Early Forms of Rock Music Part 1: Rockabilly

Rockabilly is one of the pioneering forms of rock music. Its influence helped shaped rock and infused the music of one of the most successful artists of all time, Elvis Presley. Artists from Morrissey to the White Stripes have used the sound in their music. Read on to find out about this fascinating music genre.

The origins of rockabilly

Rockabilly came out of the Southern United States, by some accounts as early as the 1950s. Its origins can be seen in its name, which blends “rock” and “hillbilly”. It’s music of the hills, from the people of the mountain region of the South. Bluegrass, western swing, and boogie-woogie are all cited as influences as well.

Starting in the 1960s, rockabilly became a more defined sound. Rock and blues had always been two sides of the same coin. Now they became a new musical style that emphasized rhythm. The tape echo and vocal twang were other hallmarks of the sound.

The blend of black music styles like rhythm and blues and country music was popular enough to go mainstream, especially when Elvis Presley came into the mix. Carl Perkins, who many know for the song “Blue Suede Shoes”, was an early pioneer of the genre. His original version of the record was redone by Elvis.

The sound and the artists

The first song Elvis ever recorded, though, “That’s All Right”, was a blues-influenced banger like no one had ever heard before. His emotional intensity and his black inflection set his music apart from the rest of the country artists.

Upright bass, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar – Elvis’ chosen instrument – would become the defining instrumentation for rockabilly. His tours of the South electrified fans and artists alike. He single-handedly convinced many of them to switch their country style to rockabilly.

Rockabilly then and now

By the 1960s the popularity of rockabilly had come to an end. It got a second life, however, during a revival in the late 1970s. This coincided with Elvis’ death and began in Europe. England was also a popular spot for the revival. The appeal lay not just in the music, but in the genre’s clothing, old records, and nostalgia.

The Stray Cats would be instrumental in this new version of the genre. They helped it spread worldwide to as far as Japan. Their look was partly responsible for their success, as MTV had just started and their wild fashions appealed to the young music video generation.

During the 1980s artists like Neil Young made an entire album “Everybody’s Rockin’” based on rockabilly. Others in the country music scene made rockabilly-style hits like “Hillbilly Rock” by Marty Stuart.

Modern artists like Kings of Leon and the White Stripes have been influenced by the rockabilly sound. In the 1990s even Morrissey started to use the sound in his music. Outside of the US, Irish artist Imelda May has had great success and contributed to European exposure to the music.