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What is Rockabilly?

Rockabilly fuses the raw energy of rock 'n' roll with the twang of country music, creating a vibrant sound that took the 1950s by storm. It's the rhythmic heartbeat that gave Elvis his swagger and Johnny Cash his soulful edge. Discover how this genre keeps toes tapping today—what's your favorite rockabilly beat that gets your heart racing?
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

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.

The development of the electric guitar had a major influence on rockabilly music.
The development of the electric guitar had a major influence on rockabilly music.

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.

Vintage microphones are associated with rockabilly.
Vintage microphones are associated with rockabilly.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is rockabilly music and how did it originate?

Roy Orbison recorded rockabilly songs at Sun Studios in Memphis.
Roy Orbison recorded rockabilly songs at Sun Studios in Memphis.

Rockabilly is a genre of music that blends elements of rock 'n' roll and country, or "hillbilly" music, which emerged in the early 1950s. It originated in the Southern United States, with artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins being pivotal in its development. The sound is characterized by an uptempo rhythm, simple song structures, and the prominent use of the guitar, both electric and acoustic.

Who are some of the most influential rockabilly artists?

Modern rockabilly is often played through vintage amplifiers.
Modern rockabilly is often played through vintage amplifiers.

Elvis Presley is often hailed as the king of rockabilly, especially for his early recordings at Sun Records. Other influential artists include Johnny Cash, known for his distinctive bass-baritone voice and rebellious image; Carl Perkins, who wrote and recorded the classic "Blue Suede Shoes"; and Jerry Lee Lewis, famous for his energetic piano playing and wild stage presence. These artists laid the foundation for the genre's enduring legacy.

How did rockabilly influence later music genres?

Rockabilly had a significant impact on the development of several music genres. It influenced the British Invasion bands of the 1960s, including The Beatles, who covered rockabilly songs in their early years. The genre also paved the way for modern rock and punk, with bands like The Stray Cats in the 1980s reviving the rockabilly style. Its raw energy and simplicity continue to inspire musicians across various genres.

What distinguishes rockabilly fashion and culture?

Rockabilly culture extends beyond music to a distinctive fashion style, which includes vintage clothing inspired by the 1950s. Men often sport greased, pompadour hairstyles, while women wear pin-up styles and full skirts. The culture also embraces hot rod cars and motorcycles, tattoos, and dance styles like jiving. Rockabilly festivals celebrate this unique blend of music, fashion, and lifestyle, attracting enthusiasts worldwide.

Are there any modern rockabilly bands or artists?

Yes, rockabilly has seen a resurgence with modern bands and artists keeping the genre alive. Notable contemporary rockabilly acts include The Reverend Horton Heat, Imelda May, and JD McPherson. These artists draw inspiration from the classic rockabilly sound while infusing it with a modern twist, ensuring the genre's continued relevance and appeal in today's music scene.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular MusicalExpert contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular MusicalExpert contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon166173

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.

Jackslacks

(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~

Jackslacks

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    • The development of the electric guitar had a major influence on rockabilly music.
      By: mekcar
      The development of the electric guitar had a major influence on rockabilly music.
    • Vintage microphones are associated with rockabilly.
      By: Tiler84
      Vintage microphones are associated with rockabilly.
    • Roy Orbison recorded rockabilly songs at Sun Studios in Memphis.
      By: nico7martin
      Roy Orbison recorded rockabilly songs at Sun Studios in Memphis.
    • Modern rockabilly is often played through vintage amplifiers.
      By: matt&stustock
      Modern rockabilly is often played through vintage amplifiers.