Johnny Horton: From Rockabilly to the Honky Tonk Man

From rockabilly to the “Honky Tonk Man”, it could be said of Johnny Horton that his life ended tragically and in the prime of his career. Before he departed; however, he would leave his mark on the world of music with such classic hits as “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s 40 Below)”, “North to Alaska”, and “The Battle of New Orleans”, all of which would be #1 hits. The latter would garner him a Grammy Award in 1960 for Best Country and Western Recording. He would go on to have more hit songs like “Sink the Bismarck”, “Honky Tonk Man”, “Johnny Reb”, and “I’m Ready if You’re Willing”, prior to his untimely death in 1960.

Born in 1925, Horton was the youngest of five children. After graduating high school in 1944, he attended a junior college on a basketball scholarship in Texas and followed that up with a brief stint at Seattle University. He’d also go on to attend Baylor University, never graduating at either institution. During his early life, Johnny would meet his first wife, Donna Cook, while working as a mail clerk at Selznick International Pictures in California. And after a brief move to Alaska to look for gold, they moved back South to pursue a music career. He would ultimately wind up in Louisiana and appeared regularly on the Louisiana Hayride. As Horton’s career progressed, so did his touring. This hectic pace ultimately led to a divorce from his first wife. Not long afterward; however, he would meet and marry Billy Jean Jones in 1953. She was the widow of Hank Williams.

A curious story persists that tell of a time in 1960 when Horton had a premonition that his death would be caused by a drunk man. This caused a great deal of fear and trepidation for him, thus causing him to cancel an appearance at the opening of the John Wayne movie “North to Alaska. Furthermore, Horton also attempted to get out of a gig at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas. Though he was unable to pull out of his appearance at Skyline, it is reported that he stayed in his room the whole time, when not performing, in an effort to prevent himself from being killed by a drunk patron at the bar. After the show, he kissed his wife Billy Jean on the cheek and left for Shreveport. It was on that trip when Horton and two others were involved in a head-on collision with a truck driven by drunk man. Horton died of his injuries on the way to the hospital, and the driver of the truck was ultimately charged with intoxication manslaughter. Stranger still, his wife reported to others that Horton had kissed her on the very same cheek that Hank Williams had kissed her after his final gig at the Skyline.

Interestingly, as a young boy, Horton’s bellowing from the speakers of my family’s car, aided by my dad’s matching lyrics word for word, drove me crazy. “Yuck!” “Arghhhh!” “Turn it off”, I’d quip. Dad would never hear me, though, he was too busy singing. In fact, he’d usually just increase the volume of the radio or his voice.

Time has a way of changing people, and I’m certainly no exception. Years after my adolescence, Horton’s unique voice and story-telling lyrics came full circle and his music must have caused me to reminisce about a simpler time in my life. Perhaps it was because I was now in the United States Air Force, separated from my mom and dad to the extent that I couldn’t just see or hug them any time I wished. Or maybe I started listening to the lyrics of his songs and understanding just how good he really was. Whatever the case, then as it is now, Johnny Horton’s music reminds me of my dad. And quite frankly, that’s why I think he’s not only a great musician, but he was probably a great guy, too.

So, what’s your favorite Johnny Horton song?

Be sure to chime in and let me know what you think of the article, and thanks in advance for stopping by!

“The Battle of New Orleans”

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

We looked down the river and we seen the British come
And there must have been a hunnerd of ’em beatin on the drum
They stepped so high and they made their bugles ring
We stood beside our cotton bales ‘n’ didn’t say a thing

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Old Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise
If we didn’t fire our muskets till we looked ’em in the eye
We held our fire ’till we seed their faces well
Then we opened up the squirrel guns and really gave em
Well we

Fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Yeah they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

We fired our cannon till the barrel melted down
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round
We filled his head with cannonballs and powered his behind
And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Yeah they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Hup, 2, 3, 4
Sound off, 3, 4
Hup, 2, 3, 4
Sound off, 3, 4
Hup, 2, 3, 4
Sound off, 3, 4

Published by Sonny

I'm a husband, dad, and grandpa. My family, faith, music, and the outdoors are things that I value the most.

2 thoughts on “Johnny Horton: From Rockabilly to the Honky Tonk Man

  1. Love Johnny Horton. Underrated vocalist- my father used to play the Greatest Hits album all the time on vinyl when I was a kid. ‘North To Alaska” is one of my favorites, but hard to choose just one favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

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