Wild, raunchy and brimming with chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, rockabilly -- real rockabilly -- was a musical sucker punch delivered to the button-down Eisenhower years. As unrefined as moonshine but packing twice the kick, here was homespun, hard-driving nose-thumbing aimed right at Mitch Miller, Kate Smith, Perry Como and everything else bland in late-1950s American music. The jury is still out on whether rockabilly was rock 'n' roll's finest hour, but Columbia Records has put together a pretty strong case to support that claim.
This two-CD anthology of classic hillbilly pop, culled from long-gone labels such as Okeah and Promotion, hits the bull's eye and captures a brief but potent dose of American Gothic. There are 50 cuts -- recorded between 1955 and 1959 -- full of surprises, frantic rhythms, overactive hormones, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and a threat of violence.
The compilation offers early glimpses of artists who went on to become household names: Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Horton, and Link Ray. But this is no stroll down memory lane. It's more like a shoving match, and their music startles.
Future C&W star Marty Robbins, for instance, comes out of left field on the rollicking "Tennessee Toddy." And Carl Perkins, famed defender of his "Blue Suede Shoes," continues to explore his adrenaline-charged foot fetish on "Pink Pedal Pushers" and "Pointed Toe Shoes." Another number, "Where the Rio de Rosa Flows" -- included on Whistle Bait -- has nothing to do with footwear, but it may be Perkins' finest moment.
Meanwhile, lesser-known names relish their high-voltage moments in the sun.
Larry Collins kicks open the first volume with his bawdy, stinging "Whistlebait" (another nominee in that endless and pointless debate about who started punk rock). And Onie Wheeler, Ersel Hickey, Werly Fairburn and Commonwealth Jones may sound like a roster of dust bowl refugees, but they all rock with blistering gusto. So do the brother-and-sister duo the Collins Kids, who burn down a cover of Elvis Presley's "Party," while sis brags: "I've never kissed a bear/I've never kissed a goon/ But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room."
Hey, maybe chicken-shaking was all some pent-up teens had to look forward to, but it sounds like Ronnie Self was after bigger game. Those unfamiliar with Self might consider springing for the two CDs just to hear this overlooked rock 'n' roll trailblazer's five cuts. Self, who went by the handle "Mister Frantic," sounds like every parent's worst fears realized. He blows through his music like a cyclone, leaving nothing behind. "Rocky Road Blues" is pure meltdown, and he pummels "Bop-A-Lena." Listen to his tunes and speculate as to why he is only a show-biz footnote and not ranked along with Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis as a founding member of the lock-up-your-daughters school of rock 'n' roll wild men.
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But not every cut in the collection is a gem. There are plenty of other tracks in the archives that better represent the genre than the Maddox Brothers' "Ugly and Slouchy," a one-joke slice of cracker mirth that belongs on a novelty set. And Freddie Hart's "Snatch It and Grab It" -- more hootenanny humor -- is far tamer and less lurid than its title suggests.
Like the plain-brown-paper popularity of 25-cent pulp paperbacks and the underground career of Bettie Page, these songs tarnish the squeaky-clean image that has been wrapped around the 1950s. They expose a far seamier underside of postwar America -- a world busting at the seams of its gray-flannel suit. When Ronnie Self hollers "forget about the danger and think of the fun" in "Ain't I'm a Dog" -- the cut that opens the second collection of the same name -- he means it.
Gloriously incorrect in its politics and completely free of the intellectual gravity that would soon hobble rock 'n' roll, rockabilly was here and gone like the flash of a switchblade. Every now and then some young greasy-haired lions try to resurrect the style, confirming its nine-lives staying power. But there is really no need, as this collection demonstrates; these guys got it right the first time.