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Movie Review: Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly

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The opening to this film is morbidly ironic. During the 1950s, and for years before, advertising was presented on the broad side of barns, and “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” was the undisputed leader along the highways and major roads of the 22 states nearest to West Virginia, where the company was located.

Another stalwart barnside advertiser is the one that opens The Women of Rockabilly, and that proliferated in the West: “For Weak Women – Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.”  The connection to rockabilly is obvious: To make it in the rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly era that was just beginning, weak women need not apply. The unstated subtext was that weak men need not apply, either. Rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly were seen as the NFL compared to sandlot tag football.

In Welcome to the Club, Beth Harrington has taken a period of time when rock ‘n’ roll was born, which in turn gave birth to rockabilly, and given viewers a brief history and an account of things as they happened, mainly concentrating on the women in this music’s infancy. 

The period of time covered was a period of marked, fast-paced and intense change in the music field.  Since Welcome to the Club is the story of the beginnings of rockabilly and concentrates on the women who made it happen, some of the content may not be familiar to some viewers, so I’ve used the information in the film to lay the groundwork for what’s below.  I’ve also added some reference material, information and websites to make it easier for unfamiliar viewers to absorb what’s presented in the film.  I hope I’ve succeeded.

The popular music scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s might today seem boring, which is what it seemed then to the generation just coming up.  Color television, stereo, and the multitude of electronic gadgets that run our lives today did not yet exist. FM radio was in its infancy. Party-line telephones were the norm in all but larger cities, if one could even afford a phone then. Big band was widely played on mainstream radio along with Perry Como and Guy Lombardo. Country stations proliferated in rural areas and on major stations across the South. But a new bunch was coming up, and it was a phenomenon that would take over the world to a large degree, and within a very short time.

The U.S. doesn’t hold past rockabilly musicians in the reverence that a large part of the rest of the world holds them. England especially has a huge following for American country and rockabilly music, crediting these musicians for breaking the radio barriers (which the gatekeepers of airplay dictated) and were the founders of these genres, as stars. They annually appear across England to consistently sold out shows.

Major radio stations of that era across the US began featuring prominent live music shows, and two of the original and most popular were the Grand Ole Opry, quickly followed by the WWVA Jamboree, both featuring country music.  Then suddenly and seemingly from out of nowhere, rock ‘n’ roll appeared. With the advent of early rock ‘n’ roll came the commingling of rock ‘n’ roll and country music, resulting shortly thereafter in rockabilly, which took off beginning in the mid-1950s.  Like rock ‘n’ roll, there was no name in existence for this type of music at the outset. But it didn’t take long for some enterprising musician to coin the word, and it was quickly picked up by radio stations across America.

[Author’s note: If any reader can shed light on the origin of the word ‘rockabilly,’ I’d appreciate hearing from you. Wikipedia and other reference websites I checked barely give it a mention on their rockabilly pages.]

Rockabilly borrowed from hillbilly boogiebluegrasscountryR&Bgospel, and it predated Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. The women of rockabilly were right alongside the men, but even before the invention of the word rockabilly, along came Charline Arthur, who began circa mid-1950s.  Janis Martin, a country singer in traveling show and another rockabilly trailblazer, copied Ruth Brown’s style in, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and became an instant hit.

Chet Atkins, who was one of first men to record rockabilly, called Martin while she was still in high school, just 15 years old, and wanted to record her.

The 1950s music scene was not just a different era; it could also have been a different planet. Wanda Jackson tells personal stories such as when a club owner told her piano player Big Al Downing that he couldn’t play (Jackson and the other members are white, Downing is black). Big Al didn’t want the rest of the band to share this humiliation so he began to leave. Wanda tells the club owner, “If he leaves, I leave.” The club owner relented, but Big Al still couldn’t use the men’s room at break time! In another significant episode, today’s Grand Ole Opry is but a shadow of its old self. The story of one of the women rockabilly musicians in the film is not to be missed when she tells the story of how she was not allowed bare shoulders. She had to cover them or she would not be allowed to perform.

The message developed by the listening public regarding the women’s reactions to episodes such as these was, “Bad girls do rockabilly.” And then women capitalized on that label, using it as a badge of honor, which seemed to propel them to the fore even quicker.

Rockabilly still thrives, although today in the US it’s like all the other older genres of music and proliferates in small pockets. For rockabilly music fans, I know of one radio station that airs a weekly three-hour rockabilly show. The station is in Milwaukee, and you can listen in via the Internet.  DJ Johnny Z hosts a show called the Chicken Shack on Friday from 9 a.m. to noon (Central).  (Readers, if you know of other radio or TV shows, please let other readers and me know about them.)

This same radio station hosts their annual Rockabilly Chili Contest in March. I recall their first, and today’s is much, much bigger and better, with over 50 different local eateries and groups vying for the prize of becoming Milwaukee’s best chili. There are prizes for meat and vegetarian, Best Table Presentation & Display, and Best Heat. It’s open to the public with ticket-buyers getting samples of four different recipes. More samples are allowed for a small charge.  Call the station and check before you go (414-277-7247), or be there early. Otherwise it may be sold out, as it consistently does. It’s a day of fun, food and music not to be missed. Be sure to listen to their theme song,”You Bring the Heat and I’ll Bring the Meat.”

Beth Harrington, the creator of Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, is currently hard at work making another film called The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music. It’s about the heritage of the Carter and Cash families to the music of today, and is currently in production.

One last note on The Women of Rockabilly.  Have you checked Amazon for a copy of this film? Check it out, and you’ll find only four copies of this film for sale. They’re all used and the least expensive copy goes for 80 bucks! Or you can go to Beth’s website and make a pledge of $50 toward completion of the film. By pledging to Beth’s film, you not only get a brand-new copy of The Women of Rockabilly, but you’ll also get a tax deduction! An unbeatable deal, plus you’re doing a good deed for a very worthy cause.  But hurry! She’s only allowed another week to raise the full $50,000 or she loses every pledge.

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About Lou Novacheck