by Amy Gold
What is rockabilly? At its heart, it is a blend of several musical styles that evolved out of the American South and grew to influence generations worldwide. The style first came into its own in the early 1950s and reached its peak by the 1960s, but it would continue to be felt by succeeding generations and experienced something of a revival in the 1980s.
The sound came out of early country music, when artists such as Carl Perkins and Paul Burlison began taking traditional country songs and adding a driving beat to give them more life. But it wasn’t until a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi began fusing “white” country music and the distinctive rhythm of “black” R&B that rockabilly really burst on the scene. From that day on, Elvis Presley has been considered nothing less than a rockabilly god.
Many musicians had attempted to pick up on the R&B sound but no one was as successful at merging it with more traditional white sounds than Presley. Songs such as “That’s Alright Mama” and Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” put rockabilly on the map and soon other artists were jumping on the bandwagon, causing a stir and creating a sound unlike anything heard previously.
Soon rockabilly had jumped the Mason/Dixon Line and was being heard up North as well. Some of the best rockabilly songs of the mid 1950s included Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock” and Bill Flagg’s “Go Cat Go.” The sound caused something of a stir when it hit the airwaves, with its strong beat, distinctive twang and a freedom-loving feel that thumbed its nose at tradition.
Combining different tempos, beats and singing styles, everything about rockabilly screamed unconventional, anti-establishment. It was a feeling that helped the style to latch on across the Atlantic in England. Bands like Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Beatles, who would form the heart of the British Invasion, were all heavily influenced by the rockabilly sound and all delved into rockabilly flavored recordings themselves.
It is that lack of convention, though, that helps make it difficult to give a definitive answer to the question, “what is rockabilly?” It has taken many shapes over the years and had a major renaissance in the 1980s when bands like the Stray Cats brought the style back to the forefront. It took yet another turn when punk groups such as the Cramps, recognizing and appreciating its anti-authority feel, latched onto it and morphed it with their own sound to create what would be known as “psychobilly.”
What has prevailed over the years, through the many permutations of the genre, is its grittiness, wildness and rhythmic feel. That is what took it beyond the twang of traditional country music and into a whole other level that turned peoples’ heads. The sound had such an influence that a Rockabilly Hall of Fame was established in 1997 to honor the many artists who made their mark on the rockabilly sound.
It is a style that is hard to pin down as it refuses to be contained within any musical or societal constraints, and it is this revolutionary feel that makes it so very American. Nothing expresses the American ideal of freedom more than the outrageous, hard driving, uninhibited rockabilly sound … long may it play!