In the idiom of American country music, the phrase "honky tonk angel" has a specific meaning, referring to a loose or easy woman who frequents a honky tonk, looking to go home with a man for the night.
The phrase "honky tonk angel" originated in a 1952 smash hit song by country crooner Hank Thompson called "The Wild Side of Life," in which the singer describes how he met a girl at a honky tonk and started a relationship with her, but eventually the girl got bored with being in a steady relationship and went back to her wild ways at the honky tonk. In the chorus, the singer bitterly laments,
I didn't know God made honky tonk angels;
I might have known you'd never make a wife.
Two months later Kitty Wells released a direct response to Thompson from a feminist perspective (remarkable because this was 10 years before the feminist movement began), in the form of a song called "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" (with lyrics actually penned by a man, Joseph Miller). The song uses the exact same melody as Thompson's hit, but is sung from the perspective of the honky tonk angel herself, who describes how she was once "a trusting wife," but was driven to a life of sin by a cheating husband:
It was't God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song.
Too many times married men think they're still single--
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.
This was really bold stuff for 1952, as at the time country music was still an almost all-male, highly chauvinist realm in which women were generally not even allowed to record solo, and misogynistic lyrics about how women were sinful and evil were still a favorite theme of many songs. In fact, several radio stations banned the song (encluding the entire NBC network, which said it was too "suggestive"), and Wells was prohibited from playing it at the Grand Ole Opry, but country music fans just couldn't get enough. The song eventually became an even bigger hit than Thompson's original, and Kitty Wells became the first woman solo artist to ever reach No. 1 on the Billboard country charts.
These two songs, both of which went on to become country classics, firmly established the mythic image of the honky tonk angel, that beautiful yet deeply tragic figure, in the firmament of country music archetypes. In 1973, for example, Elvis Presley would sing, in "There's a Honky Tonk Angel,"
So tell me if you think it's over
And I'll leave it up to you how it ends.
Cause if you don't want the love I can give you
Well there's a honky tonk angel who will take me back in.
Yes, there's a honky tonk angel who will take me back in.
Similarly, in his 2002
debut album Wings of a Honky Tonk Angel
, Brad Martin attempted to establish his country music bonafides by referencing this timeless trope, especially in the title track "On the Wings of a Honky Tonk Angel," in which the singer laments that if his lover doesn't come back to him,
Tonight I just might as well fly away
On the wings of a honky tonk angel.
Ironically, especially given that the epithet "honky tonk angel" was originally meant to be a derogatory term for an inferior, second rate angel the speaker is surprised God bothered to make, many female country singers appropriated the label to describe themselves, and the phrase has made its way into the subtitles of countless biographies and documentaries (most recently Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline) and onto T-shirts, mugs, and bumperstickers.
At least five different country albums have been named some variation of "Honky Tonk Angel" including Martin's album mentioned above, Ellen McIlwaine's 1971 solo debut Honky Tonk Angel, Patty Loveless's 1988 outing Honky Tonk Angel, and 1993's pluralized Honky Tonk Angels, a team effort by female country superstars Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette.
Most ironic of all, perhaps, is the collection of Kitty Wells's greatest hits called God's Honky Tonk Angel: The First Queen of Country Music. Obviously, they were trying to fit in as many specific references to Wells's most famous song, but it's a bit odd to call her "God's Honky Tonk Angel" when she explicitly declares in the song that God doesn't make honky tonk angels.
Clearly, in the mournful world of country lyrics the honky tonk angel's nature is unchanging - she is that creature of contradictions - a beautiful woman surprisingly out of context in a grungy honky tonk, her heart still somehow pure despite the fact that her body is decidedly not. But once we leave the world of songs and enter the world of crass commercialism, the honky tonk angel essentially becomes anything people want it to be, and more than anything an inside reference meant to show how old-school country you really are.