Honky Tonk Girl by Sonya Lea
Back then, we drove down dirt roads in a 1962 Pontiac Tempest and we didn’t wear seat belts and I marveled at Grandmaw’s tumultuous, tiny body perched on pillows to see over the steering wheel. I was eight years old, and I didn’t know it yet, but it was the last summer before we’d leave western Kentucky and the family farm in Reed, near the Ohio River. It was the summer of Dr. King’s assassination, then Bobby’s shooting, and I had watched from the dark hallway while my daddy cried to the television console slicing black and white images into the hot night. Soon, my daddy would leave America, he would take a job in Canada, far from everything I knew, but that summer I drove with the windows down, with dandelion bracelets on my arms, listening to country radio. My aunts would sometimes haul me up to the barbecue joint, but on date night they stayed home with their Dippity-Do hair wound over orange juice cans, and Grandmaw took me for a hamburger-through-the-garden at Del’s. Frances knew everyone, and she smoked and talked with the ladies at the counter while she slipped me quarters to play the tabletop jukebox with its light up pushbuttons and typed song list that I flipped through to find her favorites: Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Kentucky’s young Loretta Lynn. For us, the first television generation, there were race riots, war protests, Richard Nixon, school segregation, and the end of the New Deal to make sense of. But at Del’s, there was only music, music that told of women’s lives. Ms. Lynn had written I’m A Honky Tonk Girl in twenty minutes, leaning up against some toilet in Washington, the state where I would live three decades hence. As I became a woman, I would learn that Loretta Lynn also cooked for farm hands and picked strawberries and had a mess of kids, like many women from country places, including many of the women I knew. Over the years, I’d find sovereignty in Lynn’s lyrics, music courageous for a new era of birth control and divorce and acknowledging double standards. Those days at Del’s, I sang her lines loud and proud, as if jook and outlaw and lost love simmered in my little girl bones.

So turn that jukebox way up high,
And fill my glass up while I cry.
I’ve lost everything in this world,
And now I’m a honky tonk girl.

Now I am in Austin, a birthday gift from the girl who met me on my first day in Canada, a girl who is about to become a grandmother. Wendy and I have come from our cities on the west coast for the fiftieth anniversary of Honky Tonk Girl. Jack White has brought Loretta out of retirement and introduced her to a new generation with Van Lear Rose, an album for which — for the first time — she wrote all the songs. On this night, we watch Loretta, feral and furious on stage. She lets us have all of her, all of the working class girl who endured and grieved and prospered. Wendy and I remember the hard luck times of our own wifehood, motherhood, artistry; we hear it through the music. Later, we pour out into the rainy night and find the Broken Spoke, a honky tonk where the men wear cowboy hats and the women are sweet and resilient. Wendy orders a beer, I sip a Coke with ice. Some old boy with worn boots and a line on his ring finger asks Wendy to dance. I slide against the wall and watch them two-step on the tiny floor. Outside, a six hundred million dollar complex with upscale apartments, a fitness center, a yoga studio, and a bocce ball court, encroaches. But inside, warped tiles, corrugated metal, the aroma of country-fried steak, and the sweet sound of country troubadours holds the walls together. I tap my feet to honky tonk, outlaw, rockabilly, and forget for a time about my losses and diseases and failures. In fifty years, Wendy has left two marriages; I’ve lost one to a brain injury. We’ve let our bodies, our minds, and our friendship go for years at a time. We’ve had “many nights we laid awake and cried,” but this isn’t one of them. After midnight, we pull out of the gravel parking lot, a thunderstorm cascading across the dark valley, the spring air on our bodies. Out on the road, we laugh at what has passed away: barbecue joints and tabletop jukeboxes and second wave feminism and Richard Nixon. When we sing “I’ve lost everything in this world, and now I’m a honky tonk girl” we know what we mean. We know that like the women before us, we are tender and tough. Even though becoming ourselves has involved much more candor and defiance than we imagined when we were girls, we haven’t had our grandmother’s struggles. Still, we sing it for them. Sometimes, we grow into songs we love.

This piece is part of an ongoing series called Superunknown: Stories About Songs.

Photo used under CC.