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Top musicians were allowed to hone their skills at some early local nightspots

Honky-tonk nights

BY Doug Hensley
For the Avalanche-Journal

As one of the most influential musicians ever to emerge from Lubbock, Tommy Hancock is no stranger to the West Texas honky-tonk.

Just don't ask him to define the term.

"I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I'm in one," said Hancock, who called Lubbock home from 1929-69 before moving to Austin.

It is no secret that Lubbock boasts a rich and enviable musical heritage. From Buddy Holly to Mac Davis to Joe Ely, the city has played many a sweet note through the years. Likewise, a part of that heritage is the honky-tonk, where musicians could hone their craft before a live audience. "To me, a honky-tonk is sort of a low-end bar that maybe has a jukebox and a small stage for a band," said Alan Munde, a former longtime South Plains College professor and co-author of the book "Prairie Nights to Neon Lights," which examined the region's rich musical roots. "A honky-tonk maybe is open kind of late; it's not the nicest place to be, but people go there anyway and have a good time."

Munde, a talented bluegrass musician and banjo player in his own right, taught in the fine arts department at South Plains College for 21 years. He and fellow SPC professor Joe Carr authored what could be considered the authoritative historical look at the area's musical roots and influences.

Carr said the honky-tonks enjoyed their greatest popularity just after World War II and throughout the 1950s, although they enjoyed a longer lifespan in West Texas for a variety of reasons.

"I think there have been several people who have tried to research the etymology of the word honky-tonk, but there's been no clear agreement of where it actually comes from," he said. "Generally, we apply it to country music - a specific kind of music designed for dance.

"Think about country music of the 1930s. It was primarily all acoustic, but by the post-war years, they started having full bands. Many people feel like the sound of the music after the war sounded good on a jukebox, and it was a cheap band if it only cost you a nickel or dime to hear a tune."

However, Carr said, music changed as technology changed.

"Technology shaped the sound of music," he said. "Bands playing live realized they had to be louder, especially if they were playing a larger location. This was in a day before good sound and the evolution of the electric guitar. The steel guitar would have its own amplifier. Music became louder, and a large group could hear the music and feel the beat."

And there was no better place for that than a honky-tonk. Hancock said he and his band, the Roadside Playboys, spent many an evening playing the West Texas honky-tonk scene.

He recalled performing at a handful of places in and near Lubbock, including the Rainbow Inn, the 87 Club and the Glasserama.

"One thing the honky-tonk is to me is country music," he said. "In my day it was country music."

In West Texas, no better honky-tonk venue existed than the Cotton Club, which played host to virtually all of the best-known acts in the country during a historic 40-year run that included several locations.

"The Cotton Club was the biggest venue between Dallas and Los Angeles at one time," Hancock said. "All of the big-name bands played there. Bands from the rock 'n' roll era and country music played there. It was a dance hall featuring primarily dance music."

Hancock said his family owned the Cotton Club during the majority of its existence. He said the original Cotton Club was located at Railroad Avenue and 50th Street. A later version of the club appeared in the 1960s on the Slaton Highway outside of Lubbock, where it burned down and was rebuilt. The club remained in this location until closing in the early 1980s.

In addition to Hancock's band, another act to perform at the Cotton Club included a 1955 appearance by Elvis Presley. Other name acts to perform were Buddy Holly, Bob Wills and Little Richard.

"A lot of the old big-time swing bands of the 1940s played there," Hancock said. "That's the main thing it was in the first place. It had a long run of success partly due to its size since it was the only venue big enough to make money in between Dallas and L.A."

Carr said the Cotton Club was something special, thanks to Hancock's presence.

"Tommy owned the most famous nightclub, the Cotton Club, which had many different incarnations and several locations over the years," he said. "Tommy was an icon of 1940s, '50s and '60s music in West Texas and Lubbock especially."

Carr said the club played host to well-known acts such as Guy Lombardo and Bennie Goodman in its formative years, but small crowds forced it to become an acoustic music club.

"One thing that was pointed out to us was the Cotton Club became a meeting place between the hippie culture and the cowboy culture, mostly because of Tommy and his personality," Munde said. "There were a number of young people like Joe Ely and the Maines Brothers Band, younger people who were getting into country music and who had different sensibilities."

"Tommy had a foot in both worlds, coming from traditional country music and being very welcoming of what was coming about in the 1970s. That was sort of the first place that brought those two groups together."

Carr said the honky-tonk glory days began to fade in the 1950s, although that wasn't the case in West Texas.

"It lasted longer here because West Texans have always danced," he said. "People continued to country dance and go out until the 1970s."

Munde said the demise of the traditional honky-tonk also closed a window of opportunity for musicians.

"Coming from the musician's point of view, it was a really important school for musicians to learn their craft," he said. "Every band that ever played in a honky-tonk would cover the popular artists on the radio because that's what people wanted to hear. It was sort of a going to school for lots and lots of musicians. When a lot of those places shut down, it became a different world for musicians."

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