Nearly 50 years on, Ronnie Dawson and Sleepy LaBeef are still bopping the blues. Veterans of rockabilly’s original era, the two road warriors proved themselves again Thursday night (April 5) when they anchored “Rockin’ at the Ryman,” a concert celebrating the energetic genre in Nashville.
More than a dozen young and old acts reeled and rocked for four hours to raise funds and awareness for the Rockabilly Foundation, a new organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the early rock ’n’ roll style.
While parts of the concert unraveled into a nostalgic "oldies" show — most notably Jerry Naylor’s tribute to Buddy Holly — Dawson and LaBeef proved to be viable keepers of the flame.
Strangely unchanged by the years, Dawson, “The Blonde Bomber,” delivered four blazing songs with guitarist Eddie Angel, drummer Lisa Pankratz and bassist Kevin Smith in tow. “There’s still a lot of rhythm in these rockin’ bones," the 62-year-old Texas guitar slinger testified in “Rockin’ Bones.” His recording of the song from the ’50s has become a holy relic to rockabilly collectors. Dawson left no doubt that the lyric still rings true.
LaBeef, whose vast repertoire has earned him the nickname “The Human Jukebox,”delivered a medley of ’50s classics with his booming voice and stinging guitar. His set included “Big Boss Man," “Mystery Train’and “Too Much Monkey Business.” He also pulled “Boogie Woogie Country Girl’ out of his song bag. LaBeef recorded the tune for seminal rockabilly label Sun Records.
Brenda Lee , “Little Miss Dynamite,” received the Rockabilly Music Foundation’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Crystal Gayle and emcee Wink Martindale. They called attention to Lee’s pioneering work in rockabilly music and referred to her as “one of the great ladies of American song.”
“I cut my first rockabilly record when I was about 11, and little did I know what rock ’n’ roll explosion was about to take place,” Lee said in her acceptance speech. “Little did I know how much this music would endure. The reason it has is because it’s so full of fun and joy. I think we’re missing that in today’s music.” Lee did not perform.
Hot newcomer Eric Heatherly , who scored a Top 10 hit last year with a cover of the Statler Brothers ’ “Flowers on the Wall,” acknowledged Lee and others on the bill as major influences. “They laid the foundation," he said during his four-song set, “I’m just trying to paint the house.”
The bill also included Rosie Flores, Billy Burnette, Jack Scott, Sanford Clark, Eric Todd, The Dempseys, R.G. Darnell and a Gene Vincent tribute band featuring Elvis Presley ’s first drummer, D.J. Fontana.
A number of stellar musicians were on hand to provide back-up including Boots Randolph, Kenny Lovelace, W. S. Holland, Bob Moore, Buddy Harman, Dave Roe, Thom Bresh, David Briggs, Kenny Vaughan, Gail Davies and members of the Jordanaires. Scheduled performer Janis Martin did not show.