It's easy to scoff at the rockabilly scene. For starters, the guys sport pompadours and women favor polka-dot halter dresses. Dudes drive cars with big fins and flames painted on the side. Mostly, rockabilly bands ape sounds that were popular a half-century ago. No matter, say the believers. It's a lifestyle, one that many adults take very seriously, even if it makes them look like they're rehearsing for a part in More American Graffiti, Grease 3 or a fresh run of Happy Days.
This past Saturday at Skipper's Smokehouse, there was plenty of pomade in the air. Engine exhaust, too. Tampa's funkiest outdoor music venue was the setting for WMNF's fourth annual Rockabilly Ruckus. Rockin', dancin' and hot-roddin' were on the menu. Not even the near-freezing temperatures could dissuade the diehards — or the clusters of casual rockabilly fans sans uniform — that arrived to take a ride back in time.
Yes, it was chilly, even with the space heaters and tight-fit crowd. But headliner Big Sandy was wiping sweat from his brow 15 minutes into a set that kicked off around 10 p.m. He is a rotund man with a rich voice that sets him apart from the nasally/gruff singers that typify the modern rockabilly/psychobilly set.
The frontman and his three Fly-Rite Boys won the crowd over with thumping, plucked bass lines; hot, twangy electric guitar licks; quick, pulsating drumming and smoothly delivered, upbeat lyrics.
"I've done the hoochie coochie with mama Lucie," bellowed Big Sandy across a rousing backbeat. The big fella understood his audience; he and the Fly-Rite Boys left most of their country and Western swing material on the shelf and hewed closely to rockabilly.
A few feet from the stage, a cool rockin' daddy wearing horn-rimmed glasses itched to bust a move. His toes tapped as he snapped his fingers in time. My old high school buddy Nellie, a Skipper's regular, did him the favor of clearing a section of the wooden dancefloor. The guy grabbed his girl — a redhead with a brown Betty dress clinging to her body and a rose in her hair. The two wasted no time in displaying their swing moves, straight out of a sock hop. I chatted with a former dance instructor, who pointed out that they were young, rather inexperienced practitioners of East Coast Swing.
I know nothing about swing dancing. The couple looked happy and the crowd appreciated the added entertainment — especially when a brunette with cherry red lipstick and a matching kerchief in her hair joined the action.
"She's so fine I'm about to fall down," Nellie declared, rather loudly. He'd been at the event knocking back beers since it started around 4 p.m. My man's filter was gone.
A lot of the males in the crowd echoed his sentiment. Everyone from the burly dude with the Confederate patch on his biker jacket to the geeky Buddy Holly look-alike glued their eyes to her. She wore skin-tight, Capri-length jeans and a form-fitting black blouse with a thick red belt that came up around her belly. This woman was impervious to the cold. Her dance moves and giant smile even caught the attention of Big Sandy.
"This is a beautiful thing," he said from the stage, just seconds after thanking the dancers.
A Buck Owens cover followed. I love Buck Owens, and the band did a nice version of his 1964 hit "I Don't Care (Just as Long as You Love Me)." A quartet of 40ish-looking women sang along and stomped their feet. More couples started swinging each other around to the rhythms coming from the stage.
Everyone in the joint looked lost in the moment. I waded through a pile of spent Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, took a seat on a plastic chair, and grinned.