One of the few women on the early Sun Studio roster, Barbara Pittman, once recalled that the term rockabilly was originally a kind of putdown, suggesting there was something hick about it. But: “Over the years it has picked up a little dignity.”
She could well say that again, except she died in 2005. Rockabilly is a love that grows, despite being largely ignored by the mainstream media.
It is a loose definition, of a style which came together from all over the place, but what about boogie beats with a country sound, a punky attitude and a full drum kit? It was originally made by and for farm boys, mechanics, store clerks and factory hands, arriving at a dance hall after a quick wash and change, with the radio on. They sound real and tough. And, although they did their share of trying to hit the new teenage market, they generally sound much more grown-up than a lot of the competition, then or since.
It was world-wise humour, laid over a beat like a well-balanced camshaft, that grabbed me when I heard Ford Nix & The Moonshiners, on Country Hicks Volume One, from Bark Log, a London label specialising in the quarrying of rockabilly vinyl.
The tracks come from little labels in Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee, Indianapolis, Cincinatti and New York – and, in the case of Nix and several other standouts, from Clix Records of Troy, Michigan, a semi-rural suburb of the great ruin of Detroit. I had never before come across any mention of this end of the Detroit scene. But people have lately been paying attention to it. A German label called Pulstar recently put out The Clix Records Story, which I found on offer for a tenner at nohitrecords.co.uk/ – half the Amazon price. As it happens, biggest hit in the Clix Records Story was probably Ray Taylor’s Hamtranck Baby – http://tinyurl.com/c5cdw6n – referring to a suburb with a strong German presence.
The University of Michigan Press is preparing to publish, autumn 2013, a book called Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies , by Craig Maki and Keith Jason Cady, who run a website at http://carcitycountry.com/
They recorded the death of Cranford Nix in October 2012, a month before his 80th birthday.
He was born in Georgia in 1932, they tell us, and was already playing banjo professionally when he moved to Detroit to work for Chrysler, at 17.
He joined the airforce in 1953, for four years, and played with “airforce buddies including Harold Jenkins, later known as Conway Twitty” then rejoined Chrysler and the Detroit bluegrass scene.
He recorded a track with the Supremes at Motown – Rock And Roll Banjo Band – and did quite a lot more as a backing man. But the only examples I can find of him taking the lead are the two tracks he wrote and recorded (and played guitar on) for his first single for Clix, in 1959.
Nine Times Out Of Ten is a wonderfully laconic shrug at “the way she goes” (meaning Life) – http://tinyurl.com/ch9y5ha/
The other side, equally good, is Ain’t No Sign I Wouldn’t If I Could – http://tinyurl.com/bncglum/
Ford Nix left grandchildren but sadly was pre-deceased by his son, also Cranford Nix, and also a talented musician before he died of drug abuse at 33. Check him out too.