“Honky Tonk Women” is a 1969 hit song by The Rolling Stones. Released as a single on 4 July 1969 in the UK and a week later in the US, it topped the charts in both nations.
Two versions of the song were recorded by the band: the familiar hit which appeared on the 45 single and their collection of late 1960s singles, Through The Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2); and a honky-tonk version entitled “Country Honk” with slightly different lyrics, which appeared on Let it Bleed. The concert rendition of the song featured on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out differs from both the hit version and the country version, with a markedly different guitar introduction and an entirely different second verse.
The song was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards while on vacation in Brazil from late December 1968 to early January 1969. Inspired by Brazilian gauchos at the ranch where Jagger and Richards were staying, the song was originally conceived as an acoustic country song. Richards has said: “[It] was originally written as a real Hank Williams/Jimmie Rogers/1930s country song.”
Thematically, a “honky tonk woman” refers to a dancing girl in a western bar who may work as a prostitute; the setting for the narrative in the first verse of the blues version is Memphis, while “Country Honk” sets the first verse in Jackson.
Recorded in London in early February 1969 without Brian Jones, the band initially recorded the track called “Country Honk”. The song was transformed into the familiar electric, riff-based hit single “Honky Tonk Women” sometime in the spring of 1969, prior to Mick Taylor’s joining the group. Taylor was quoted in Sean Egan’s The Making of Let It Bleed as stating that the basic backing track was already recorded before he added his lead fill overdubs.
The song is distinctive as it opens not with a guitar riff, but with a beat played on a cowbell. The Rolling Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller performed the cowbell for the recording.
Ry Cooder has asserted that he originated the song’s main guitar riff, and has accused the Stones of “ripping him off”. Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart said of the track: “It’s bloody ten times Keith you hear.”
The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks from 23 August 1969. The single was released in the UK the day after the death of founding member Brian Jones. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was the single’s B-side. Concert versions of “Honky Tonk Women” are included on the albums Love You Live and Live Licks, as well as the aforementioned Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!.
Rolling Stone ranked “Honky Tonk Women” #116 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.