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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Rockabilly Matters To Me

I grew up and got interested in music in the 1970’s while growing up in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Certainly there was country music and bluegrass everywhere but my parents weren’t into that sort of thing so it never really entered my world as a kid. I found music through an older cousin and kids at school. My early rock heroes were Kiss, AC/DC and other popular hard rock acts; the acts so big that you couldn’t miss them. They were my default rock.

By the time I was 7 or 8 I had my first acoustic guitar. I learned to play not by songs and tab as is so common now, but by reading music and practicing scales and progressively more difficult pieces as you would learn any classical instrument. I practiced dutifully every day and the adults in my life began to catch on that I was sincerely interested in music and tried to support my interest. They didn’t buy the albums I wanted of course but rather my parents, neighbors, and aunts and uncles treated me to an eclectic collection of 70’s pop. I had Earth Wind & Fire, The Eagles, Leif Garrett, The BeeGees, Anne Margaret, Chicago and other music that interested me slightly to not at all. I also had a couple of Kiss records I bought with a 20 I found in a parking lot.

Is it any wonder, having mastered Jingle Bells and Mary Had A Little Lamb on the guitar and having this record collection, that I began to lose the musical interest that had once burned so brightly? Even the harder rock that I was exposed to was wearing thin. By that point Kiss and Aerosmith were everywhere, otherwise I wouldn’t have heard them since I had no real avenues to find music beyond other kids and the radio. The rock that had been so cool before was getting old and starting to sound the same. I didn’t know it at the time but what I was hearing was the sound of manufactured pop rock and even at that young age I wanted more. It was about this time that I was practicing Elvis’ Love Me Tender (or more accurately the folk song Aura Lee--same thing) on my guitar. My Dad noticed that I liked it better than the other tunes I was working on and that made a difference in my life.

Dad was an over-the-road truck driver who’d been a teenager in rural Missouri in the mid-1950s. Every summer he’d pick a couple of weeks that didn’t interfere with baseball season and take me on the road with him. I saw most of the country this way. As I was working on Love Me Tender in 1978 or ‘79 that time of year rolled around again. Over the next couple of weeks Dad played a lot of Elvis for me on the truck’s 8 track. I knew who Elvis was because Dad had always had the albums at home and of course the King had passed just a couple of years before and his movies still ran on television almost every Saturday afternoon in my hometown. I mostly knew Fat Elvis and Gospel Elvis and didn’t care for either.

On this trip however, we got pretty deep into the old stuff which I warmed up to a little. That led my Dad to introduce to more of the stuff from his teenage years. Over a couple of weeks I got Young Elvis but also to my lasting joy the likes of Johnny Horton, The Johnny Burnette Trio, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Bill Haley and the Comets, and the immortal Buddy Holly. All of this music was new to me but it had something more than novelty. There was an energy to it that I hadn’t encountered. It felt more genuine than anything else I had been exposed to. I wasn’t thinking then in terms of rebellion or teen angst or any of the other ways we describe the motivations of rock music. It just felt free and real and I was hooked.

Throughout my own musical evolution I’ve sought out those feelings of sincerity and independent spirit. I appreciate the technical skill but it’s the expression of individuality and the sense of an artist going their own way regardless of what may be expected of them that draws me the most. It’s not so much rebellion as personal Declarations of Independence and they can be found in almost any kind of music.

I got this from my Dad. I never thought of him as a rebel and he never seemed to get what I was all about in my teens or even my twenties. Now that he’s in his seventies I realize that not only is he still a rebel but he’s probably the single biggest influence in my own rebellions. I see now, though our musical tastes have diverged a bit, that we’re more alike than I ever admitted as a younger man and that I have followed in his footsteps with remarkable precision and ended up in a place where I feel pretty good about myself. I love my Dad and I’m grateful for who he helped me become. And that’s why Rockabilly matters to me.

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