Rockabilly music is unique in many ways. The style, the look, the instrumentation, the attitude…all of these things and more went into making the original rockabilly scene unique at the time. And rockabilly remains unique for another reason too: in reality, it hasn’t changed much over the 60 or so years of its existence.
For the most part, modern rockabilly musicians go to great lengths to emulate their heroes from the original pioneering days of the later half of the 1950s. We wear clothes that look like the clothes they wore. We cut our hair in pompadours. We tend to use vintage instruments that look and sound like the instruments our idols used. We even try to record songs that sound like those old recordings made on primitive recording equipment and that can be a difficult thing to achieve!
That’s not to say that rockabilly hasn’t evolved because clearly it has. One of the defining characteristics of early rockabilly was that it was a melding of musical styles. Healthy doses of blues, country, and R&B all mixed together to create a new energy and style. And with so much music having been created over the past 60 years, simply ignoring that music would be a very “unrockabillyish” thing to do! When the rockabilly revival finally took major hold in the early 80s, the new rockabilly cats brought in elements of heavy metal, punk, British invasion pop, and other influences into their music.
Check out the Stray Cats form that era. Visually, they looked rockabilly, but with a touch of glam rock thrown in. Their pompadours where stylized and their earrings were dangly evoking David Bowie almost as much as Gene Vincent. And the tattoos. The early guys weren’t quite as painted as modern musicians. I once read somewhere that there is historically a consistent resurgence of tattoos as we near the end of each century. This clearly happened in the rock world and the Stray Cats were a big part of that trend. It’s a trend that has stuck with modern rockabillies and it doesn’t seem to be fading.
And rockabilly had its offshoots too and thus grew in that way. Chief among these is the pshychobilly genre. These guys look and sound like rockabilly mixed with heavy metal, death metal, and Goth. So you really wouldn’t say that rockabilly has been stagnant all of these years. It hasn’t remained unchanged for all of this time.
And yet, if you dig to the core of it, it’s surprising how close so many rockabilly acts and rockabilly fans these days stick to the original formula. These bands make music that sounds like it could have been recorded 55 years ago. They write songs that are amazingly true to the original music that came out of those times. They use recording techniques and instrumentation that would have been cutting edge in 1958. Their clothes are accurately retro. It’s constantly amazing to me how a form that on its face is so simply constructed can continue to be mined by generations of musicians that find different ways to express themselves within that form!
What other modern musical form with that long of a history has stayed so true to its roots? The Blues? Maybe. Jazz has been all over the place because that’s exactly what jazz is. Rock and roll has changed faces so many times it’s difficult to keep up! But rockabilly stands unique as maybe the only modern-era musical genre that remains essentially the same today as it was in its infancy. That speaks to the power of rockabilly music. The raw energy of it. The sheer joy in it. When something is that beautiful, then why would you want to mess with it?
Yes, us modern rockabilly musicians are copy cats. And the fans seem to love it exactly like that!