There was a time when there was no such thing as rockabilly. No, I don’t mean before the genre began, but before it was named. Sun Records artists like Carl Perkins were only later tagged rockabilly but early on were just considered rock and roll. This was merely part of rock and roll’s evolution, branching out from jump and jive bands like Louis Jordan and His Orchestra in the ’40s and diverging from the doo-wop corners of ’50s Bronx, Philadelphia and Newark.
Similarly, California-based Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys are rock and roll with elements of rockabilly, boogie woogie, Western swing, traditional country and fine vocal arrangements.
The Rockabilly Hall of Fame members are touring in support of their latest release, Turntable Matinee. They’ll make a long-awaited stop in New Mexico on Friday. The Alibi was able to catch up with Big Sandy via email.
What is rockabilly to you?
In my mind, rockabilly is a very specific genre—a very rural sound with an overall acoustic feel. It’s a sound that I love with a passion and that we incorporate into our music—but are not limited to, nor by.
There was a time, though, when there were self-imposed musical boundaries. In our early days we restricted ourselves to what we thought fans expected to hear from us. Over the years, we’ve come to be more comfortable with playing whatever moves us. It’s an approach that seems so obvious to me now ... but it took a few years to realize that this was the best way to go.
After more than 20 years, how do you keep it fresh for your audience and for yourselves?
Since we’ve started opening things up musically, “keeping things fresh” has become a natural byproduct. We are currently finishing up a new album and in the studio. No idea is being discounted or ruled out. That keeps it exciting for us and will hopefully result in a more interesting selection of songs.
For live performances, I prefer to work without a set list. I just call out songs based on how I’m feeling, or in response to the feeling I’m getting from the audience. This, I think, makes for a better show.
Do you come from a musical family?
My parents were, and are, music lovers and record collectors, and that passion carried over. My first instrument was a free guitar that I got when my mother signed me up for lessons at a local music store. I was 18 years old. When I was 13 or so, I used to go door-to-door in my neighborhood with an older friend—an ex-con named Archie—and play for pocket change. He played guitar, and I sang Elvis and Conway Twitty songs.
Do you recall the first record you owned?
I grew up in a house full of records, but the first one that was my very own was a cardboard Monkees record that came on the back of a Honeycomb cereal box.
How big a part does using vintage equipment play in achieving your sound?
Our instruments play an important role, but we aren’t limited to vintage equipment. I think it’s more important to find a guitar, amp, drum kit—whatever it may be—that sounds right to us. Many times, that ends up meaning using something old, but there are some pretty good reissue instruments coming out these days. In some ways, that is the best of both worlds. You end up with something that looks cool (to us, anyway), sounds great and that you don’t have to worry so much about taking out on the road. That being said, we do have a special place in our hearts for vintage gear.
Years ago you played Albuquerque quite a bit. Why did that change?
I’m not sure why it’s been so long since we’ve played your fair city. It seems that booking agents and promoters tend to fall into certain patterns. Once a band—or city—falls out of rotation for whatever reason, it can be tricky to get back in that loop. Maybe our appearance at the zoo (or in this article!) might somehow lead to a club date in the not too distant future!
What other projects are you involved with?
Touring and recording with Los Straitjackets is my main musical side project, but this summer, I’m flying to Italy for the Summer Jamboree where I’ll be performing an R & B / jump blues set with an Italian swing combo, as well as emceeing the two-week long event. I find myself being asked to emcee more and more music festivals as the years go by. Once in a while, I’ll get together with a group of musician friends and perform a set of doo-wop and L.A. R & B.
Tell us about the new record you’re working on.
We’re reaching back into our song catalogue and recording newly arranged acoustic versions, finding songs that have perhaps been overlooked, and reworking them in a way that brings more focus to the lyrics and structure. It’s been a lot of fun turning these inside out and finding something new.