The Birth, the Death, the Ghost
This year's Hootenanny is rockabilly under glass—my grandma's dried-out baked chicken, if you will, making with the death rattle on a real purty standup bass. What sticks in my craw—as it should in yours—is the Children of the Hootenanny, the bands that got started about 10 years ago when they heard the Cramps, Big Sandy, X, the Blasters. Somehow, the genius of Luther Perkins' boom-chicka-boom delivery in Johnny Cash's Tennessee Two, the inspired savagery of Jerry Lee Lewis, the slow burn of people like Johnny Guitar Watson and Lloyd Glenn, and the unmitigated swampiness of obscure little gem groups like Cookie & The Cupcakes has mostly skipped a generation. Real old stuff continues to die: bowling alleys are gone (Kona Lanes and sister Java Lanes), honky-tonks are going out with bulldozers (most recently, the Foothill Club in Signal Hill) and now rockabilly's on life support, too.
Maybe that's because the generation before actually listened to their elders rockin' out, beatin' on cowbells or half-broken amps or whatnot. That's what made the Cramps and bands like 'em so great—they didn't just photocopy garage rock or surf music. They had record collections you could have built houses out of, enough thrift-store-salvaged artifacts to fill a museum—they were scum, yeah, but they were archaeologists and scholars, too. They took backwoods juvenile-delinquent rock & roll and made it their own—updating it with vinyl suits, extra fuzztone and sticking the mic down one's pants. Also, climbing the speaker towers.
And the Blasters did the same with blues, zydeco and rockabilly—covering Tarheel Slim's "No. 9 Train," but also writing their own classics like "Long White Cadillac" and "Trouble Bound." Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys excavated the likes of Bob Wills and Hank Thompson, with a little bit of Hank Williams and Thee Midniters for seasoning. Even their own record producer, Dave Alvin, admitted they were stuck in 1948—but at least it wasn't 1998.
See, you can only copy something once—and only if you're working from an original. Interpretations of interpretations just don't cut it, and that's what's so worrisome about all the little opening bands at this year's Hoot. What's their shtick? So far, it's just picking up the style where the Knitters, Social D and the Reverend Horton Heat left off; they're the Save Ferrises and Cherry Poppin' Daddies of their day. They've never heard of Bear Family Records.
The Hootenanny lineup isn't killing rockabilly, but it's not pulling the plug, either. And that's their right. Every headlining band this year has contributed something great to American music. But they've been headlining bands for a long, long time, and to whom will they sign over their power of attorney when the time comes? The Millionaires, the Hillbilly Soul Surfers, the embarrassingly cartoonish Horrorpops? Let's hope it's Calavera. And let's hope that somebody understands that picking up where their heroes left off isn't as admirable as beating them at their own game.
That 10-year anniversary, original-lineup idea is nice—but it's also a troublesome point on an evolutionary scale. The good bands stayed good, and the bad bands? Well, they didn't get any better. That standup bass is the soundtrack to a genre eating itself and a bunch of old dudes laughing all the way to the bank—or maybe to the greatest-hits-CD release party. Next year, what do we have to look forward to? Pork chops on Tuesday nights, spaghetti on Thursdays, Hootenanny on July Fourth weekend—well, maybe techno's not so bad.
Yes, yes, it is. Well, unless you're just looking for something to fall asleep to.
The Cramps headline the Hootenanny at Oak Canyon Ranch, 5305 Santiago Canyon Rd., Irvine; www.thehootenanny.com. Sat., 11 a.m. $25-$50. 21+.
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