Styles & Forms | Rockabilly | Country

The arrival of the rockabilly phenomenon in the mid-1950s can be traced back directly to the rise of Elvis Presley (1935–77) and there is no doubt that he was the dominant influence on most of the young country boys who followed him.

The impact of Presley can never be overstated, but at the same time he did not materialize out of a vacuum, and the style of hopped-up country music that he adopted with such extraordinary success had been visible for some time in the rougher honky-tonks in Texas and Tennessee even before Elvis had found his way to the Sun studio.

The Roots Of Rockabilly

The Carl Perkins Band was playing behind chicken wire in the less-wholesome clubs and bars of Jackson, Tennessee, as early as 1950, and their repertoire contained the same components, the same uneasy mix of black and white, that would eventually surface in their recordings some five years later. Before too long, The Johnny Burnette Trio was brawling its way around the Memphis honky-tonks in much the same way. Rockabilly music was growing naturally, but it was the introduction of Presley that proved to be the catalyst.

The majority of the original rockabilly performers were white and came from the southern states and from rural or small-town communities. They grew up listening to early post-war country music and invariably cited the likes of Hank Snow (1914–99), Lefty Frizzell (1928–75) and Red Foley (1910–68) among their favourites. In Texas, where western swing was so popular, Bob Wills (1905–75) was a big influence, as was Hank Thompson (b. 1925) and the piano style of Moon Mullican (1909–67), which is clearly audible in the recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis (b. 1935).

Bill Monroe (1911–96) and his bluegrass music was certainly an influence on the likes of Charlie Feathers (1932–98) and Carl Perkins (1932–98), and rockabilly versions of his songs ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ and ‘Rocky Road Blues’ are rightly perceived as classics. Country boogie in the shape of The Delmore Brothers with ‘Freight Train Boogie’, Wayne Raney (1920–93) and ’Tennessee’ Ernie Ford (1919–91) were already close to the rockabilly formula, and the style of Arthur Smith (b. 1921), with his 1948 hit ‘Guitar Boogie’, provided much of the rockabilly guitar sound, while the slap bass playing of Fred Maddox (1919–92) was adopted by Bill Black on the Presley recordings.

However, one man must take credit for being the biggest single influence on the rockabilly generation and that is Hank Williams (1923–53). His up-tempo recordings were already close to rockabilly, and it would be hard to argue against the claim that his 1947 hit ‘Move It On Over’ was the first rockabilly record. Other pre-Presley discs of interest were Bill Haley with ‘Rock The Joint’ in 1952 and ‘Juke Joint Johnny’ by Lattie Moore the same year.

Black Meets White

In addition to listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the family radio, country boys were now coming into contact with black music by spinning the dial...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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