Rockabilly was a significant step forward in the evolution of American music, and the subgenre paved the way for some of our most iconic stars.
But what’s so special about this unique mix of southern sounds that helped birth rock and roll?
Today will explore the history of this style and celebrate some of its founding artists.
What Is Rockabilly?
The melodies of the American South in the early twentieth century constantly mixed between segregated cultures. Rockabilly was a genre that combined the styles of rhythm and blues with country music. The name blends the words “rock” and “hillbilly” to represent the mesh.
You can tell the sound through its twangy vocals, doo-wop acapella singers, and strong rhythms. It also generally has bluesy chord progressions. The genre is the clear predecessor to rock and roll in the DNA of music.
Artists such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry originally popularized the genre in the South. While older generations considered the music crass, teens loved it.
When the style hit the mainstream in the 1950s, youths embraced the sound and formed a subculture around it. Women wore wide dresses with distinct patterns and had big hair. Greasers and their fashion choices of waxed hair, classic cars, and tight ripped jeans for the men were part of the lifestyle.
Where Did Rockabilly Music Originate?
Blues and country music had a lot of cross-pollination from the earliest recordings in the 20s. Country artists like Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, a bluegrass pioneer, started recording more blues-inspired tunes.
But the birth of rockabilly is most associated with the recordings at Sun Studios in Memphis. Bill Haley’s 1952 recording of Rock This Joint is arguably the actual song of the genre. Shortly after, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly further successfully defined the sound. Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry helped continue the story.
After the sounds of the South gelled, they went to England, where the British invasion bands added their influences. Eventually, artists worldwide evolved into modern rock and roll. In other words, the genre basically ate itself to death.
What Defines the Music?
As one of America’s melting pot genres, it’s hard to untangle the various elements that pin down the sound. But four key features help identify it.
First, you need the band. You’ll generally see three to four musicians in these groups. One will play acoustic guitar, while the other will play electric. Then you’ll have an upright bass and a vocalist. Drums weren’t always necessary because the bass kept the beat.
Rockabilly experimented with early uses of echo, reverb, delay, and intense blues chord progressions. And, of course, the singers’ deep, croony, and overheated vocals were crucial.
It’s the perfect blend of country and blues, but the music also had an attitude that captured the American youth.
What Was the Rockabilly Era?
The sound faded into the background almost as quickly as it exploded onto the scene. Popular artists from around the world were making rockabilly hits throughout the 50s. But by 1960, things were slowing down.
By then, Elvis had joined the army and changed to RCA. Buddy Holly died in a tragic plane accident in 1959. And listeners weren’t tuning in to the sound as much. Many of the genre’s artists transitioned to other styles, like gospel or country, while others veered more into rock.
Of course, many Brits still enjoyed it for a few more years. And within America, a subgenre known as swamp rock became famous through bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Did Rockabilly Have a Revival?
Rockabilly’s heyday was short-lived, but it’s seen a few high points since its peak. In the 1970s, cultural touchstones like the Elvis comeback, Happy Days, and Don Mclean’s American Pie created nostalgia for the 50s.
Record collectors started looking for classic tracks from the early days of rock. A few acts turned this revival into charting hits, including Rock Pile and, later in the 80s, the Stray Cats. The post-punk era invited even more people into the sound.
Former CBGB-era punk acts reinvented themselves with the same kitschy fashion and musical concepts of the 50s. Some of the more notable examples include The Cramps and Robert Gordon. Reverend Horton Heat took the next step with psychobilly, a subgenre that fused punk with the bluesy, hillbilly style.
The genre held out through the late 90s before sizzling out again. But it’s not forgotten. Neo-rockabilly, while its own thing, owes a lot to the musical history of this time. Bands like Black Keys and the White Stripes fuse blues and country with modern rock to create a timeless sound. Kings of Leon take a similar approach.
What Is the Rockabilly Lifestyle?
This music was a cultural stepping stone in American history. In many ways, the scene was an early foundation for punk. In turn, they helped revive the look in the 80s.
But the fashion choices and attitudes are just as much a spoof as earnest homage. Slicked-back hair, leather jackets, and denim are common themes, and swing dresses and loud patterns are perfect callbacks. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elivs are all icons to which the style pays tribute. And if you’re going for the perfect look, don’t forget the Chuck Taylors.
The over-the-top masculinity and traditional gender roles in the movies Cry Baby and Grease are perfect examples. A certain sense of rebelliousness also accompanies these themes. Parents of the 50s didn’t want kids listening to that noise.
Will this Genre See a Revival?
While the South was heavily segregated, music crossed genre and racial lines and found popularity with people from all backgrounds. Rockabilly may have had short-lived success, but it also helped define the sounds of the coming decades. These merging influences steered the future of country and rock and roll.
Do you think this style is due for a comeback, or do you think it played out the day the music died? Let us know in the comments!