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What is Rockabilly?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Rockabilly is a genre of music which grew out of impromptu jam sessions between musicians in the American South during the early to mid-1950s. Performers in such Southern cities as Memphis, Tennessee or Jackson, Mississippi often performed traditional blues songs in the upbeat style of Texas swing or popular country music. Early rockabilly musicians emulated the emotional vocal stylings of black blues singers, while adding the slap bass and bright pedal guitar sounds of Texas swing and artists like Hank Williams. Drummers also developed a looser rhythm pattern with a strong back beat for the genre.

While dozens of musicians in the Memphis music scene gained local attention with their new sound, a few were able to take it to a higher level of exposure. A Texas swing band leader named Bill Haley reworked his countrified version of a blues song into a minor single called "Rock Around the Clock." It contained many of the elements of true rockabilly, but still retained some of its dance band flavor. Only when the song was featured in the movie Blackboard Jungle did it become the country's introduction to the genre's sound.

Meanwhile, other artists continued to perfect the sound for their younger fan base. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison all recorded rockabilly songs at the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Carl Perkins was especially proficient at the rhythmic guitar picking style associated with the genre, as was Luther Perkins and Scottie Moore. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both combined elements of blues singing and country music to create the signature rockabilly vocal sound. Singers often used whoops, shouts, hiccups and heavy echoes to capture the raw energy of the form.

Once rockabilly went mainstream, however, it lost much of its popularity among the teen demographic. Former rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly became more popular as "rock and roll" singers. Other performers such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash either pursued careers outside of the United States or became more associated with country music. The genre's influence can still be felt in modern rock music. Several bands such as the Stray Cats have continued to perform in the rockabilly tradition, while other artists have recorded songs using only the spare arrangement of slap bass, drums and hollow body electric guitar.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon166173 — On Apr 07, 2011

The most important part of Rockabilly isn't the type of instrumentation or fashion, but the sweat that springs up from your skin when you dance to it.

The entire point of Rockabilly is that it's not a purist style; it's a hedonistic mix of everything energetic in music crossing racial, social and political boundaries. Rich and poor, white and black, conservative and progressive, all boppin' to the same big beat.

By Jackslacks — On May 24, 2007

(In response to the above article) Yeah, I guess so.

There is more than the origins, however, that make up the pure genre we call "rockabilly."

First of all, to actually PLAY rockabilly, it's got to boil your blood, shake you up, make you want to scream at the top of your lungs. Rockabilly comes from deep down in your soul.

It's simplistic, yet curiously sophisticated.

Rockabilly is f-u-n, and that's the t-r-u-t-h.

Rock till ya drop~


Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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