While rockabilly pioneers like Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, The Burnette Brothers, Wanda Jackson and others were tearing things up and inventing a new style of music which grew into rock and roll, it was clear to established country stars of the time that there was something special going on. And they wanted a piece of the action! Several country stars tried their hand at rockabilly and turned out some great rockabilly tunes that stood with the best of what the rebel rockers were cranking out. In this article, we’ll take a look at just a few of these country stars and some of the wonderful songs they contributed to the new rockabilly revolution.
One of my favorite country stars is (and of course I’m not alone!) Patsy Cline. She is known of course for her iconic tear jerkers and country ballads. But Patsy also belted out the rocker like she was a natural. Some of her best rockabilly numbers include, “Got a Lot of Rhythm in my Soul,” “Turn the Cards Slowly,” and the amazing “Stop, Look, and Listen” which features a relentlessly driving snare drum that sounds like a gun shot to drive the beat. Patsy was perhaps the most amazing voice in all of country music and that same voice translated to pure genius when she turned it to rockabilly.
Marty Robbins is another country icon. His gunfighter ballads and cowboy songs were favorites of mine when as a kid I began to tap into my mom’s record collection. His was another amazing voice that absolutely ruled a country or western song. But he too did his share of rockabilly numbers and as you would expect from such a great talent, those performances were stellar. “Tennessee Toddy” stands as a rollicking story song that’s nothing but pure fun and you can hear it in Marty’s voice as he grooves out each verse. His own “Mean Mama Blues” is also a great original rockabilly tune. He also did great versions of “Long Tall Sally,” “That’s Alright Mama,” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” Truly great rockabilly from a truly great country singer!
Little Jimmie Dickens made a name for himself as a bit of a novelty act with pure country numbers like “Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed,” “Old Cold Tater,” “Out Behind the Barn,” and “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” but he also turned out a few rockabilly gems. “Stinky Pass the Hat Around” is just plain crazy and its heavy fiddle still can’t tame its rockabilly attitude. Another great rockabilly track from Dickens is the understated classic, “Rockin’ With Red.” “Black Eyed Joe” and “Hillbilly Fever” are two other great tunes worth checking out. Dickens kept a big heap o’ billy in his version of rockabilly, but it was rockabilly just the same.
Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” is one of the greatest rockabilly songs bar none and his “Honky Tonk Man” isn’t far behind. Horton seemed almost reluctant to chase the fame that seemed to pursue him, but he couldn’t escape the limelight before turning out some absolutely wonderful rockabilly, honky tonk, and country songs. His recording career was incredibly short given the impact he had–he recorded over the span of just five years. Horton went on to perfect the country “saga” ballad with songs like “North to Alaska,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” and others, but nothing compares to the energy of his rockabilly offerings.
These are just a few of the country artists of the mid to late 50s that decided to turn their hand toward rockabilly. Most of these artists and others like them returned to the country music they loved so much, but not before blessing us with their contributions to the legacy of rockabilly music.