Cousin Harley,
The Dutch Sessions
(Little Pig, 2015)

Jimmy & the Mustangs,
Another Round
(independent, 2016)

In its time rockabilly sounded shockingly radical, like something with no previous existence or detectable provenance. Its proximate inspiration was Elvis Presley, whose huge popular success in the mid-1950s had competing labels and performers scrambling for their own share of the newly revealed wealth. For Elvis rockabilly was just a passing phase, as indeed it was for the American musical audience in general. During the punk-rock years a couple of decades later, rockabilly underwent something of a revival, and it's maintained a small niche on the margins ever since.

In retrospect rockabilly doesn't seem particularly extraordinary, more like what one would expect of young people who saw a different approach to pop music from the one represented in their parents' listening. Rockabilly is what happens when you combine honkytonk country music and jump blues. Such a fusion seems so, well, American that it was surely bound to happen.

Rockabilly's life in the spotlight was brief, and even that had to do with Presley's novel, brash approach and instant superstardom. Generally, it was the sort of sound you'd hear coming out of a late-night radio station from the Deep South circa 1957. It was thrilling and a little scary, and not for everyone. I've loved it practically from the first time I heard it.

Jimmy Haddox played on the Los Angeles rock scene in the early 1980s, along with the Blasters, perhaps the best known of the rockabilly/rock 'n' roll classicists of the era. Later, Jimmy & the Mustangs moved their act to Austin, where they remain. Their new album, Another Round, features 10 cuts, nine by Haddox and one a co-write. The last of these, "Bourbon Street," has the resonance of a mid-century hard-country song, mixing heartbreak with various strains of alcohol as well as delirious wordplay.

The tuneful, romantic "Love is Just Pretend" recalls the doo-wop songs of yore, while "Cherry Bomb" is built around not too difficult to decipher sexual imagery of the sort that caused a generation of parents to fear that rock 'n' roll was driving the kids to an apocalypse of hormones. It's all good stuff, a happy reminder that, in Jimmy & the Mavericks' capable hands, rockabilly still wields its jittery pleasures.

The Vancouver-based Cousin Harley, a band whose one constant is the multi-talented Paul Pigot, is a venerable rockabilly outfit. It delivers the rhythms on The Dutch Sessions, recorded direct-to-tape over three days in a village in Holland. Though I grew up with it, I claim no particular authority on early rock 'n' roll. Thus, I can't begin to match Pigot's obvious wide and rich listening. He and mates aren't writing the material but drawing from obscure period sources. I recognize three of the 10 songs, these associated -- though not prominently -- with Carl Perkins, Jim Reeves and Buck Owens, in that order. All excellent choices, perhaps most of all the otherwise-forgotten Reeves hit (and composition) "Yonder Comes a Sucker." Albeit new to me, the final cut, "Jeanie Jeanie Jeanie," is the sort of thing you'd have a Martian sit down to listen to after he asked you, "Well, what's so great about rock 'n' roll?"

Actually, Dutch Sessions answers that question, in one way or another, with each number. If Cousin Harley comes from the same place musically, it and Jimmy & the Mustangs each bring a distinctive personality to the enterprise. You might do as I have done: play them one after the other and marvel at how the spirit manages to reach over the decades and to move anyone with ears to hear.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 May 2016

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