Listening to Carl Perkins
“They took a light from a honky-tonk/Put the gleam in your eye,” Carl Perkins howls on “Honky Tonk Gal,” one of his many amazing performances on The Classic Carl Perkins, a stellar five-CD boxed set that includes all his recordings for Sun Records and those shortly thereafter. (I just pulled out that box for the first time in many years.) With such a line, Perkins neatly encapsulates rockabilly’s concerns and fears.
Rockabilly, that reckless, primal thrash of honky-tonk country-and-western, is all about conflict—between rural and urban, between barroom adventure and home comfort, between the headfirst sin of Saturday nights and the heartfelt repentance of Sunday mornings. The honky-tonk gal Perkins adores is both his joy (she’s hot stuff and knows it) and his pain (she’s no longer a demure housewife). She’s the conflict of rockabilly personified.
Perkins treats this dilemma the way any self-respecting rockabilly cat would: He blazes out fiery riffs and drives through the quandary in fifth gear. He’ll deal with the consequences of his rampage tomorrow. Even lost in the thrill of taking his Gibson guitar for an unexpected joyride, he knows that somewhere down the road there will be a price to pay. Rockabilly is about release, but its release always has limits—that’s the form’s country birthright. That’s also what makes Perkins, a pure rockabilly performer then and always, different from Elvis Presley or Roy Orbison, rockabilly cats who expanded into straight pop and, in doing so, uprooted themselves. “You could never take the country out of Perkins,” veteran Sun-reissue compiler Colin Escott wrote in one of his many expert liner-note essays, pinpointing what set Perkins apart from Presley and what prevented him from achieving Elvis-like success. Presley, for all his indisputable greatness, sold out for pop success in every way imaginable. Perkins, even in his most banal countrypolitan settings, never surrendered.
This massive set has no fluff. Perkins’s gracious, quavering tenor carries some magnificent country ballads; among the most noteworthy are “Turn Around,” his first professional recording, and “Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing,” the most understated expression of honky-tonk regret and paralysis in post-Hank Williams country music. But Perkins’s meat is his rockabilly, “Blue Suede Shoes” and all that, in which he repeatedly drives full speed to the edge of his world, leans over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knows he must, pulls back and carefully heads home.
“Rockabilly sure takes me over the edge,” top Stray Cat Brian Setzer countered when I threw that idea at him a long time ago, in suburban Massachusetts. “It’s the most menacing music. Heavy metal is kid’s stuff compared to it.” Yes, but Setzer and the many legions who adopted pompadours in the late seventies discovered the music and the accoutrements, not the culture. It’s no accident that most of the rockabilly revivalists came from northern urban areas. To them, rockabilly is Gene Vincent’s leer and Eddie Cochran’s shake without regard for the honky-tonk imperatives behind them. The Stray Cats, since reduced to beer commercials, can afford to shoot over the edge; Perkins and his contemporaries, who didn’t have the luxury of growing up in a society that had already been liberated by rock and roll, had no such romantic alternative.
Yet on “Dixie Fried,” his greatest uptempo composition, Perkins comes as close as any rockabilly performer to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashes like the barroom-fight switchblades his tale chronicles; his voice dances with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist. “Let’s all get Dixie fried!” he screams, shattering any pretensions to caution, or civilized behavior. The violence escalates and the song smashes to its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have the gleam of the honky-tonk in his eye, but his eye is fixed on home, where he prays his honky-tonk gal has returned.