A show at the zoo can’t cage them in.
There was a time when there was no such thing as rockabilly. No I don’t mean before the genre began but before it was named. Sun Records artists like Carl Perkins were only later tagged rockabilly but early on were just considered rock and roll. This was merely part of rock and roll’s evolution, branching out from jump and jive bands like Louis Jordan and His Orchestra in the 1940s and diverging from the doo wop corners of 1950s’ Bronx, Philadelphia and Newark.
Similarly, Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys are rock and roll with elements of rockabilly, boogie woogie, western swing, traditional country and fine vocal arrangements.
On the road with the Boys, Big Sandy is touring the latest release Turntable Matinee. Thanks to his longtime friend Amanda Cardona (who helped formulate questions) we were able to catch up.
You’re often called “rockabilly” but to me you’re more a straight up rock and roll band. All the old Sun Records artists and outfits like the Blue Caps were then considered rock and roll but have over time sort of inherited a rockabilly /country tag because of their cracker roots and twangy sound. Do you get flak from self-titled traditionalists who want to impose boundaries on your style and disregard anything musically since, say, 1958?
Yeah, over the years, the word “rockabilly” has grown to become a blanket term that covers so many older styles of music. In my mind, Rockabilly is a very specific genre - a very rural sound with an over-all acoustic feel. It’s a sound that I love with a passion and that we incorporate into our music - but are not limited to, nor by.
We don’t really get much flak from the traditional rockabilly set... or, at least it doesn’t get back to us, anyway! There was a time, though, when there were self-imposed musical boundaries; a short period of time in our early days when we, as a band, restricted ourselves to what we thought fans expected to hear from us. Over the years, we’ve come to be more comfortable with playing whatever moves us. It’s an approach that seems so obvious to me now... but it took a few years for me to realize that this was the best way to go.
You formed the band over twenty years ago. How do you keep it fresh not only for your audience but for yourselves?
Since we’ve started opening things up musically and playing any sound or style that moves us, “keeping things fresh” has become a natural byproduct. We are currently finishing up a new album, and in the studio, no idea is being discounted or ruled out. That keeps it exciting for us... and will hopefully result in a more interesting selection of songs.
For live performances, I prefer to work without a set list... I just call out songs based on how I’m feeling, or in response to the feeling I’m getting from the audience. This keeps it fresh for me and, I think, makes for a better show.
Did you come from a musical family? What was your first instrument and at what age?
Growing up, there were no musicians in my immediate family, but music played a huge role in our lives. My parents were, and are, music lovers and record collectors .... and that passion carried over to me and my siblings. I’m told that my grandfather was an accomplished guitarist and vocalist, but I never had the pleasure of knowing him.
I played drums in my junior-high marching band, but my first real instrument of my own was a guitar that I got for free when my mother signed me up for guitar lessons at a local music store. I was 18 years old and had been messing around with a neighbor friend’s guitar for a few years by that point. When I was 13 or so, I used to go door to door in my neighborhood with an older friend - an ex-con named Archie - and played music for pocket change. He played guitar, and I sang Elvis and Conway Twitty songs.
Do you recall the first record you owned that was your choice and not just one for kids?
I grew up in a house full of records, but the first one that was my very own was a cardboard Monkee’s record that came on the back of a Honey Combs cereal box. The songs were 1. I'm A Believer 2. Pleasant Valley Sunday 3. I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone 4. Mary, Mary
The first record that I actually went out and bought with my own money was a Jackson 5 Greatest Hits LP - in 1971
Besides Los Straitjackets, what other bands and musical projects have you been involved with?
Touring and recording with LosStraitjackets is my main musical side-project, but I do find myself involved with a few other things. This summer, I’ll be flying to Italy to play a festival (Summer Jamboree) where I’ll be performing an R&B/Jump Blues set with an Italian Swing combo, as well as MCing the 2 week long event. I find myself being asked to MC more and more music festivals as the years go by. Once in a while, I’ll get together with a group of musician friends and perform a set of Doo-Wop and L.A. R&B.
How big a part does using vintage equipment play in achieving your sound? Would it change if you didn’t have it? How the hell do you keep your clothes looking sharp when you’re on the road?
Our instruments play an important role in creating our sound, but we aren’t limited to vintage equipment. I think it’s more important to find a guitar, amp, drum kit - whatever it may be - that sounds right to us. Many times, that ends up meaning using something old.... but there are some pretty good reissue instruments coming out these days. In some ways, that is the best of both worlds. You end up with something that looks cool (to us, anyway), sounds great, and that you don’t have to worry so much about taking out on the road. That being said.... we do have a special place in our hearts for vintage gear.
Years ago, you used to play Albuquerque quite a bit. What made that change? Was it your reception or booking or..?
I’m not sure why it’s been so long since we’ve played your fair city. It seems that booking agents and promoters tend to fall into certain patterns. Once a band - or city - falls out of rotation for whatever reason, it can be tricky to get back in that loop. Maybe our appearance at the zoo (or this article!) might somehow lead to a club date in the not too distant future!
You’re working on a new album. Anything you’d care to say about it?
For our new album, we’re reaching back into our song catalogue (with tracks from each of our many albums) and recording newly arranged acoustic versions. We’ve been trying to find songs of ours that have perhaps been overlooked, and reworking them in a way that brings more focus to the lyrics and the structure of the songs. It’s been a lot of fun for us turning some of these songs inside out and finding something new in them.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Looking forward to the show and seeing the monkey’s!!!
BIG SANDY & HIS FLY-RITE BOYS
Friday July 8
Albuquerque BioPark Zoo
903 Tenth Street SW
doors 6pm,; show 730pm
$10 adults; $5 seniors 65+; $3 children 3-12; free under 3