The 16th annual Elvisathon brought out what is to be expected at any event honoring The King: fans and impersonators. But a check of the 18-act roster lists only two acts that have anybody who looks like Elvis. What, then, are the rest?
It’s called ‘Rockabilly’ and it’s the basis of Elvis’ early sound. Whereas The King is credited for spanning a wide gap by merging music of the Negro and Caucasian races, Rockabilly is more narrowly focused. (The name should be a dead giveaway.) It took Country & Western music, stripped away most of the instrumentation, and combined it with the raw energy & rebellion of the younger generation.
It was an unbalanced marriage because country music was already well established and had sophisticated musical arrangements, but rock n’ roll was an emerging genre in search of an identity. The rockers also gutted the arrangements, taking it down to a basic 3-chord (I-IV-V) progression. Likewise, the attire also went from suits & ties to black leather jackets & tennis shoes.
Two of the evening’s acts can rightfully claim the name but approach it from different directions. In this corner, we have “Slick” Andrews, a professional musician who represents Rockabilly’s rural roots. And in this corner, we have Tony Burlingame and Bart Jenkins of Third Degree Sideburn, from the other side of the tracks.
Gentlemen, shake hands and come out swinging. I mean, ‘singing’.
Andrews, 44, is originally from Texas but has lived in Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee. He can belt out a ‘cry in your beer’ ballad with the best of them but when he’s singing Carl Perkins, you’d better hold onto that beer because the joint will be jumpin’. While in Nashville, he rubbed elbows with the greats and learned from them. When he takes the stage, he will be dressed better than his audience and there will not be a hair out of place.
His band is called the 3C Drifters, a 5-piece combo that included a lap steel guitar. Andrews’ philosophy is, “When I find great musicians I keep hold of them.”
His introduction to music came as a small child. Andrews’ grandparents had a large record collection and listening to them was a family event. It was his grandmother who taught him his first song, Carl Smith’s “Go, Boy, Go” (1954), from a 78 record.
Of Rockabilly music, Andrews says, “I think it's something that everybody loves. I think if you're about 35, 40, 45 years old, you remember it, too, because your grandparents played it when you were small. And anybody over that age really loves it because it was 'in' when they were kids.” He has been a full-time musician since 1990.
For the blue jeans & fuzzy dice crowd, we have Third Degree Sideburn. This year marks their 10th anniversary as a band. They came together when bassist-singer Bart Jenkins moved from Las Vegas to Columbus and met music store employee Tony Burlingame in the late ‘90s. Jenkins was playing Rockabilly music out west and wanted to bring it to the heartland; Burlingame wanted to play guitar and the rest is history.
Burlingame, 47, took an interest in Rockabilly from a most unlikely source: the Beatles. After hearing the Fab Four’s covers of Carl Perkins, et al, he went back to the original recordings and got “turned on that way.” Jenkins, 35, grew up listening to Elvis and other rock n’ roll music but didn’t start playing Rockabilly until he went out to Las Vegas. He was exposed to the genre when he heard the Stray Cats at the Ohio State Fair.
For Jenkins, this is music that has meaning. He says, "You don't hear this stuff on the radio, you don't see it on TV. For me, it's almost like giving an education when we play somewhere. It's like, 'this is something that used to be really popular'. It's a sound that's timeless, and it still carries on. Maybe not mainstream but you can connect with it. It's really rock n’ roll at its core. It’s keeping it alive. It's something I love to do…putting on a show, and playing that sound is great.”
Burlingame adds, “We just did this for fun and I'm surprised we're still here, ten years later, playing to appreciative crowds in Columbus. And it seems like, when younger people hear it, they're already familiar with it in their subconscious. They've heard Buddy Holly. They've heard Elvis. But they've never seen it live and you won't find bands nowadays playing Eddie Cochran and Roy Orbison, live, like we do.
"Some people may think, 'Three chords? Three instruments? Man, how much can you do with that?' But that one little framework, it's not limiting, it's *refreshing*. I know what he's gonna do, he knows what I'm gonna do; we can take off whenever we wanna take off. So the challenge is, how can I make these 15 songs sound different when they're the same 3 chords? How can we make each song have its own identity?
“I think just the skeleton of the Rockabilly trio is pretty classic, and it makes for an easy, fun show, too. Less stuff to haul around, more fun to have. No keyboard samplers, none of that crap to get in the way.”
Jenkins let us in on a little secret: “We never practice. Shows ya right there how bare-bones it is. We don't practice and yet we still pull it off.”
One thing that was apparent at the Elvisathon was that, although the hour was late and they had just endured more than a dozen bands, the crowd was still very much alive and animated. Burlingame credits the enthusiasm that is at the core of Rockabilly. He says, “I'm glad to play it with the original fire and inspiration of the first artists that did it. We don't play like a lounge band -- we rock it out !” to which Andrews adds, “I do know that everybody from 9 to 90 really loves it.”
As much as looking like a Rockabilly band enhances the experience, the instruments also play a role. Most bass players use a stand-up rather than an electric bass guitar. Most of the amplifiers are ‘glass bottle’ Fenders rather than solid state. (Refers to the 6L6GC power and 5U4 rectifier vacuum tubes) But if there’s a centerpiece, it would have to be the large, hollow-body Gretsch guitars, which are the preferred noisemaker of the pickers.
Although other brands of the same variety, e.g., Gibson L-5 or Epiphone, and even an occasional solid-body Fender Telecaster will suffice, it’s the New York born & bred Gretsch that still rules the roost. It was the choice of Rockabilly’s early practitioners (Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent) as well as the current generation (Brian Setzer, Reverend Horton Heat). If there was a low point, it was probably the use of Gretsch instruments by the Pre-Fab Four: the Monkees.
The Gretsch on+ today’s stage is the culmination of a long lineage. Slick Andrews explains that Country & Western guitarists of the 1940s and 1950s were heavily influenced by jazz guitar players, such as Django Reinhardt. Their instrument of choice was the mellow, arch-top F-hole guitar rather than the round-hole flat-top Spanish-style classical guitar. This carried over when the instruments were electrified by companies such as Gibson and Gretsch.
Although there were few differences among these top-shelf guitars, it’s the Gretsch that emerged as the ‘Cadillac’. They were among the most expensive; their White Falcon model was one of the first production guitars to break the $1000 barrier. But, if the cover of Chet Atkins’ newest album showed him playing a Gretsch, then this was the one to have.
On the technical end, Burlingame credits the single-coil pick-up and the hollow body for producing the characteristic ‘twang’ that is the signature sound of Rockabilly music. His guitar, an Epiphone (a ‘little brother’ to Gibson) is fitted with Gretsch pick-ups and other hardware. And, before it was sullied by the Monkees, Gretsch guitars were put on a pedestal for the post-‘Classic Country’ generation to discover anew by the Beatles’ George Harrison.