I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and in the course of conversation mentioned Johnny Cash’s rockabilly music. Now, this friend is considerably younger than I am but is into Americana and roots country music and so of course Johnny Cash is no stranger to her. But when I called the man in black “rockabilly,” she did a double take. “Johnny Cash is rockabilly?”
I had to explain Johnny’s rockabilly roots and Sun Records pedigree. But it’s easy to see how someone would still have trouble considering Johnny Cash’s music–even the early stuff–rockabilly. That’s because the word rockabilly has come to take on an aggressive, rock and roll meaning. But Cash had an alternate take on the genre compared to many of the others that, though different, was no less authentically rockabilly.
Cash’s music was never as high energy and raucous as his contemporaries at Sun Records like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Sonny Burgess, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the others. With his deadpan guitarist Luther Perkins providing the signature chunka-chunk alternating bass line on guitar, Cash always stuck to the more country side of rockabilly. Even his peppier tunes, like “Get Rhythm” stayed subdued in comparison to rockers like Billy Lee Riley’s manic “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll.”
But Cash’s music was no less rockabilly than the others. He just gave rockabilly a different dimension and took it in a different direction. It’s part of rockabilly’s diverse heritage. It’s easy to pigeon hole rockabilly music, but when you begin to really explore it, you find that it has more texture than you might have originally thought.
While Cash may have been one of the most extreme-country-edge examples of rockabilly, there were other country-leaning rockabilly stars too. Sleepy LaBeef and Glen Glenn are good examples as are a number of artists who recorded on Starday Records as opposed to the more rock and roll-oriented Sun Records.
In fact, it became almost expected that country stars of the day would try their hand at a rockabilly tune or two. But many of them were simply jumping on a lucrative bandwagon and getting a piece of the rockabilly pie that others invented. Johnny Cash didn’t fall into that category. He was a true rockabilly original and innovator. While Elvis took rockabilly and rode it to the top of the rock and roll charts, Cash was a natural to become the king of the country charts. He took his rockabilly in that direction instead.
So, yeah, Johnny Cash: rockabilly. You better believe it!