Rockabilly, a high-energy fusion of bluegrass and Western swing, is a style that rings truest in its most basic form, especially when performed by someone who helped create it. Dallas native Ronnie Dawson is one of those someones: he's been playing rockabilly since it was the pop music of the day, and his career underlines the purity of a pop music that can become classic without undergoing any fundamental changes.
It's impossible to guess what level of stardom Dawson might have attained if it hadn't been for the controversy that erupted over the shenanigans of some of the industry's most important producers and promoters in the late '50s, a.k.a. the payola scandals. His frenzied, high-energy style had given him the reputation of a young, guitar-playing Jerry Lee Lewis when he was still a teenager; like Lewis, Dawson had come from a background where both fundamental religion and secular music played important roles. With techniques learned from his father's job as leader of a Western swing band that performed daily on a Dallas radio station, the fervent emotionalism picked up in attending Pentecostal church services with his mother and the blond crewcut that is still Dawson's trademark, the Blond Bomber -- an offhand moniker, created by a talent-show DJ, that stuck like gum -- seemed poised for stardom. His 45s on Dallas' Backbeat label sold well in Texas; one of them, "Rockin' Bones," created a stir that made it a cult classic and drew the attention of Dick Clark. In the heady days before the payola scandal broke, being noticed by Clark -- and appearing on American Bandstand, and being signed to Clark's Swan Records -- would have been enough to make a career. But in the controversy over how much power the industry's starmakers should have, which erupted soon after Dawson began recording for Swan, the certainties of fame and fortune evaporated.
So instead of becoming a star, Dawson embarked on what would become years as a journeyman musician. As the cyclical nature of trends in music progressed, Dawson's early rockabilly recordings became collectors items, and the success of the Stray Cats led to intense interest in earlier rockabilly acts, especially in England. No Hit Records, a British archival label, released a compilation of Dawson's teenage singles, which led to several enthusiastically received concert dates in the U.K. More publicity followed when the Cramps, of all people, recorded a cover of "Rockin' Bones." And while the popularity of groups such as Southern Culture on the Skids and the Reverend Horton Heat solidified the status of rockabilly as a cornerstone of modern music, the word continued to spread that one of the hottest, most frenzied practitioners of the art was one of its original performers.
Dawson's recently released Just Rockin' and Rollin' CD is rockabilly at its finest -- as subtle as an unmuffled V-8, with absolutely no pretense of being anything but an energetic, impossible-to-ignore invitation to shake some serious ass on the dance floor. It's the kind of music Dawson has made from Dallas teen talent shows to Carnegie Hall; it's music that has become classic without losing an iota of its eternal emotional appeal.
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Ronnie Dawson performs at 11 p.m. Saturday, August 24, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. The Roebucks open. For info, call 869-COOL.
Kelly Willis -- A blond, doe-eyed beauty blessed with the vulnerable wiles of a mobile-home-park Venus, a disregard for stylistic restraints and a well-heeled and diverse circle of musician friends, Kelly Willis is the perfect Texas heartbreaker. Her brittle-edged, roadhouse inclinations and lilting Patsy Cline-isms seem a perfect fit with her present home of Austin, where she's lived (with some Hollywood sidetracks) since 1987, when she arrived from Virginia. Willis has had bit parts in a few major movies, including an on-camera singing gig with Tim Robbins in 1992's Bob Roberts. She even starred with Dwight Yoakam in the short-lived TV series P.S. I Love You. A pair of Willis' tunes were included on the Thelma and Louise soundtrack, and another soundtrack, of Winona Ryder's Boys, has "Fading Fast," the latest example of her heady, confessional style. But not all stars are best on the silver screen; Willis is most captivating in person. Her sincerity will win you over. At McGonigel's Muck Duck, 2425 Norfolk at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, August 24. Tickets are $15. 528-5999. (Hobart Rowland)
Wagon -- Mixing acoustic and electric instruments takes more than a whim to work. And when those instruments include mandola, Hammond organ, lap steel and dulcimer as well as the usual assortment of guitars, strings and drums, the line between harmony and discord is especially fine. Wagon's combinations not only succeed, they're absorbed by your ear like water by a sponge. With startling instrumental skill, throwback two-part harmonies and gripping songs that defy lyrical straitjackets, Wagon is claiming a new slab of turf on the American folk-rock landscape. The five wheels of this Wagon, touring behind their superior debut release, No Kinder Room, will open for Joe Ely. Bypassing this opener would be a big mistake. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 9 p.m., Saturday, August 24. Tickets are $15 and $27.50. 869-TICS. (Bob Burtman