Even if you’ve never heard of rockabilly, it’s a good bet you like it already.
Named for a blend of rock ‘n’ roll with hillbilly music, rockabilly has roots that stretch deep into Western swing, bluegrass, gospel, punk, rhythm and blues and more. Diehard fans embrace the ‘50s-style fashions associated with the genre, and patron saints such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Stray Cats lend big-name clout to this pulsing brand of boogie-woogie.
“I’m a kid from the generation of my mom playing Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. It’s basically the music I grew up on,” explains Darrell Broten, lead singer and rhythm guitar player for Gas Can Alley, a rockabilly band from Janesville. “I like it because it’s uncomplicated fun, enjoyable with no politics involved, and it’s just danceable, good-time music.”
Along with bandmates Tom Heck (Wingnut) on drums, Jared Havercroft (Lugnut) on upright bass and Chris Denker (Reverend Chris) on lead guitar, Broten—known as Lefty—hopes to introduce a wider audience to rockabilly at the third annual Atomic Voodoo Rockabilly Meltdown on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Odd Fellows Lodge in downtown Janesville.
“We host the party and just hope people show up and have a good time,” Broten said. “We already have the older crowd of people in their 70s that remember it (rockabilly), and now we’re starting to get some of the younger crowd. To them, it’s all new.”
Along with Gas Can Alley, the show will feature Rough Rider, a traditional blues band; Travelin’ Trio, a punk-grass combo; Slick and The Burnouts, a traditional rockabilly band; and The Krank Daddies, a psychobilly band based in Chicago.
Fans will get a free sample of the show when things kick off at 2 p.m. at The Looking Glass, 18 N. Main St. At 5 p.m., concertgoers can can get more on the third floor of the lodge, 22 N. Main St., for $8 at the door.
Advance tickets are available for $5 each.
Popular in certain circles, rockabilly acts have long shunned the mainstream paths followed by their pop rock and modern country counterparts. That hasn’t done much for ticket sales or album revenues, but it has been instrumental in preserving the underground genre’s traditions and in creating a dedicated, almost cult-like following.
“Rockabilly is one of the few underground scenes left that hasn’t been commercialized,” Broten said. “Even the bands making money playing it aren’t playing at music festivals. They have their own little circuits.”
Flush with vocal twangs, thumping rhythms and trademark tape echoes, rockabilly’s distinct sound and style is most often associated with the star of the show—the upright bass.
“Ours is a fiberglass model we found in a second-hand store,” Broten said of Havercroft’s well-worn stage buddy. “It’s been three different colors: blue, silver and now just black with stickers all over it.
“It fell apart on us in Green Bay and, at the show after that, it exploded on stage. Lugnut was standing on it, and it just kind of gave out—so we rebuilt it. If it had been wood, it would have been firewood. But we just hammered it out and added some two-by-fours and glue.”
According to Broten, Havercroft hasn’t necessarily learn his lesson. He still wanders into the crowd during shows, flipping his bass around and running with it during songs.
“It’s been hammered on, and he lets the crowd play it some nights,” Broten said.
So if you head out to the concert, don’t be surprised if one minute you’re listening to the band and the next you’re picking strings. The music’s tendency toward that sort of interactivity is just part of what makes it unique.
“With rockabilly, there is always a common song that everybody knows,” Broten said. “But if they don’t know it, there’s always a common chorus connection that people can jump in on and have fun with.”