by Philip LaRose
Before sitting down to write this article, I believed that rockabilly was a relatively recent genre, a reworking of the classic rock ‘n’ roll style from the 1950s mixed in with punk rock. I was surprised to learn that it’s not simply a reworking, it is one of the original subgenres of rock, dating from the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll. The term itself was invented back then as a portmanteau of rock and hillbilly, referencing the country music influence on this style of rock ‘n roll; it was first intended as something of an insult, but quickly adopted by the musicians themselves.
And who were those musicians? You’re already familiar with many of them. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was the first national hit for rockabilly. Better known as a country musician, Johnny Cash also played rockabilly in his early career. “Great Balls of Fire”? Jerry Lee Lewis. And of course the King himself, Elvis Presley. But while Elvis may be the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, even he would pay homage to the King of Rockabilly, Carl Perkins. Elvis’s version of “Blue Suede Shoes” may now be better-known, but it was originally written, performed, and made into a number-one hit by Perkins.
Carl Perkins - “Blue Suede Shoes” (The Perry Como Show 5/26/56)
What distinguished rockabilly from rock ‘n roll? Musically, rockabilly drew more upon country, Appalachian folk, and boogie woogie. Acoustic stand-up bass viol was often used rather than bass guitar, and it was played with a snapping percussive style called slap-back. Culturally, rockabilly musicians were predominantly Southern and white; black musicians tended to draw more upon rhythm ‘n blues and gospel, and were considered rock ‘n roll but not rockabilly.
The heyday of rockabilly was relatively short: by the start of the ‘60s, popular taste had shifted in favor of rock ‘n roll, and rockabilly went dormant for years. By the mid-‘70s though, a wave of nostalgia began a rockabilly revival that’s lasted to the present day. Los Angeles punk band X incorporated rockabilly into their sound, while New York punks The Cramps swirled in sex, horror, and humor to create psychobilly (borrowing the name from a Johnny Cash song). And Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats went for straight-up old-school rockabilly. Today bands such as Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, The Reverend Horton Heat, Deke Dickerson, and Seattle’s own Billy Joe & the Dusty 45s, The Donettes and Dragstrip Riot are keeping the scene alive—not just from nostalgia, but from true appreciation of the music.
Rocky Velvet - “Rock and Roll Guitar” (2008 Shake the Shack Rockabilly Ball)
This week, KEXP is proud to sponsor the 22nd annual Shake the Shack Rockabilly Ball, Thursday through Saturday, September 24-26, at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard. Don’t miss DJ Leon Berman and the Shake the Shack crew hosting the longest running rockabilly festival in the United States. See the Events page for more details.