The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #252: Honky Tonk Woman by The Rolling Stones (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy..

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #252: Honky Tonk Woman by The Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones musical catalogue is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many great songs sprinkled throughout the entirety of their career that it may seem difficult, at times, to know where to begin when it comes to giving them all their due. So, by no means do I think that “Honky Tonk Woman” is only the #252nd best song of all-time! I know it is a classic but, because there are so many hits, I have decided to toss one of their songs in, every so often, the rest of the way and give each tune its’ moment in the spotlight, regardless of where that “ranking” may be. From my point of view, The Rolling Stones are who they are for a reason. Today, our peek into their musical catalogue takes us to “Honky Tonk Woman”.

“Honky Tonk Woman” was meant to be a Hank Williams-esque country song. In fact, On their great album, “Let It Bleed”, the original version of this song can be found listed as “Country Honk”. Many music critics regard “Country Honk” as the only filler track on the magnificent, “Let It Bleed” album. So, what happened to “Country Honk” that resulted in it becoming the version of “Honky Tonk Woman” that we have all come to know?

First of all, the song was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards while on vacation at a dude ranch resort in South America. Richards described the experience as being away from the trappings of modern life; allowing them to feel like they were actual cowboys out on some dusty plain. Thus, the original “country and western” feel to the song. However, while the boys were far removed from what was going on with their band back in England, events continued to unfold that were about to lead directly toward the tweaking of this song.

One of the original members of the band, Brian Jones, was not well. He was in the process of losing his battle with drug addiction and depression. When Richards and Jagger returned to England to record “Country Honk”, Jones contributed what he could to the demo tracks but, soon thereafter, his condition worsened and the decision was made to drop him from the group. In his place, a young twenty-year-old guitar prodigy named Mick Taylor was recruited. He had made a name for himself playing in a band called John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. When Taylor heard the demo for “Country Honk”, he immediately began adding a bit of Bluesy guitar work. Once he had added his input, the rest of the band saw that the song had evolved into something bigger and better than the original version.

The day “Honky Tonk Woman” was recorded and released as a non-album single, Brian Jones was found dead in his pool. A day later, The Rolling Stones played a free tribute concert in London that was dedicated to the memory of their friend, Brian Jones. At this concert, Mick Taylor made his public debut as a member of The Rolling Stones and “Honky Tonk Woman” was played live for the first time. After the show was over, the band gave away free copies of the new single to any fan who stayed to help clean up after the concert (which saw upwards of 250,000 people show up). “Honky Tonk Woman” made it to on the music charts and was the very last song by The Rolling Stones to do so.

“Honky Tonk Woman” is noteworthy, from a musical point of view, for several reasons. First of all, it is one of the few songs ever recorded (along with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult) that makes active use of a cowbell as a musical instrument. The cowbell was played by producer, Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Miller. Secondly, throughout the course of the song, Mick Taylor and Keith Richards trade off lead and rhythm guitar parts. Both men have stated how seamlessly and effortlessly they wove in and out of each other’s musical space during the song. Finally, the song, itself, is about sex and drugs and rock n’ roll and, as such, the lyrics had to be carefully constructed so as to pass BBC censors and avoid being banned for being inappropriate. Lyrics such as, “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind”, were deemed by the authorities as being suitable substitutes for saying that “We did cocaine and then she performed oral sex on me” which is what Mick Jagger was really intending to say.

In any case, “Honky Tonk Woman” has gone on to become a staple of live shows by The Rolling Stones. Even though it was issued as a “non-album single”, meaning that it didn’t appear on any of their regular album releases, the song can easily be found on numerous “Greatest Hits” albums, as well as, many of the “live” albums that The Stones have released, too. In many ways, “Honky Tonk Woman” has come to symbolize the closing of the first chapter of the career of the band. With it came the death of one of the original members (Brian Jones), the introduction of new guitarists (Mick Taylor and his eventual replacement, Ronnie Woods), the final time they had a hit and then, mere weeks after the Brian Jones tribute concert, The Rolling Stones held their ill-fated concert at Altamont Speedway (which saw the Hells Angels “security team” kill a fan during the concert); effectively drawing The Summer of Love to a close.

“Honky Tonk Woman” is a heck of a song, with a heck of a legacy attached. Without further delay, let’s all give it a listen. *This video is from the actual Brian Jones Tribute Concert in Hyde Park. This marked Mick Taylor’s debut, as well. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Honky Tonk Woman” by The Rolling Stones, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, Country Honk” by The Rolling Stones, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Rolling Stones, can be found here.

Thanks to KEXP for playing the best music of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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