Various Artists

The Hillbillies: They Tried to Rock, Vol. 1

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At times, the line between country and rock & roll was very thin indeed, but Bear Family's two-volume, 2014 set The Hillbillies: They Tried to Rock presents a familiar story from a different angle: it showcases country singers trying to combat the rising tide of rock & roll. Plenty of the early rock & rollers came up through some manner of country circuit -- the Sun stable in particular was riddled with these types -- but once Elvis Presley started a streak of monster hits in 1956, major country stars and upstart hillbillies alike tried to ride that wave. The Hillbillies: They Tried to Rock does have a few sides that date a bit earlier than 1956 -- there's Bill Haley's 1952 "Rock the Joint," a rough draft of "Rock Around the Clock" where guitarist Danny Cedrone plays the exact same solo he'd lay down on "Clock;" there are the Carlisles gamely attacking the Drifters' "Honey Love" -- but nearly all of this 31-track compilation dates from that initial gold rush when rock & roll seemed to be a fad, not an institution. Nobody -- not the singers, not the producers, not the labels -- had any idea whether rock & roll was here to stay but they knew it was selling, so they tried to cash in on the trend. Naturally, this crass blend of opportunism and confusion wasn't entirely successful, but that's the appeal of this collection and its cousin: the misfires are as fun as the successes. Case in point is the Stanley Brothers' strange rendition of Hank Ballard's "Finger Poppin' Time" -- the cover can be explained away by the fact that they were both on King Records -- which is simultaneously carefree and stilted; it's clear the duo doesn't particularly care for the song, but there's a joy to the recording anyway that comes from both the tune and performance. Usually, the covers feel a bit wobbly (Johnnie & Jack's stab at doo wop on "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" in particular), but they're overshadowed by such rowdy rockabilly boogies as George "Thumper" Jones' "How Come It," Johnny Horton's "I'm Coming Home," and "You're Humbuggin' Me," where Lefty Frizzell proves himself an adept rocker. There are other rough-cut gems tucked away on this compilation and they're worth seeking out, but it's not entirely improbable that a listener will find the duds just as memorable as the corkers.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:16
3 2:29
4 2:23
5 2:32
6 2:36
7 2:43
8 2:30
9 2:03
10 2:35
12 2:07
13 2:31
15 2:12
16 1:47
17 2:30
18 2:39
19 2:32
20 2:08
21 2:10
22 1:59
24 2:04
25 2:14
27 2:00
28 2:08
29 2:56
30 2:26
31 2:19
blue highlight denotes track pick