With all the events happening at the inaugural Rockabilly on the Route weekender—the Wheels on 66 Classic Car Show, the Route 66 Burnout, Gilded Cage Burlesk, Miss Rockabilly Route 66 Pin-Up Contest, Gospel Brunch Bowling and more, bracketed with plenty of tats and enough pomade to start a grease fire—it may seem a shame to focus on the music. But that’s no more outré than capital-R Rockabilly itself. Seen from the outside, rockabilly may seem an unlikely holdover from the early days of rock and roll, but there have always been rockabilly holdouts, just as there have always been doo-wop and rocker holdouts (see the infamous mods vs. rockers debacle of early Swinging London).
Celebrating those holdouts, Rockabilly on the Route has been in the works since last November. According to event organizer Miss Loca Linda (editrix of La Loca Magazine), she has been working with the Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce, the Wheels on 66 Rally and the New Mexico Route 66 Association Motor Tour. Proceeds from the weekender benefit Tucumcari’s under-construction New Mexico Route 66 Museum.
More than any other rock genre, rockabilly has retained a strong take on fashion, form and old-fashioned values. Don’t misunderstand. Rockabilly is not just appearance. The music is the heartbeat, the centerpiece over which the rest of the culture is draped. Witness the couples at any rockabilly show swinging each other all over the floor or the cats standing near the stage carefully assessing the vintage amps.
This brings us back to the Saturday night headliner of Rockabilly on the Route: the fabulous Miss Wanda Jackson. First things first. She was not the “female Elvis,” as Jackson and her contemporary, the great Janis Martin, were often billed. Presley may have introduced rockabilly to the masses, but don’t forget he took most of those masses right along with him to Vegas, while Jackson stayed true to her country roots. Some of her earliest, mid-'50s recordings were straight-up country at a time when the genre was moving away from front porch-picking to the more urban concerns of a swiftly modernizing countryside. Like Patsy Cline—in the hands of record producers who believed that “girls don’t sell records”—Jackson was often saddled with maudlin weepers, strings and pop choruses behind her.
But it wasn’t long before songs with a heavy bass backbeat, Jackson’s growling lioness voice, and her glamorous fashion sense—spiked heels, bangle earrings and tight-fitting midriff-baring dresses—made her stand out from the conservative country and western crowd. A select group of top sidemen didn’t hurt either: pianist Big Al Downing, pedal steel player Ralph Mooney and guitarist Vernon Sandusky.
Often called the First Lady of Rockabilly, Jackson’s later country career was much more successful and lucrative, capped by a turn toward Christianity that produced some wonderful but lesser-known gospel recordings. Jackson has always been uncomfortable with the rock lifestyle, saying in 1987, “I got thrown into the rock and roll scene, and I didn’t understand these people. I was just country folk, you know?”
But don’t fret. Jackson is still known for playing the full range of her material, and it’s a goldmine with over 50 years worth of recordings. And yes, I know what you’re thinking: Can a 75-year-old performer still deliver onstage? Trust me. Unlike many “oldies” acts that tour the lucrative but embarrassing casino circuit, Jackson has taken care of her voice and health, and she still knows how to perform. There’s nary another in her age bracket who can boast the same.
Of other notable bands on the bill—including the all-female Danger*Cakes (Austin, Texas) or The Chop Tops (Santa Cruz, Calif.)—I'm happy to see a couple of Albuquerque’s newest rockabilly acts. Mr. Right and The Leftovers veer toward the punk side of the scale, while the formidable Shadow Men are deep on the traditional end.
The Shadow Men won my curmudgeonly heart with statements like, “[The '50s] studio musicians that never got any recognition for their hard work are who we really cherish.” Nowhere is that more evident than in the masterful guitar playing of Shadow man Tom Sanderson (Hi-Lo Tones, ex-Long Gone Trio). Recognized throughout the national rockabilly scene, his playing is pure class. There’s never a missed note or wasted movement. Sanderson is all about musical economy, placing each lick exactly where it needs to be, for exactly the right reason and duration. No more and no less. Keep your eyes—but especially your ears—trained on him.