Music News

Rockabilly of Ages

In 1958, Ronnie Dawson, a nineteen-year-old Dallas native, cut "Rockin' Bones," a wildcat anthem about boogying beyond the grave whose refrain boasted, "There's still a lot of rhythm in these rockin' bones." Almost forty years later, Dawson has reached an age when most of his peers are rocking in chairs, not on stage. But his bones haven't let him down yet--and a growing legion of fans thrilled by his blend of furious rockabilly and frenzied country hope they never do.

The role played by "Bones" in his vibrant career strikes Dawson as extremely appropriate. "It is ironic, isn't it?" he says, his drawl oozing Texas like a peach oozes juice. "And I understand that. I've lived those lyrics, man. What goes around comes around. And I mean, boy, you've got a perfect example of that here."

Nonetheless, Dawson is quick to point out that his commercial renaissance, symbolized by a growing discography, a new record deal and a busy touring schedule that includes approximately 150 concerts per annum, can hardly be described as a return from the dead. "Everybody says this is a comeback, but it's really not. I had no hit records back then. I had a little attention, but nothing like now. But just about everywhere we go now, we have crowds waiting on us. It's really neat."

Twangsters are flocking to Dawson in part because his music hasn't lost a step in the four decades that he's been playing it. Quite the contrary: His sonic approach packs a joyous, spontaneous punch capable of leveling the slick, manufactured efforts of many younger rockabilly competitors. "A friend of mine called it 'R&R--real and raw,'" Dawson notes. "That's what it is, man. There's not any frills to it. And that's the way I think this music ought to be done. You know, there's not much musically that you can stretch with this. It's three chords and it's feeling--and I think the only place that you can vary it is with the feel." How should the music make a listener react? "Well, it's got to turn you inside out."

Just Rockin' & Rollin', Dawson's inaugural effort for the Upstart imprint, does just that. The scintillating disc features sixteen blasting-cap rockers, hillbilly humdingers and hip-shaking raveups loaded with soul, grit and fire. It was cut live in England's Toe Rag studio using typically real and raw techniques. For instance, the handclaps and cheers that can be heard on Dawson's rollicking version of the Bill Haley-like title tune were provided by revelers shanghaied from the sidewalks of London. "We went out and got several people off the street to come in there," he reveals. "I said, 'Y'all come on in. Y'all want to be on a record?' It was at Christmastime, and everybody was in a festive mood, so we got about eight people to come in, and we jammed them all in the studio. It was wonderful."

Dawson traces his musical obsession to his father, who fronted a Dallas fiddle band, Pinkie Dawson and the Manhattan Merrymakers, during the Forties. The group, which also hosted a radio show for a time, was a great inspiration to young Ronnie, who was raised in the Texas town of Waxahachie. "I always really knew what I was going to do, even when I was five or six," he says. "When I heard my dad play the first time, it was all over. And certainly by the time I was twelve or so, I knew. I was doing things like taking vocational agriculture and thinking about farming, but deep down I knew that was it."

As a kid, Dawson was a quiet sort who mastered the mandolin and the guitar in the privacy of his room. "I knew I could play, but I wouldn't play in front of anybody," he recalls. "I'd play in church, but that wasn't quite the same thing." But the chance to perform a pair of early Elvis Presley numbers in a local teen-talent contest changed all that: "I wasn't very reclusive anymore. After Elvis hit the bigtime, anybody who could play a guitar, man, was hot stuff. It wasn't hillbilly anymore. It was a different thing."

During his late teens and early twenties, Dawson, who became known as the "Blonde Bomber," achieved modest regional success thanks to "Rockin' Bones" and another single, "Action Packed." But the experience of touring the Southwest as the opening act for soon-to-be-legends like Presley and Gene Vincent didn't last. When the popularity of Fifties rock waned, he returned to the Lone Star state and took day jobs and did advertising voiceovers that kept him going between local gigs. He also made occasional attempts to crack the Nashville music scene--but it wasn't until the Cramps covered "Bones" that he was discovered by a new generation of pompadoured music lovers. The enthusiasm of ducktailed U.K. music fiends led to the release of a collection of Dawson's early work and a subsequent tour of Great Britain.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marty Jones