Emerging in the early 1950s, Rockabilly music combined elements of what was to become rock and roll with traditional country and western music. Though Rockabilly and country are often associated, there are differences that help the listener quickly differentiate.

Rockabilly has a stronger emphasis on rock and roll and blues, while country music is more closely associated with folk and traditional music. Rockabilly typically features a rhythm section of a pared-down drum kit and an upright bass, combined with electric or hollow-body guitar and often a piano, and the vocals are often characterized by a distinctive “hiccup” or “slur” in the phrasing.

Country music, on the other hand, has its roots in folk and traditional music. It features acoustic instruments such as guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle, as well as having a focus on storytelling through the lyrics. While some country music may have rockabilly elements, it is typically more traditional in its sound and structure. Several artists who became country music stars produced music that would best be described as Rockabilly in the early days of their careers.

Carl Perkins, credited as being the “Father of Rockabilly,” wrote some of rockabilly’s most memorable songs, including “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Boppin’ the Blues.” Perkins was inducted into the Rock and Roll, International Rockabilly and Nashville Songwriters halls of fame. “Blue Suede Shoes” won a Grammy Hall of Fame award as one of the songs that helped shape rock’n’roll, and Rolling Stone magazine rated Perkins among the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Perkins continued to write and perform music throughout his career, and he remained an important figure in the rockabilly community until his death in 1998.

Gene Vincent was another pioneer of Rockabilly who had a number of hits in the 1950s, including “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and “Blue Jean Bop.” In 1956 he wrote “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” which Rolling Stone later listed as number 103 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Vincent, who died at age 36 from a ruptured ulcer, was the first inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame upon its formation in 1997. The following year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Vincent has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Eddie Cochran was a Rockabilly musician and guitarist whose 1950s’ hits included “Summertime Blues” and “C’mon Everybody.” His career and life were cut short when he died in an automobile accident in England at age 21 in 1960 after the car in which he was riding with Vincent and others was hit by a taxi after a performance. In 1987, Cochran was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His pioneering contribution to the genre of Rockabilly has also been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Elvis Presley was one of the most influential performers of Rockabilly music. His early hits, such as “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” combined elements of rock and roll and country music and helped to popularize Rockabilly around the world. Johnny Cash also dabbled in Rockabilly, and his country hits such as “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” blurred the lines between Rockabilly and country. Other country stars associated with Rockabilly include Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson and Conway Twitty.

Several modern country artists have incorporated elements of Rockabilly into their music. Sturgill Simpson uses elements of Rockabilly, bluegrass and other genres. His album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” features a mix of traditional country and Rockabilly sounds. Chris Stapleton has drawn inspiration from Rockabilly, traditional country and other roots music genres, which is obvious when listening to his award-winning album, “Traveller.” Country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark’s album, “Your Life Is a Record,” mixes traditional country and Rockabilly sounds. In country artist Jamey Johnson’s album “That Lonesome Song,” the influence of Rockabilly is apparent.

“Nowadays, the Rockabilly subculture is still very much alive throughout the world,” according to The Subculture Blog. “Most Rockabilly diehards still dress the same way as the original 50’s culture did.”

Rockabilly is celebrated annually with a music festival and car show in Arizona. In addition to memorial tributes to some of the greatest Rockabilly stars, dozens of bands who carry on the Rockabilly tradition perform throughout the three-day festival called The Rockabilly Reunion. A Rockabilly festival called CincoBilly is being held on May 5 and 6 in Norco, California. Sixteen Rockabilly bands are set to play, with the final night’s headlining show being a tribute to the early years of Elvis Presley.

Header Photo of (from left) Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis from the 1977 Johnny Cash Christmas Special television program.

Story by Claudia Johnson © 2023, Country Reunion MagazineSubscribe here.