about the honky tonks they’ve played. Places with names like Leo’s Lucky Spot. Pink Step Inn. The Brass Rail. A sign outside the door of one warned No work clothes. No knives or guns.
(Coane) “A friend of mine came all the way down from Essex to see us. He was wearing work clothes and they wouldn’t let him in.” (Laughs.)
(Zind) Most of the honky tonks are gone now. But these Vermonters still play the style of music that took its name from the rowdy roadhouses.
(Starline Rhythm Boys, performing)
“There’s a place I go at the close of day,
When the blaze of sun has cooled it’s way.
Out where the moonlight shines a deep tone blue,
It gets as wild as a ragin’ sea.
But that’s honky tonk livin’ to me.”
(Zind) Instead of bar rooms, the Starline Rhythm Boys usually play more wholesome venues. This evening they’re performing at a small downtown park in Barre.
The trademark honky tonk sound often features moaning steel guitar and fiddle. But live, the Starline Rhythm Boys are a stripped down three-piece. Singer Danny Coane plays acosutic guitar, Al Lemery is on electric guitar and vocals and Billy Bratcher plays an old stand up acoustic bass that rocks and swivels under his assault.
(Coane) “A lot of people say, How come you don’t have a drummer up here?’ We don’t need a drummer!”
(Zind) Honky tonk music is a marriage of urban rock and roll and rural country music – an unholy alliance that radio stations tend to shy away from. It’s popularity peaked in the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the songs capture a worldview from a barstool but at it’s heart, honky tonk music is about loneliness. Maybe that’s why people can relate to it.
The Starline Rhythm Boys live shows draw a mixed audience, from teenagers to senior citizens. There’s a directness and simplicity to the lyrics and an infectious groove to the music.
The band draws it’s inspiration from the music made by Web Pierce, Faron Young and Hank Thompson. But they balk at any suggestion that they’re on a nostalgia trip.
(Lemery) “It’s an old style of music done in a new way. There’s definitely a modern edge.”
(Bratcher) “Modern feelings about the heartache I had last night.”
(Starline, performing) “We’d like to do one off our cd now, our brand new cd if we could.”
(Zind) What makes the Starline Rhythm Boys different is the fact that all the songs on their new cd Honky Tonk Livin’ are originals, written by Bratcher.
The most famous honky tonk songwriters are from the south, but Bratcher says he doesn’t buy the idea that you have to be from below the Mason-Dixon Line to capture the emotion and sound of hard core honky tonk music.
(Bratcher) “Our hearts break just like that of a southern man. Our Telecasters sound the same as someone pickin’ from Memphis, Tennessee.”
(Starline, performing) “Rollin’ along, thinkin’ bout her eyes,
Under the stars that dot the Ohio skies.”
(Zind) Bratcher, Coane and Lemery, say they’ve got no desire to return to playing bars for a living. They’ll hang on to their day jobs while the band makes the rounds of fairs, festivals and weddings. And while smoky bars and hard living may seem like an odd source of inspiration, so far it’s working just fine for the Starline Rhythm Boys.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Barre.