Michael Adams’s Honky Tonk Paintings

Selections from the JEMF Quarterly, Archie Green

In bounding art’s varied segments, and especially, in treating fine art with ethnographic clarity, we have had to inquire how and why our best painters touch mystery. The painter is a spellmaker whose canvas is a cauldron. Some artists distort line or scale; others shape allegory; still others deal out illusion. Many who practice camera-eye realism unwittingly end by altering everyday experience. Michael Adams, too, offers mystery. His tavern figures do not appear to be “real” cowboys, yet we know that ranch hands park pick-up trucks at taverns and venture inside. Does Adams suggest that the distinction between working and masquerading cowboys is insignificant, or rather, that under neon’s glare, we can never separate fact from fiction?

In progression from sorting out color to identifying subjects to demystifying Adams’s paintings, I questioned the intensity of my personal response. Why do I treasure his work? I have long enjoyed cowboy imagery, whether of cattle herder or carouser. Adams stood out, I believe, for his melding of craft, skill, and vision, his ease with modern impulses, and respect for traditional themes. Facing his paintings, we assume that his Texas cowboys do not ride the range. Instead, for all their costumed splendor and whiskey bravado, they holdup the slate upon which we mark our gaucheries. Hence, the subjects in his paintings help shape fresh meaning for our individual life trails.

More important than Adams’s attention to western accoutrement is his understanding of the honky-tonk as an emotional stage, once trod mainly by rural folk and industrial workers, but now, in urban Texas, used alike by city dwellers and professional workers. In transferring tavern ambience to canvas, Adams undertakes to tell fellow Texans something of their land’s deep changes. Essentially, he uses the paintbrush as a spotlight to amplify the light from slender glass tubes. Neon gas energizes his depictions. Each painting probes a state of consciousness: make-believe, reverie, retreat into the bottle, saloon courage.

Many fine artists, following the lead of Frederick Remington and Charles Russell, have drawn vaqueros on the trail, or wranglers at the corral. Some, like Thomas Eakins and Maynard Dixon have portrayed westerners playing music, but few have turned for subjects to Hollywood’s dudes or Nashville’s outlaws. Accordingly, we choose whether to place Adams in the long company of cowboy genre painters or in a more modern class of urban reporters / social critics like John Sloan or Ben Shahn.

Infrequent visitors sense honky-tonks as dark caverns and know these haunts only as night places. Adams sees them bathed in constant light: hot/cold, exposed/shaded, blinding/revealing. His bar lights both create and mirror moods.  .  . the arrayed colors dissolve into related scenes, apparently painted over a span from dawn to dusk.

Michael Adams,  . . . caught in oils the neon glow of the Texas honky-tonk, its compulsive drinkers/dancers, and their lurid music. His many canvasses serve as vignettes for the best of Willie Nelson’s songs. John Travolta, before his journey to Gilley’s, would have gained insight had he viewed urban cowboys from Adams’s angle of vision.

Adams chose for himself the task of going behind forbidden doors, of letting sunlight into closed places. Physically, his honky-tonks exist in and near Austin city limits, yet, figuratively they stretch from the Golden Gate to the Potomac. Despite my feelings that Adams paints for an audience across our land, I cannot predict the response to his work by museum directors and journal editors. Many fine artists create out of solitary conviction, waiting for that great exhibition in the sky. Regardless of his formal reception, Adams offers much to those sheltered in the honky-tonk’s precincts as well as to those who avoid its walls.

Not all Americans relish the lyrics of beer-drinking music. Some wince at the line, “If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time.” Some feel superior to dancers who cherish the “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”  . . .  No matter our formal stance, no matter how we close minds to metaphor, none manages fully to escape the honky-tonk’s signal. In this sense, Michael Adams . . . touches us with his neon-bathed lights. His color prisms on canvas brighten all our horizons.

“Archie Green (June 29, 1917–March 22, 2009) was an American folklorist specializing in laborlore (defined as the special folklore of workers) and American folk music. Devoted to understanding vernacular culture, he gathered and commented upon the speech, stories, songs, emblems, rituals, art, artifacts, memorials, and landmarks which constitute laborlore. He is credited with winning Congressional support for passage of the American Folklife Preservation Act of 1976, which established the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.” Wikipedia

In 2007, the Library of Congress awarded him its Living Legend medal for devoting his life to “studying the creativity of ordinary, working Americans” and for his role in forming the American Folklife Center. In 2011, University of Illinois Press published Sean Burns’ biography of Archie Green entitled Archie Green: The Making of a Working Class Hero.

About JEMF:

From its beginnings in the early 1920s, commercial country music—as performed on stage, on records, radio, and in movies—became an increasingly pervasive and lively part of American life, yet some forty years passed before it was given serious attention by writers, historians, scholars, and students of national culture. The first publication founded for promoting the systematic research and recognition of country music was the John Edwards Memorial Foundation (JEMF) Quarterly at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1965.

Over time, the JEMF Quarterly brought to light the lives and careers of dozens of pioneer musicians, including Alfred G. Karnes, the Carter Family, Riley Puckett, and Buell Kazee, along with details of early commercial radio operations, the sources of many traditional songs, and the reproduction of historical documents. In addition, the early work of many contributors who later became known as major scholars in the field-Archie Green, Charles Wolfe, Norm Cohen, Simon J. Bonner, and Loyal Jones among others-appeared on the pages of the JEMF Quarterly during its 19 years in publication