by Chris Davis
According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, rockabilly — “a style of rock 'n' roll mixed with rowdy country music” — is making “an encore performance.” In less garbled terms, Gov. Mike Beebe signed legislation transforming the stretch of U.S. 67 from Newport to Pocahontas into "Rock 'N' Roll Highway 67.” The road, which sounds like it might have been named by a Japanese tourist was actually named by State Representative J.R. Rogers, and honors Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins,” and scores of other guitar-slinging greasers who played the Arkansas roadhouse circuit in the 1950's.
Rogers told the Democrat-Gazette that he wanted to call 67 the "Rock 'N' Roll" highway instead of the "Rockabilly" highway because, “Arkansas people didn't want to be put into a group with hillbillies.” Apparently he didn't mind Arkansas people being put into a group of people who spell Rock and Roll with a big silly N'.
True enough,the term rockabilly was coined after the fact and many of the original artists are uneasy with the word. When Elvis and his Sun Studio compatriots were burning rubber on 67, rock and roll was widely considered to be a souped-up form of “hillbilly music” in the blues and gospel traditions established by Jimmie Rodgers in the '20s, kissed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in the '40s, and whittled to lonesome perfection on August 11, 1952, the day Hank Williams was fired from the Grand Ol' Opry.
Hillbilly music began its transformation into "country music" after WWII, as honky tonk music began to reflect a clash of rural and urban sensibilities. But the twangy sounds from way down south and way out west weren't universally referred to as country music until they were fully urbanized with Nashville's countrypolitan sound in the 1960's.
Still, Rogers' reason for wanting to avoid any association of hillbillies with Arkansas is pretty unassailable. "We have enough of that," he told the Gazette. "I didn't want that."
Pictured: Arkansas native Billy Lee Riley