Randi Hernandez
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Journey Into Sound: Tennessee Rockabilly

Wanda Jackson, Johnny Burnette, Buddy Holly

Wanda Jackson, Johnny Burnette, Buddy Holly

Let’s go to the south! Take a sonic trip with Randi!

I got really interested in Rockabilly after interviewing Kitty, Daisy, and Lewis at All Points West this past summer. Although the group scoffed at their music being categorized as Rockabilly, their songs have simple chords, slapping bass lines, echo and reverb effects, wailing vocals, and rhythms accented on the offbeat – all characteristics of rockabilly. Besides, their look was definitely a homage to that time period! So I don’t care if they don’t want to be put into a box – that’s what music writers do!

Rockabilly, which is an amalgamation of the terms “rock n’ roll” and “Hillbilly” (AKA country music), was created in the 1950’s. Although groups in the 1930s and 1940s were already experimenting with “genre mixing” – including music such as “Western Swing” (country singing, steel guitar, and big band horn sections) and “Hillbilly Boogie” (country singing with a boogie bass line) – Rockabilly is known as the combination of western swing, boogie woogie, rhythm and blues, blues, bluegrass, hillbilly boogie, and country music. It was a “stripped down version of its various sources” (www.rockabillyhairstyle.com). It is a blend, if you will. I like to think of it as “country with a studded leather collar.”

Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins

Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins

The term “Rockabilly” came into use with help from The Burnettes’ song “Rock Billy Boogie” and was first written in print in the 1956 Billboard review of Ruckus Tyler’s “Rock Town Rock” (Wikipedia). The first record to contain the word “rockabilly” more closely was in 1956’s “Rock a Billy Gal” (Wikipedia). Rockabilly gained national attention around 1956, after the release of the 1955 hit “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets.

Although there were rockabilly artists all over the south, we pinpoint Tennessee as the place of origin because of the Memphis recording studio owned by Sam Phillips and The Saturday Night Jamboree. The Saturday Night Jamboree was a local stage show held on Saturdays in downtown Memphis at the Goodwyn Institute Auditorium from 1953-1954 (Wikipedia). The rockabilly genre blossomed backstage, where jams sessions amongst artists greatly facilitated the diverse mix of country, gospel, blues, and boogie woogie that was later known as rockabilly. At Sun records, established in 1950, strangers off of the street could come in and cut a two-song record – as long as they had the $3.98 (plus tax) to pay for the recording time. Supposedly, the first rockabilly recording at this studio was “That’s All Right” performed by Arthur Crud, and it was a re-worked blues song with country roots. (Rockabilly Hairstyle). A man named Elvis Presley also recorded at Sun as a surprise gift for his mother (Silver Dragon Records). Sam Philips supposedly said (pre-Elvis) “If I could only find a white man who had the negro sound and the negro feel, I could make a million dollars” (Silver Dragon). Mission accomplished.

Carl Perkins (writer of “Blue Suede Shoes”) greatly contributed to the rockabilly genre, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Wanda Jackson, who was known as the “Queen of Rockabilly”. To see a complete list of artists, check this out, and get ready for a huge iTunes receipt to be emailed to you afterward!

“Rockabilly is the purest of all rock ‘n’ roll genres. It is preserved in perfect isolation within an indistinct time period….” (Rockabilly Hairstyle). Some disagree with this statement, and would contest that rockabilly died down, specifically for a number of reasons: One, the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper in 1959 (check out a crazy-good Gary Busey as Buddy in The Buddy Holly Story). Two, Elvis Presley’s induction into the Army in 1958, and three, a general change in musical tastes (Helllloooo, The Beatles). The genre may have taken a hit around this time, but it enjoyed a few revivals. In the 1970s, songs like Don McLean’s “American Pie” (about Buddy Holly), movies like American Graffitii, and shows like Happy Days brought tattoos, pompadours, and Hot Rods back. In the 1980s, the three chords used in rockabilly were easily transferred into the punk scene, and lots of rockabilly hits were turned into something known as “Psychobilly”. One of the most popular groups in the 1980s revival of rockabilly was The Stray Cats.

Nowadays, the rockabilly look is definitely back, and we can probably thank Amy Winehouse a little for that. Girls with cat-eye makeup, pompadours, creepers, white tees on men with the sleeves rolled up, YUM!!! Modern groups in the rockabilly style include Brian Setzer, Trick Pony, The Reverend Horton Heat, and Heavy Trash. There is even a Rockabilly Magazine as well as Rockabilly Revivals all over the country, with one of the most popular occurring in Texas. It’s a perfect new scene to relieve us from all the hipster-ish-ness, and fits perfectly with the unemployed masses of 2009. The scene represents “rebellion, sexuality, and freedom – a sneering expression of disdain for the workaday world of parents and authority figures….. It is an antithesis to current trends” (Wikipedia). And boys, you can still wear your skinny jeans for another season! I’m into it. Who’s with me?

Check out this killer playlist. Follow the Divshare link to download it!

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2 Responses to “Journey Into Sound: Tennessee Rockabilly”

  1. SJS says:

    Thanks for the post! I’ve been wanting to know more about this music for a while now, esp since the aesthetic seems to be more and more appropriated by designers. The music sounds really heavily influenced by gospel and blues as you mention. I recently discovered big mama thornton and I’m in love! I don’t know if she’s considered ‘rockabilly’ but she’s amazing! She was also the first to record ‘Hound Dog’…


  2. Gee Gee says:

    Instant party playlist, I guarantee it! I actually really like rockabilly, so glad we featured this because it’s certainly a nice break from 80s or hip hop or what not…


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