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Honky Tonkitis wails and twangs hardcore country
By Royal Brevväxling
Special to OnMilwaukee.com
Honky Tonkitis is a Milwaukee-based band playing original country music in the style of Johnny Cash, Faron Young and Hank Williams.
Honky Tonkitis formed in 2008 with Johnny Maplewood on upright bass and vocals, Chris Conrad on guitars, Kurt Weber on drums and fiddle player Tom Hansen. They've released three albums, including "You Drink and Drive Me Crazy" (2009) and "Deep End of the Bottle" (2010), which garnered air play on FM106.1.
"In 2011 we picked up Don Turner on accordion. He's an awesome addition to the band," says Maplewood.
Honky Tonkitis' third album, the 17-song "Alcohol and Heartbreak,"was released earlier this year.
Honky Tonkitis' songwriter Maplewood took some musical cues from a radio show called "Honky Tonk Saturday Night" hosted by Country Dave and Sidekick Nick at WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Reserve, Wis.
"I found those shows to be an inspiration of 1940s-1970s country music. Whenever I was in northern Wisconsin I'd tape Dave's Saturday night shows," says Maplewood.
Maplewood also listened to an Internet show by Jim Loessberg on LegendRadio.com.
"He'd play Texas country and honky tonk. Listening to these shows gave me an even wider view of classic country artists and I discovered that the stuff I really liked was the more hardcore – or honky tonk – stuff," says Maplewood.
It's the stuff that dreams are made of – at least, the kind of dreams you might have while your face is resting on a barroom floor – and the band usually tells people at shows that they write songs about three subjects, namely, fighting, drinking and divorce.
"We get a good reaction in the bars and nobody's shot us yet. When you're in a bar setting, all of the songs we sing about drinking and divorce make sense. Other settings, well, sometimes we mystify people. When you're playing a church festival, people are probably thinking, 'Why are these guys playing all these songs I've never heard before about drinking and divorce?'" says Maplewood.
Honky Tonkitis also has songs that celebrate Wisconsin, like a version of "I've Been Everywhere," which they usually play to open their shows.
Maplewood says it was a lot of work to write a Wisconsin version of the Geoff Mack classic, originally about Australian places that was adapted to North America by Hank Snow in the early '60s.
A perhaps under-appreciated Honky Tonkitis song from their current album, more-or-less about Wisconsin, is "I Wanna Marry a Bartender," in which a line about serving up Brandy Old Fashioneds is repeatedly sung.
"Every line of 'I'm Leaving Wisconsin" (another original tune) references something about Wisconsin from Pabst, the Milwaukee Braves, Lawrencia Bembenek, General Motors, Cryptosporidium, FIBs on Sunday, etc. The list goes on and on," says Maplewood.
Of course, beer references in a honky tonk band should abound, and with songs like "Pabst in the Can and Schlitz in the Bottle" and "I Am the Ghost of Miller Lite," it's clear where the references originally hailed from. Honky Tonkitis also has a song called, "I'm Gonna Drink Milwaukee Dry."
"I've tried writing other tunes about Wisconsin, but I have to wait 'til they come to me. I can't force 'em," says Maplewood.
The band takes its name from a classic song title by Carl Butler, and its memorable line, "If you don't change your way of living, you'll get honky tonk-itis in your soul." But they go by other names, like when at Bastille Days they were introduced as "Honky Tonk It Is."
"We've also been called 'Honky Tonk T*ts' by people who misread the name," says Maplewood. "But the best was when we played a show with the Whiskey Belles, an all-girl band. We decided to announce ourselves as the all-boy band offshoot of their group. Before I could announce us as the Whiskey Bellies, some guy shouted out, 'You're the Whiskey D*cks!' You gotta love crowd participation," says Maplewood.
Honky Tonkitis started with Maplewood exploring the "hardcore" country genre, honky tonk, that intrigued him so much.
"I decided to take a shot at writing honky tonk songs and they just poured out of me like beer from a pitcher," says Maplewood.
Maplewood began demo-ing music on his home-recording system and inviting musicians to come in and add their instruments to it.
"One guy would suggest another guy who'd suggest another guy and within six months I had the core members of the band," says Maplewood, who is now focusing on getting their recorded music more widely distributed.
Honky tonk, while many call it "original country," is still considered a sub-genre within the pop-country and country-rock music scenes, which makes Honky Tonkitis' music as much about education in matters of taste as it is about having a rollicking good time.
"The crowd that listens to new country probably could care less what we do, but we don't really give a crap about them," says Maplewood.
Although Honky Tonkitis has usually taken the month of August off, they will be performing at Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall on Saturday, Aug. 18.
They will return to their usual performance schedule on Saturday, Sept. 8, at a WMSE-sponsored show at Cathedral Square.