The years between 1945 and 1960 represented the South’s greatest period of upheaval in the twentieth century. In music, this period of transformation focused on what popular music observers identify as the rock-n-roll revolution, with the term “rockabilly” representing the first outburst of this new music, one that combined a range of southern musical traditions.
While the early rock-n-roll sound of the postwar era was not unique to the South, its connection to the region was considerable and unmistakable. The large majority of first generation artists who performed in the genre hailed from below the Mason-Dixon Line. They spoke in a southern dialect and displayed characteristics which were associated with the South. Arguably the two most important recording centers for rock-n-roll music in the 1950s were New Orleans and Memphis, each of which developed a characteristic sound and style. In New Orleans, the recording studio of Cosimo Matassa produced such luminaries as Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Lloyd Price, all of whom had rhythm-n-blues hits that crossed into the pop market as rock-n-roll.
In Memphis, Sam Phillips began successfully recording blues and rhythm-n-blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, B. B. King, and Little Junior Parker in 1950. He also produced “Rocket 88,” a song many popular music historians consider to be the first rock-n-roll record. Phillips, however, was well aware of the racial intolerance and segregated circumstances inherent within popular music. He realized that a black rhythm-n-blues act stood little chance of gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale commercial success. Soon after establishing the independent Sun Record Company in 1952, therefore, Phillips started his search for a white man who could perform with the same feeling as black blues vocalists.
Phillips, of course, found Elvis Presley. In 1954 Presley, along with guitarist Scotty Moore, bass player Bill Black, and Phillips, combined various musical forms, including rhythm-n-blues, black and white gospel, pop, and country music in a successful synthesis that only later would be labeled as rockabilly. While his subsequent career proved that Presley was an eclectic vocalist whose style could not be easily classified, his success as a country singer who performed rhythm-n-blues nevertheless opened the door for other such singers to actively seek commercial prosperity. Phillips would release five Presley recordings; after eighteen months the young singer left Sun, signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor, appeared on national television, and began making motion pictures. He was destined to become the “King of Rock-n-Roll.”
Yet Phillips would not have to look hard for other potential rockabilly stars seeking to replace Presley. Young musicians from throughout the South, performing in a style similar to that of Elvis, traveled to Memphis to gain the attention of Phillips. They included such performers as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Warren Smith, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Conway Twitty. Phillips and Sun, however, did not enjoy a monopoly on rockabilly. By the middle to late 1950s, other record labels had signed such southerners as Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Bob Luman, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio (Memphis natives Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette, and Paul Burlison), and Gene Vincent. For a time, it appeared that rockabilly was set to alter forever the influence of Nashville and country music. Virtually all of the talented young white working class singers seemed intent on becoming the next Elvis, not the next Hank Williams.
Ironically, despite the Nashville music establishment’s fear of rockabilly, the music itself and the performers who sang it were steeped deeply in country. Rockabilly was basically country music played with an intensity and beat borrowed from black gospel and rhythm-n-blues. The fact that many of the southern white performers associated with rockabilly returned to country music once their popularity as pop stars began to fade indicated that they had never completely abandoned their roots. Their explorations into rockabilly had simply expanded the boundaries of country music.
The rockabilly performers were not, of course, the first southern whites to have been influenced by the blues of their black neighbors. Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music,” had apparently absorbed much of his style from African Americans. And nor was he the last hillbilly singer to came under the influence of black bluesmen; others of note would include Bill Monroe, Jimmie Davis, the Delmore Brothers, Moon Mullican, and Hank Williams. Yet while such musicians borrowed heavily from the blues, their music, style, and appearance remained conventional within country music.
What distinguished the rockabilly artists from their predecessors was their willingness to identify completely with the rhythm-n-blues singers they emulated. Through their performing styles, dress, speech, and behavior, they were attempting to relate on some level to their black counterparts. In this manner they forced their way out of the complex, yet rigid, southern folk and country music tradition they were born into. Significantly, early rock-n-roll performers and audiences in the South engaged in a degree of public interchange and acceptance of black music and culture that separated them from the region’s past.
Today, such country music performers as Marty Stuart and BR-549 incorporate rockabilly music into their concerts while Cordell Jackson, the “Guitar Granny,” still records and performs rockabilly across the country. In April 2001 Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium hosted “Rockin’ at the Ryman” as a fund-raiser for the recently established Rockabilly Foundation, an organization devoted to the preservation and the continuation of rockabilly music. At the Ryman event, the foundation awarded Brenda Lee of Nashville its first Lifetime Achievement Award in rockabilly music.
Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock n Roll Music (rev. ed., 1981); B. Lee Cooper and Wayne S. Haney, Rockabilly: A Bibliographic Resource Guide (1990); Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, 2nd ed. (1989); Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock n Roll (1991)