'Rockin' Bones' Celebrates Rockabilly's Rebels Just as punk rockers broke the rules in the 1970s, so did a slew of equally rebellious singers and their groups a generation earlier. Rockin' Bones, a new CD collection, features the music of 1950s rockabilly artists who were the iconoclasts of their day.

'Rockin' Bones' Celebrates Rockabilly's Rebels

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There's been no music more brash, more raw, more in your face than punk.

(Soundbite of song "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment")

THE RAMONES (Musicians): (Singing) Gimme gimme shock treatment. Gimme gimme shock treatment. I want I want shock treatment.

The Ramones, The Clash and the Sex Pistols broke all the rules in their day, and a generation earlier so did a slew of mostly forgotten but equally rebellious singers in their groups. A new CD box set makes that point with 101 songs. It's called Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly. You hear that title, don't you have to listen?

Renee spoke with the Rockin' Bones producer and one of the guitarists from that era.


James Austin is the producer of the four-CD set and he joins us here at NPR West. Welcome.

Mr. JAMES AUSTIN (Producer, Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly): Glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: And in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana the influential guitar player James Burton, who played with Elvis Presley most famously, as well as Johnny Cash, Dale Hawkins and Emmylou Harris. He co-wrote the song Susie Q at age 14. James Burton, welcome to you.

Mr. JAMES BURTON (Musician): Thank you. Nice to be here. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: It might be good to start with the title song, Ronnie Dawson's Rockin' Bones.

(Soundbite of song "Rockin' Bones")

Mr. RONNIE DAWSON (Musician): (Singing) Rockin' bones, rockin' bones on, yeah, I'm (unintelligible), yeah, rockin' bones, yeah, let's get in on a rhythm in these rockin' bones.

Mr. AUSTIN: Ronnie Dawson, actually a great guitar player, a great singer, came up with this song - he didn't write it, but he came up with this song called Rockin' Bones about, you know, when I die, you know, hang my bones up on the wall and then bury me with a phonograph needle in my hand.

(Soundbite of song "Rockin' Bones")

Mr. DAWSON: (Singing) A phonograph needle in my hand, I'm gonna rock my way right out of this land...

Mr. AUSTIN: I mean that's really great poetry.

MONTAGNE: I think we're going to take a try at one song that I find hard to believe ever made it on the air on any radio station in America, and in fact probably didn't, right?

Mr. AUSTIN: It never got any airplay. Any radio programmer would have gotten fired for playing this song.

MONTAGNE: And you know exactly, you know...

Mr. AUSTIN: I know what you're saying.

MONTAGNE: Little girl.

Mr. AUSTIN: John & Jackie, Little Girl, Aladdin Records, 1958. What were they thinking? How could this record ever had even gotten to the point of being pressed onto plastic? I have no idea. All I know it's amazing.

(Soundbite of song "Little Girl")

JOHN (Singer): (Singing) Well, I can't help but figure when you're on my mind, I love you, little baby, let's make some time...

(Soundbite of female moaning)

MONTAGNE: I think we have to fade this one down...

Mr. AUSTIN: It's kind of like, ah, okay. You know, one is good, but when you get to about the fourth or fifth one it's pretty amazing. And, you know, this box sets probably in some ways sort of stems from that song. When I had gotten that - found that song is the 1970s at a record store I could not believe what I heard.

And I started thinking, you know, these are really oddball songs. They're rockabilly but they're so hardcore. And I came up with literally hundreds of them.

MONTAGNE: Plus for every novelty song, there were plenty more that would've passed for heartfelt in the world of rockabilly. James Burton hit the big-time when at 18 he joined Ricky Nelson's band. Better know as the youngest son on the Ozzie and Harriet show, the epitome of '50s suburbia, Ricky Nelson was hardly a rockabilly bad boy, but he did showcase James Burton's driving guitar.

(Soundbite of song "Believe What You Say"))

Mr. RICKY NELSON (Musician): (Singing) Well, let's take it now.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

MONTAGNE: It was guitar work that inspired another guitar player, Keith Richards, to say of his youthful listening habits: I didn't buy Ricky Nelson records, I bought James Burton records.

James Burton, let's talk about that. You can't speak about rockabilly without speaking about the guitar.

Mr. BURTON: The guitar becomes the vocal when the singer's not singing. And the guitar takes a solo, it steps out, it becomes the singer actually on the record. Playing guitar is the sound of this music.

(Soundbite of song "Believe What You Say")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Oh yeah. Yeah, I believe pretty baby, believe you're goin' steady with nobody else but me.

MONTAGNE: With some of these songs you hear these guys singing about women, and they're sort of backdoor women in the classic blues sense. And then the women come on, at least the selections you have here, and they, James Austin, give as good as they get.

(Soundbite of song "Fujiyama Mama")

Ms. WANDA JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) I drink a quart of sake, smoked on a pipe, I chased it with tobaccy and then shoot out the light. Because I'm a Fujiyama Mama and I'm just about to blow my top...

Mr. AUSTIN: They're holding their own.

MONTAGNE: But on their terms.

Mr. AUSTIN: Their terms. I'm as tough as you, and that's not the way it was in the 1950s.

(Soundbite of song "I Need a Man")

Ms. BARBARA PITTMAN (Singer): (Singing) Well, I need a man, I need a man, I need a man to love...

Mr. AUSTIN: Women wore poodle skirts and, you know, they were nice and clean...

Mr. BURTON: Right.

Mr. AUSTIN: And you remember, James, they used to wear - the furthest out you got was blue jeans and wearing your dad's white shirt. But here's some women who are really in the same league as men.

(Soundbite of "I Need a Man")

Ms. PITTMAN: (Singing) I have plenty of cash and fine mink coat, but they just can't give me what I need the most, I need a man to love...

Mr. AUSTIN: Barbara Pittman in doing I Need a Man, I mean there's more desperation going on in that song - wow.

MONTAGNE: James Austin points to one song in particular as being ahead of its time, a song that actually goes back in time some 400 years. The folk ditty Froggy Went A Courting, a sweet little song rendered not so sweet in the hands of...

Mr. AUSTIN: Danny Dell and the Trends.

(Soundbite of "Froggy Went A Courting")

Mr. DANNY DELL (Singer): (Singing) Well, froggy went a courting and he did ride, uh-huh...

Mr. AUSTIN: What you have here is a guy playing chords. He's not playing the single note leads. And this is why this is the strongest comparison to punk rock: the way the instrumentation is, the echo. And all they basically did was took a traditional song that even Bruce Springsteen did on his last record called The Seeger Sessions. And here is a version that's the closest to punk rock because it really doesn't sound like it was recorded in 1959.

(Soundbite of "Froggy Went a Courting")

Mr. DELL: (Singing) Well, I took Miss Mousie upon his knee, and said Miss Mousie, will you marry me? Uh-huh. Oh yeah.

MONTAGNE: James Burton and James Austin, thank you both for joining us.

Mr. AUSTIN: Thank you for having us.

Mr. BURTON: I really enjoyed myself. Thank you guys so much.

(Soundbite of song "Lou Lou")

Mr. DARRELL RHODES (Musician): (Singing) Lou Lou knows what step to take. Lou Lou knows whose heart to break. Lou Lou's taking this town...

INSKEEP: That's Renee Montagne. And you can rock out to Cat Man, Susie Q and other tunes from the collection at npr.org.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. And sitting in for Renee Montagne, I'm Lynn Neary.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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