The rockabilly revival act: Memphians know such bands all too well. They fill bars from Beale to Bartlett, slicking back their hair, flipping their collars, rehearsing their hiccups, and climbing their upright basses. As a fan of classic rockabilly, I can sympathize. But too often, revivalists hit the stylistic touchstones and remain content to simply stay there. (Indeed, this plagued the genre from the beginning, when industry giants tried to profit from the haunted sounds first discovered by indie labels.)
Nevertheless, there are still those whose love of rockabilly pushes them to go beyond the gestures and capture the unhinged spirit of the originals. Which brings us to Bloodshot Bill.
A self-described "Trinitalian" (half Italian, half Trinidadian) from Montreal, Bloodshot Bill began playing one-man shows in the late 1990s. Like the Gories' Mick Collins, Bloodshot Bill first played drums as a youth, bringing that percussive approach when he switched to guitar in his twenties. At the time, he had no particular focus on rockabilly per se. "My holy trinity is Charlie Feathers, Hasil Adkins, and Link Wray, but I kinda got into that stuff later," he says. "At first, I was influenced by old country music and early rock-and-roll stuff. It wasn't until I started playing that people started telling me, 'Hey, you sound like this guy.' I didn't know who Hasil Adkins was, so I checked him out and obviously I had to buy every record after that."
Comparisons to wildman Adkins are apt, given Bloodshot Bill's penchant for lo-fi recordings and the immediate gratifications of big beat minimalism. But bear in mind the first name in his trinity: Charlie Feathers. The unbridled, manic playfulness in Feathers' singing lives on in Bill's voice, with just a touch of Conway Twitty's trademark moan. In a video for Seattle station KEXP, VJ Mike Fuller notes, "It sounds like you've stomped on the microphone a couple of times and gargled some broken glass," but that's only half of it. Bill's vocalizations range from such growls to heartfelt croons and falsettos. A reediness in his delivery resonates perfectly with the slapback echo he favors. Ultimately, his singing evokes nothing so much as the cackles, barks, and howls of coyotes at midnight.
And let's not forget Link Wray, the capstone of Bill's trinity. Like Wray, Bill channels a gritty, grungy virtuosity on his Kay Galaxy electric. It's the sound of someone stretching their abilities in the heat of the moment. Put it all together in the package of his tight, punchy songwriting, and you can imagine Bloodshot Bill thriving in any setting, from solo artist to band leader.
Acknowledging that his approach is hard to define, he admits his songs confound the purism so often found among rockabilly aficionados. "I know they might sound weird to a total Nazi-billy kind a guy, you know what I mean?"
Casting such rigidity aside, even to the point of performing in his pajamas at times, he notes that "sometimes there is a bit of a formula, but then there are people out there doing stuff that's exciting, where it's not like a museum piece." In fact, he mostly lives in a world of such performers. "I've never seen a rockabilly band in Memphis. I'm usually thrown in with the garage bands there." And yet he'll freely extend a hand to any fan of the genre. "I don't know if it's because I'm really into rockabilly, but I notice people seem to pick on it a lot more than they do other stuff."
This open-hearted approach will serve him well when he arrives in Memphis this week with a host of other roots country and rockabilly diehards, all making the pilgrimage to the Ameripolitan Music Awards. Traditionally held in Austin, the award show, brainchild of the roots country visionary Dale Watson, has relocated to Memphis along with Watson, himself.
Bloodshot Bill feels right at home with the Ameripolitan aesthetic. "The mission is cool," he says. "It's saluting people who are trying to keep the old music alive and have not ventured out into 'bro country' or whatever you call it. It's my third year being nominated. They said, 'We'd like you to come down and play for us in Memphis,' and I said 'Memphis? Hell yeah!' Memphis is my favorite city. All the great music that was there, all the characters. Nowadays, it's different of course, but it still has a bit of that untouched feeling to it."
Bloodshot Bill plays Murphy's on Saturday, February 10th, with opener Shawn Cripps. 9:00 pm.
He will make a free in-store appearance at Goner Records on Monday, Feb. 12th, 6:00 pm.
The Ameripolitan Music Awards will include a hot rod pre-party at Loflin Yard on Friday, February 9th, a Honky Tonk and Western Swing showcase on February 10th and an Outlaw and Rockabilly showcase (including Bloodshot Bill) on February 11th, both at the Guesthouse at Graceland.