The first record Elvis Presley released in 1954 shows the inspired ways Tennesseans merged musical traditions into something new and exciting called rock music. The A side was “That’s All Right,” a blues song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and the B side was Bill Monroe’s bluegrass standard, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” From its very beginnings, two traditions–blues and country–and two cities–Memphis and Nashville–have shaped southern rock music.
Rockabilly was the first rock-n-roll tradition that Tennesseans contributed to the rock music revolution, a tradition traced to the work of Sam Phillips in Memphis during the 1950s. In 1951 he recorded “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm, a song Phillips later called the first rock-n-roll song. It had a rough, raucous sound, in part because the band had broken an amplifier and Phillips repaired it with a piece of paper that made a guitar sound like an electrified, out-of-tune saxophone. In 1952 Phillips opened a new studio he called Sun Records, where the recordings tended to be lean and raw, with one track, a powerful string bass, and few backup musicians or singers. Phillips began to look for a white musician to play the songs black musicians were turning into hits. He supposedly claimed, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Elvis Presley turned out to be that man. Presley’s “That’s All Right” surprised Phillips with its popularity, and his second record, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” was even more successful. Presley’s rhythm-n-blues side is well known, but the country aspects of his early career were equally important. The term “rockabilly” blended the new term rock music with the popular Tennessee stereotype of the hillbilly. Elvis’s compatriots at Sun included other rockabilly pioneers such as Johnny Cash from Arkansas, Jerry Lee Lewis from Louisiana, and Carl Perkins from Tennessee. Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA Records, where Elvis had success making hits out of an extraordinary variety of music. Yet most music writers believe Presley never had as much fun or sounded as fresh and exciting as he did in his early recordings with Sun Records.
The second southern rock pioneer from Tennessee was Carl Perkins, who grew up listening to country music on the radio and the blues in the cotton fields. He attributed his ability to play the guitar to a black man, John Westbrook, who, Phillips said, made the instrument “slur.” In 1955 Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes,” his great hit song since performed by countless rock musicians, after Johnny Cash suggested that he build a song around “Stay off of my blue suede shoes,” a common demand for respect. Typical of early rock musicians, Perkins composed the song quickly and claimed to have written it late one night on an empty potato sack.
Showing both their own experiences and the strong influence of the blues, the first generation of Tennessee rock musicians showed no nostalgia for farm roots. Carl Perkins called rockabilly “blues with a country beat,” but the music had virtually no tributes to farm life, plows, mules, or the security of male-female relations on the farm. Love was something musicians either sought or enjoyed but rarely something they remembered. Early rock songs were not remarkable for the sophistication of their lyrics. For example, Presley did not write his own songs, a fact which demonstrates perhaps that the movement lacked lyrical coherence from the start. If one can generalize, the songs performed by the early performers for Sun Records tended to demand respect for the young, to stress the essential importance of young people’s search for happiness, and to extol the frequency of physical mobility. Showing the lyrical debt to the blues, for instance, Turner’s “Rocket 88” was about a fast car.
If the development of rock music in Memphis shows the powerful effects of the blues, rock musicians in Nashville show the clear influence of playing in the home of country music. Many musicians since the 1960s have gone to Nashville to record songs with banjoes, steel guitars, and twangy backup vocalists, and some have gone simply to play in a city full of recording studios and opportunities to play. Only in the 1970s did a distinctive rock music style emerge around Nashville.
Charlie Daniels became the leader of southern rock music in Nashville. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1937, and now a resident of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, Daniels first played guitar and fiddle in bluegrass bands before moving to Nashville in 1968 to become a studio musician, playing on Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” album. He formed the Charlie Daniels Band in 1970 and enjoyed about a decade of stardom playing a form of rock music generally closer to country music than the blues. Among the features that distinguished Daniels from the Memphis rockabillies in the 1950s was his rabid southern self-consciousness. He performed numerous songs that mentioned southern cities and states, especially Tennessee, performed in front of a huge Tennessee state flag, and relentlessly reminded audiences of southern images and stock characters. His favorite phrase in concert was, “Ain’t it good to be alive and be in Tennessee.”
One of the clearest statements about southern identity was Daniels’s Volunteer Jam, an annual concert that started in 1975. At the Jamboree at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro in 1975, he invited fellow southern rock musicians from the Marshall Tucker Band and the Allman Brothers Band to play along with the Charlie Daniels Band. The show included not only its trademark country conclusion, “The Tennessee Waltz,” but also a version of “Mountain Dew” featuring Hee Haw banjo player Ronnie Stoneman. The jamborees became huge events and were relocated to Nashville, where Daniels invited special guests to perform. The guest list in the late 1970s and early 1980s included stars ranging from James Brown and Billy Joel to Rufus Thomas and Carl Perkins to Crystal Gayle and Roy Acuff.
Bringing together such diverse performers to close every concert with “The Tennessee Waltz” showed Daniels’s notion that music could bring people together. His trademark 1974 song “The South’s Gonna Do It” combined regional defensiveness, even urging listeners to “be proud you’re a rebel,” with a surprisingly wide range of identities for what it meant to be a southerner. This anthem to a new musical movement listed the musicians of southern rock and urged defiance against anyone who might criticize southerners or their music. But the song itself drew on the swing sound of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys from the 1930s and 1940s and included a guitar solo based in African American blues, a piano solo reminiscent of New Orleans jazz, and Daniels’s country fiddle solo. Thus being a “rebel” meant a willingness to combine various southern traditions into something new and defiant.
The lyrics of Daniels’s songs brought together an agrarian image of Tennessee life with fascination and respect for life on the move. In one song, he urged all potential critics of him and other southerners to “leave this long-haired country boy alone,” when all he wanted from life was leisure, good friends, and marijuana. Countless songs upheld the virtues of a stable rural life. On the other hand, he, like most southern rock musicians in the 1970s, portrayed life on the run as the only way for men to keep their freedom. Songs repeatedly compared musicians on the road to cowboys on the trail. In his politics, Daniels’s songs moved from occasionally liberal political commentary in the early 1970s to a combative conservatism by the end of the decade. A song in 1980 told Russians “they can all go straight to hell” if they did not believe Americans would return “on the paths of righteousness.” Finally, Daniels has been unique in writing songs like “Trudy” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that told stories–a tendency far more common in country music than rock music or the blues.
In “The South’s Gonna Do It” Daniels sang that “All the good people down in Tennessee” listened to “Barefoot Jerry and the CDB.” Barefoot Jerry exemplified an often overlooked side of the southern rock movement–a side that blended the typical regional defensiveness with agrarian imagery and a strong populist sensibility. The four musicians from Nashville named the band after a fiddle-playing storekeeper in the Smoky Mountains and released their first album in 1975. Their music stressed vocal harmony, a country guitar sound, and a kind of countrified innocence. In “I’m Proud to be a Redneck” they urged people not to be ashamed of old identities but also called for a nonviolent image for southern men. “We’ll make peace and lots of love,” they sang in an odd pairing of lines before “the South’s gonna rise again.” Another song offered a leftist view of American history and religion. “In God We Trust” began with Indians in “God’s Eden” whose natural harmony fell when the “white man came with all his greed and evil,” bring slavery, environmental destruction, and religious rationales for conquest. In general, however, Barefoot Jerry songs stressed an easy-going rural good time.
Today Tennessee is home to many memories about southern rock music. Contemporary country musicians draw openly on the tradition of southern rock music, with performers like Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt, Hank Williams Jr., and Garth Brooks mixing their country sound with energetic rock rhythm, high-powered amplifiers, and regional defensiveness. For a music that always tries to be new and rebellious, rock music lives in Memphis in part as history, with Sun Records, Beale Street, and above all Presley’s Graceland as places for music lovers to remember and relive a particular form of rebellion. A recent compilation of alternative rock songs is called It Came From Memphis, a title that suggests both the sense that rock music had roots in the city and also the notion that Memphis music can still be daring and innovative.
Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock n Roll (1991); Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) and Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1989); Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (rev. ed., 1985); Carl Perkins, Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly (1996)