“Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’Round the World” (Voyageur Press) is an illustrated history of the form that’s the next best thing to sitting in a Tennessee honky-tonk in 1955, hearing Carl Perkins play “Blue Suede Shoes."
It takes up but a tiny slice of the American popular music timeline, but there’s a legitimate argument to be made that rockabilly — the twangy fusion of country-western with rhythm and blues that launched Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and a host of others in the mid-1950s — is the seed from which sprouted what we now know as rock ’n’ roll.
And rarely has that assertion been argued more convincingly than in “Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’Round the World” (Voyageur Press), an illustrated history of the form that’s the next best thing to sitting in a Tennessee honky-tonk in 1955, hearing Carl Perkins play “Blue Suede Shoes” and knowing that something big was happening here, even if you didn’t know exactly what it was.
Edited by music biographer Michael Dregni, the hefty volume features writers from Greil Marcus to Peter Guralnick tackling a history of the rockabilly genre, from the early giants to the obscure local hangers-on. To call their chapters essays makes them sound too formal, though — they read like living, breathing accounts that capture what, to an audience still listening to Rudy Vallee records, must have felt like nothing less than a full-on explosion.
Some of the stories are familiar, notably those about the famous Sun Studios sessions that began with Elvis and continued right through Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. But it spends just as much time reliving the lives and careers of the likes of Warren Smith, Malcolm Levington, Billy Riley and others who tried to catch the rockabilly wave and left a less significant but still enduring legacy.
In fact, one of the most compelling aspects of “Rockabilly” is the way it traces the lives of performers who were playing beside Elvis Presley one day and were suburban electricians and salesmen a few years later. Dan Forte tells a fascinating story of his 20-minute 1983 Guitar Player interview (reprinted in its entirety) with Gene Vincent’s reclusive guitarist Cliff Gallup, who influenced axe men from Jeff Beck to Jimmy Page, but, after playing with Vincent’s Blue Caps for a mere six months in 1956, lived out the rest of his life as a school system’s director of maintenance.
Beyond the people, though, “Rockabilly” knows the craze had two other important aspects: the guitars, of course, and the clothes. Both are represented in beautiful, almost fetishistic photos from the period, along with spectacular color reproductions of posters, record sleeves, 45 labels and a host of other ephemera that captures an era that, like punk two decades later, was just as much about the attitude as the sound.
The book also doesn’t stop as American rockabilly flamed out in the early ’60s; it also documents the genre’s European resurgence through the 1970s and the rockabilly revival of the ’80s spearheaded by the likes of Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats. Setzer chimes in with his five favorite rockabilly guitarists, topped by the aforementioned Gallup.
“Rockabilly” goes off the rails a few times — Marcus’ long piece on Buddy Holly tries a little too hard for philosophical relevance, and some of the same stories get repeated in different contexts, resulting in a sort of rock ’n’ roll déjà vu. But for the most part, it’s a compelling, fascinating collection that finally gives a brash, revolutionary musical style its due, and reminds us that even though it was short lived, it never really went away.
Peter Chianca writes about Bruce Springsteen and other rock music topics on Blogness on the Edge of Town. Contact Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org.