A guy like JD McPherson does not like to be called “rockabilly.” Despite having played in a fine, fairly traditional rockabilly band, the Starkweather Boys, it’s understandable. In the mainstream mind, rockabilly has long been associated with cartoon-like dress-up and eye roll-inducing combos with words like “Daddies” or “Rockin'” in their names. But to those who dig (pun intended) deeper, there’s a world of underground, post-Cramps induced greaser rock that continues to influence. And when a band is at least as concerned with layering on the music as the pomade, the traditional stuff can always summon a vintage heart-tug.
And there’s McPherson himself who, on his upcoming, second solo album, Let The Good Times Roll, out February 10 on Rounder, tamps down obvious tailfin and leopard print creeper moves and burns a lower gauged roots rumble that also doesn’t fall into sports bar blues. So he even got a little burned up when asking for his favorite post-1950s rockabilly records, but then came through like a pro. Check out his list and the lead album single, Bossy, below. Some European and U.K. dates are in the works for January, but no announced U.S. dates just yet.
JD McPherson’s Top 10 Post-50s Rockabilly Albums (in no particular order):
1. The Bellfuries – Just Plain Lonesome
One of my favorite bands ever. This record influenced me beyond measure. Joey is as good a writer as any on the planet. Just Plain Lonesome made me realize that this music could not just be a collector/emulator’s platform, but rather a platform for introspective, beautiful songwriting, not just songs about “The Hop.” What is “The Hop,” anyway? I don’t think I own one. I wouldn’t know how to work on it if I did, probably.
2. Ronnie Dawson – Monkey Beat
In the 1990s, Ronnie Dawson had made a significant comeback since his days playing blues and rockabilly music in the 1950s, starting at the age of 16. A whole new audience was waiting for him. If you are fairly industrious, do a search for his performance on Conan O’Brien, backed by High Noon, performing the title track. Wild!! This album is one I listen to at least monthly. So raw, so real. Pleasantly lo-fi. It’s incredible. One of my favorite guitarists, a Dutch guy named Tjarko Jeen is all over this thing. All of Ronnie’s records are worth owning.
3. Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Trio – On The Go
Where would I be without Big Sandy? I would have been into Stryper or something. One of the most gifted performers and writers out there… and this is his second album. Exponential of Gene Vincent’s greatest records, while other ’90s bands tended to focus on the drier, hillbilly bites of early rock…this album slithers and slides, influenced by the sugary, slippery Capitol Records big studio sounds. “Steady Baby,” to me, is one of the greatest examples of recorded rockabilly music of all time. T.K. Smith, his then-guitarist, didn’t just emulate the licks of Cliff Gallup, he absorbed that style’s attitude, and created a new expression from it. No one has done that correctly since. Also, it’s produced by Mark Neill, so there you go. Sounds like a million bucks.
4. Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys – It’s Time
He’s so nice, I liked him twice. After T.K. Smith left the original band, Big Sandy changed his sound to more of a “Western Dance” style, but the records continued to be excellent. However, this one stands out above everything, in my opinion. Chalk It Up To the Blues followed by Bayou Blue is a one-two punch that gets me every time. Ashleigh Kingman and Jimmy Roy are a great guitar duo on this record. Fantastic! Highly recommended.
5. The Flea Bops – I’m Ready
Rockabilly must be desperate and free. People who make the stuff with finesse are missing the payoff! New England band the Flea Bops understood this vital joie de vivre. Great performances. I’ll bet they were strangling each other and throwing chairs after each take, because of the beast evident in these rough and ready recordings. Heart’s On Fire has a killer guitar hook. Production is dry as a bone. You can hear the wood in those guitars. Their version of the Johnny Burnette Trio’s You’re Undecided is the only acceptable Johnny Burnette cover I’ve heard. The spirit is there.
6. The Cramps – Songs The Lord Taught Us
I could write a page about The Cramps. This is as brilliant a work of art as Joseph Beuys’ felt-wrapped piano. Lux and Ivy understood rock ‘n’ roll was low-brow and high-brow simultaneously, but instead of focusing on the intellectual discourse, they just proceeded to play the most amazing live shows possible, and truly frightened people. This powerful album would be dismissed from this list by many who would say it’s “too wild,” “too punk” or “too primitive,” but pulling these references away from the greatest American cultural export is like stripping the veneer from a Biedermeier footstool. Rockabilly? Punk? Same difference! The Cramps stuck to their guns their entire career and left a meaningful legacy. I’m so glad I saw them live (three times) and accidentally drank Lux’s sweat which poured out of his latex sleeve while sticking the microphone in my face to sing TV Set. Lux R.I.P.
7. Stray Cats – Built For Speed
Are you kidding me? It’s an American classic, and they had to go to England to get on the map! Built for Speed, the Stray Cats’ first American release, is a compilation of the best of their first two British albums. I absolutely wore this out when I first got it. Although the sounds here are decidedly an ’80s version of ’50s music, Rock This Town and Stray Cat Strut stand completely on their own merit as pieces of recorded music. These were huge hit songs, folks! I think their version of Double Talkin’ Baby is stellar. Respect.
8. Deke Dickerson The Ecco-Fonics – In 3 Dimensions
Deke Dickerson is many things: guitar hero, historian, troubadour, humorist. This is one of my favorite releases by Deke after he left The Dave And Deke Combo. By Deke’s own admission, exactly one third of this record is self-classified as “rockabilly.” Wear Out The Soles Of My Shoes has got the most amazing guitar part, and the snare drum sounds amazing. I was obsessed with this track. My band at the time covered it. I got this album before I had ever even been out of Oklahoma. I emailed him and asked him how he got the drum sounds, and he actually wrote back. Deke cares. Fan for life.
9. High Noon – Glory Bound
This Texas band should have been the male counterpart to the Dixie Chicks. They should have had the same amount of stardom. The country, no, the world should have embraced them with open arms as Bringers of Light. The musicianship of this band is legendary. The band split up and went their separate ways, each member achieving great success on his own, but I still have this aching regret that I never saw High Noon live. This, their first album heralds them as the elite band of the Rockin’ Scene renaissance which occurred in the 1990s. Their second album contains more original material and is equally wonderful, but I’m focusing on their first because it’s like seeing a star born. It’s so awe-inspiring. I love High Noon so much, man. Seriously.
10. The Blasters – American Music
The Alvin Brothers. Dave and Phil. Maybe you’ve heard of them. They’re kind of a big deal. Put them together and they comprise one of my favorite bands of all time, the Blasters. Phil is one of my favorite singers ever and Dave’s guitar playing here peels paint from walls. All downstrokes! Every time the guitar comes in, BANG, my fist goes up in the air! This is the first stuff they recorded, with Italy’s most patriotic American, Rockin’ Ronny Weiser at the board. Their original songs are fantastic and their covers are legendary. Marie Marie might be in my top ten favorite songs of all time. There’s something different about this, it’s not totally authentic to the original sounds of early rock, and you could say it’s more rock ‘n’ roll than rockabilly, but it’s absolutely legitimate in every way. This is a must-have album for rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts.
Charlie Thompson – Volume 1: The Rockin Side Of Charlie Thompson
This English fellow makes some of the finest, most authentic-sounding hillbilly and hillbilly bop records around. Here he lets loose and it’s PERFECT. Here is a man who understands the subtleties of sound and rhythm and has applied those concepts to achieve his vision. His records fool me every time. I think they’re some weird, original, regional ’50s records I’ve never heard.
The Slink Moss Explosion
Jimmy Sutton gave me this CD years ago, and I still listen to it frequently. Sounds like the Violent Femmes backed by the Nashville A Team. Excellent, lush sounds and lyrics about magic African stones. I’m not sure if many folks have heard of this one. It’s so unusual, I had to put it on the list. Get the word out. Slink is highly influenced by the Shakin’ Pyramids, so…
Shakin Pyramids – Celts And Cobras
Jimmy Sutton turned me on to these guys, and they’re really provocative. Scottish neo-rockabilly band who were really doing some cool things in the 1980s. Often, there is no electric guitar, just acoustic guitar, bass and a minimal drum kit with lots of echo. Interesting, original.
Barnshakers – Barnyard Stomp
There are so many bands who could’ve made this list, but I have to send a hearty nod to Finland. Finland is populated with mobs of people who think that American rockabilly is the best thing since sliced bread. Ray Campi made it to their pop charts. No kidding. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll see it everywhere. These guys are the best of the best. The best band from a country who feels the way I do about this music. Lester Peabody (not his given name), the guitarist, could’ve been a Nashville A team member. There’s a lot of warmth from the people in that cold, cold, country.
Crazy Cavan & The Rhythm Rockers – Live At The Rainbow
Again, I have to pay respect to a people who command it. A people who carry razors. A people who wear crepe-soled footwear and rule their neighborhoods with the Velvet Collar and the Iron Fist. I’m talking about the Teds. The Teddy Boys, an Edwardian street gang who were keeping rock ‘n’ roll alive on planet Earth (or at least in England) when others keep trying to dismiss it or replace it, circa the late 1960s into the ’70s. Crazy Cavan & The Rhythm Rockers from South Wales are the ultimate Teddy Boy band, and this live record has as much frenetic energy and attitude as any Ramones record.