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Rock this town

Rockabilly is just as alive as it was in 1955

Friday, May 01, 1998

Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Not much has changed since Carl Perkins topped the country charts with "Blue Suede Shoes."

Not much in the world of rockabilly anyway.

Every so often, a Cramps or a Reverend Horton Heat will swagger into view and do their best to bend the original blend of hillbilly music and rhythm 'n' blues to their will.

The Polish Hillbillies -- Jon Manning, left foreground, and, clockwise, Phil Carusco, Rebecca Corrigan, Kelly Hahne and Richard Hirsch -- on Corrigan's '63 Mercury with a Polish Hill backdrop. (Bill Wade - Post-Gazette)

But the basic ingredients? All in place by '56, the year Gene Vincent got all hot and bothered 'cause he'd scored the gal in red blue jeans who yells for "more, more, more."

The echo, the instrumentation, the image, the energy, even the stuttering, hiccuping way with a vocal, all in place by '56.

Most rock 'n' roll historians trace the basic premise back to '54, the year a kid named Elvis wrapped his hillbilly vocals around a traditional blues by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, "That's All Right."

By the end of the decade, despite the occasional single that found an increasingly ballad-fueled Elvis returning to form, the music had lost what little grip it had on the public imagination.

You sure wouldn't know it from talking to one of the tattooed greasers in bowling shirts making the scene at the annual Rustbelt Rockabilly Weekender, though. Tonight and tomorrow, inside the Next Decade, the only indication that you haven't traveled back in time to 1956 may be the prices on the drinks.

Well, that and the tongue piercings.

Even today, after decades of '50s nostalgia, rockabilly remains a viable force on the underground.

It was the punk of the '50s, after all.

And now that most of what passes for new and exciting is actually old and excessively boring, a growing number of one-time punks are leaving their G.B.H. patches behind for the life of a greaser.

"Going to see the Counting Hootie Blossoms, that whole contingent of bands that do this whiny sort of crap, it's just not fun," says punk-turned-upright-bassist Blair Powell of Highway 13. "If it's a Friday night, you've had a bad week at work and you feel like goin' out and gettin' loaded, there's really not a lot of fun music out there. Punk-rock is fun when you're 18 and don't mind having a bottle smashed over your head. But after a while . . ."

In rockabilly, fun is pretty much your only worry.

"There's no political agenda," says Powell. "No whiny, suicidal message. It's just songs about drinkin' and dancin' and drivin' fast cars."

As Rebecca Corrigan, the countrified voice of the Polish Hillbillies, says, "If you go to an indie-rock show, I don't think you're gonna have the kind of fun you'll have at a rockabilly show."

The fact that the music was always a little too wild for the masses only makes it that much more appealing to a generation raised on punk.

"Most of the stuff that's considered classic rockabilly now never really made it to the radio, with the exception of Elvis," says Powell. "It's a wild kind of music. That's why it never caught on back then, really. And I guess that's why I don't like a lot of the strictly traditional new stuff, 'cause the thing a lot of the strict traditionalists forget is how crazy the original stuff was, like Johnny Burnette or something. Billy Lee Riley and a lot of the old Sun Records stuff is really loud and fast."

As demented as Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio sound today, with all that proto-punk distortion, it had to have seemed even wilder in context.

"People forget how radical rockabilly was at the time," says Powell. "It was such a foreign concept. 'Oh my goodness. You're playing black music?? Ooh, that's awful. You're shouting like those Negro singers do.' There was plenty of country and hillbilly bop and Western swing around at the time, but incorporating the Big Joe Turner influence where you shout the vocals, that's what made it rockabilly."

This isn't the first generation of punks to connect with the music. In fact, there are traces of Eddie Cochran all over the Sex Pistols record.

"Punk rock has its roots in rockabilly," says Corrigan. "If you listen to old Eddie Cochran stuff, Gene Vincent, Elvis, it all has that raw sort of three-chord thing happening. And it's got the whole rebellious thing."

The tough, black leather look of punk? It all came straight from Vincent, the outsider's Elvis.

As Powell says, changing looks from punk to greaser was easy. He already had the boots, the jeans and the leather. The only thing missing was bowling shirts.

Not that he felt any pressure to change.

"There's a certain timelessness to a big greasy pompadour with jeans and a leather jacket," he says. "I was into rockabilly for a good long while before I got the hairstyle, but once you start goin' out to see the shows and havin' fun on the scene, it just seems like a natural extension of listening to the music. Eventually you think, hey, I wanna look nice when I go out."

So how important is the look?

"There are some people who are like fashion Nazis about it in other cities," says James Morrow, who's been putting on these Rustbelt Rockabilly weekends since the fall of '95. "In Pittsburgh, nobody's really snooty about the way you're dressed or anything. In other cities, they are. People show up in long hair and they're like 'What's that long-haired person doing at a rockabilly show?' "

If you're in the band, of course, it never hurts to walk the walk.

"The image helps," says Morrow, who sings for Ethyl Octane these days. "If you walk on stage and look like you're Led Zeppelin playing rockabilly, a lot of people aren't gonna take you too seriously."

Either that, or they'll think you're the Honeydrippers.

It's not just the fashion that Morrow has found our local rockabilly scene to be more open-minded about. It's the music, as well.

"If you go to other cities," he says, "like New York or L.A., there's a rockabilly scene, then there's a swing scene, then there's a jump jive scene, and then there's a country-western swing scene. And those scenes don't mix. In Pittsburgh, I bring all these different things in and everybody seems to enjoy it all."

The rockabilly tradition in Pittsburgh only dates back as far as the '80s, as Morrow recalls it.

"I think Gene Vincent only played here once," he says. "It wasn't as big as doo-wop was here. I mean, you look at all the oldies concerts they put together, it's always all the old doo-wop bands. A ton of doo-wop bands came out of Pittsburgh in the late '50s, early '60s, thanks to Pork the Tork."

Mark Anderson remembers being in the only rockabilly band in town, The 8 Balls.

Up until the day he joined the band, the only rockabilly act he'd even heard of was the Stray Cats.

It was 1983, before the Cats had crashed and burned.

"That's what I played when I went to audition," he says, with a laugh. "I learned a couple Stray Cats songs because I had no idea what rockabilly was. I didn't have a clue. But I saw an ad in the paper said 'Rockabilly guitar player wanted. Must have look.' And I didn't have a look but I greased my hair back anyhow and that was pretty much it."

There was no scene to speak of at the time. But that's what sometimes happens when you've only got one band.

"We were more like a curiosity than anything else," says Anderson. "Benny [the upright bassist] would stand up and twirl the bass around, throw it around and stand on it, lay on the floor and hold it up with his feet."

The band broke up a few years later after Benny moved to Texas - "'cause there were no other upright players then."

It was shortly after the breakup that Morrow, an 8 Balls fan, started playing around as Sonic Ted and the Radio Kings. By the time he'd gone from Sonic Ted to the Rowdy Bovines (with Powell on drums), an actual rockabilly scene was beginning to come together.

"When I moved to Pittsburgh, I worked as a cocktail waitress at Graffiti," says Corrigan. "And I started seeing rockabilly shows there, like the Flattops and the Rowdy Bovines, and I realized there was actually a scene for this kind of music."

The guys in the Hillbillies found her singing country songs on open stage night at the Horseshoe.

"I was doing traditional country songs, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline," she says. "And they came down one night and asked me if I wanted to sing for them."

Ten drummers later, the band is hoping to get to work on a record just as soon as it finds a studio with analog equipment.

Although she'd never been in an actual band before she hooked with the Hillbillies, Corrigan says she's been a fan of rockabilly since before she'd even seen the movie on the life of Patsy Cline that got her hooked on country.

"Oh God, this is embarrassing," she says, with a laugh. "But I really liked the Stray Cats from the time I was 10."

You're not supposed to say you like the Stray Cats.

Dallas rockabilly singer Kim Lenz was in high school when the Stray Cats launched the most successful assault on the charts by a rockabilly act since Elvis.

But she swears she didn't like the Stray Cats

They were too mainstream.

Powell - who says the Stray Cats are, in fact, no more or less traditional than a lot of rockabilly acts that are now considered perfectly acceptable to listen to - explains:

"It's like in punk rock, you're not allowed to like Green Day, you know? If there were a Green Day twin that never got popular but sounded exactly like Green Day, it would be OK to like them. But Green Day's popular, so automatically, they suck. I remember when I was 18 and I had a mohawk and people would come up and say 'Hey, you like Billy Idol?' Because that's all they associated with punk rock. So if you have greasy hair and somebody says, 'Hey, you like the Stray Cats,' it's the same thing."

A third of the traffic on the rockabilly newsgroup on the Internet, he's found, revolves around the Stray Cats and whether or not they were really worthy of the rockabilly title.

It all goes back to the exclusivity that goes along with any scene outside the mainstream.

"They're just trying to deny that they like anything but the coolest, most exclusive rockabilly," says Powell. "I mean, there's some people, they're like, 'Hey, I'm an old punk rocker. I used to listen to Black Flag. But now I have greasy hair.' And then there's some people who tell you 'I never listened to anything but rockabilly.' Some people have attitudes. Some don't."

The mainstream fling with swing has yet to trickle down to rockabilly. With the Cherry Poppin' Daddies racing Big Bad Voodoo Daddy up the charts, the closest thing to rockabilly making any noise in Billboard is the Reverend Horton Heat. And he sounds more like Alice Cooper than Perkins or Vincent at this point.

"I don't know why rockabilly wouldn't sort of grow at the same time as swing, why there has to be two separate scenes," says Powell. "But Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue and all those bands are signed to major labels and selling millions of copies and with the exception of maybe the Reverend Horton Heat, no rockabilly band is exactly a household name."

Except the Stray Cats.

It's doing OK in the underground, though, at least in Pittsburgh.

Earlier this year, a crowd of more than 300 showed up at a party to celebrate Highway 13's first release on Get Hip Records. Last month, the trio appeared on a compilation out of Jersey. And now, they've been tapped for a national tribute to the Blasters, a band from the '80s with roots in early rock 'n' roll, including rockabilly.

"All we've gotta do is learn the song, record the song, and then, we'll be on it," says Powell.

With Highway 13 traveling as much as it does, he's had a chance to check out other cities' scenes. And he's found that the one in Pittsburgh compares pretty favorably.

"You go to some towns and you play and there's, like, no greasers in the audience," he says. "There's just a lot of normal people and a lot of 'em look kind of confused when they see a rockabilly band. So Pittsburgh has a scene. It's not a big scene, but you'll go and there'll be a bunch of people with greasy hair and vintage clothes who know how to swing dance."

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