Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Greatest song of all time of the week: Carl Perkins, "Dixie Fried"

Carl Perkins's gracious, quavering tenor carried 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 few decades ago. "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 was Gene Vincent's leer and Eddie Cochran's shake without regard for the honky-tonk imperatives behind them. Setzer's Stray Cats, eventually reduced to beer commercials, could 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'n'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.

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