Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing feature where I discuss country music’s biggest crossover hits.
As previously mentioned, we’re in the rockabilly era of ‘Pop Goes The Country.’ Thus far, while we’ve discussed how certain country singers like Sonny James and Marty Robbins adapted nicely to this new trend, we’re now going to look at things from the other perspective.
And to do that, we need to bring the focus back once again to Elvis Presley. This discussion is timely too, as while country music had become a standard soundtrack for southern homes, that ended with the onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll. All of a sudden, artists like Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and the focus of today’s piece, Carl Perkins, were regarded as country music acts. And so the story goes – these artists all make a splash, and country record promoters begin to demand that trade magazines get the young rock ‘n’ rollers off the country charts before they destroy country music. By the end of 1961, all of the aforementioned artists were gone from the country charts. It’s a familiar tale, isn’t it?
And there’s two sides to that argument. On one hand, it was a terrible commercial mistake. Many southern kids didn’t find they could connect with anything in country music anymore, and when they left, so did a lot of record sales. In 1961, there were only 81 full-time country radio stations across America. In other words, country music as a commercial genre nearly died.
On the other hand, had the industry not fought the rock ‘n’ rollers, country might have lost its identity and succumbed to rock ‘n’ roll, thus ending country music anyway.
Yet that’s also looking at the situation in hindsight. In the context of the ’50s, the categories and labels were admittedly confusing. Rock ‘n’ roll had begun as the selling of black music to white teenagers, yet certain white rock ‘n’ roll artists (like Bill Haley) had certain country elements to their sound. Even Presley was a budding country star before “Heartbreak Hotel” said otherwise.
Beyond that, when looking directly at country music, Hank Williams certainly infused elements of early rock ‘n’ roll and blues into his music. Yet rockabilly was simpler stuff – three-and-four-chord melodies devoid of the Tin Pan Alley polish of the time. It sounded refreshing for Nashville in a time when the industry was still mourning the loss of the aforementioned Williams. Even as country music was “dying,” it was during this time frame where the crossover hits were happening more rapidly than ever before.
Enter the aforementioned Perkins, a name that’s admittedly overshadowed by the other aforementioned heavy-hitters when discussing this era. As mentioned before, rock ‘n’ roll was about selling black music to white audiences, so it’s no surprise that Perkins absorbed both hillbilly music and the blues he heard from black sharecroppers during his childhood. Perkins first approached Sun Records in October 1954, a record label that’s worth its own discussion in a future volume of this series. While he had some modest success with releases like “Movie Magg,” it was “Blue Suede Shoes” that put him on the map.
The song itself is tied up in myth. According to urban legends, Johnny Cash gifted Perkins with the idea for the song after a show in 1955. Cash said he had a friend, CV White, who he’d served with in the U.S. Army. During this discussion, Cash said his friend took particular pride in his footwear during three-day leave. Despite being regulation black, White said, “Tonight they’re blue suede. Don’t step on ’em!” Perkins, on the other hand, claims that he shrugged off Cash’s suggestion and instead, conceived the song later.
As for what really happened, Perkins’ drummer, WS ‘Fluke’ Holland said, “In 1955, we were all on the same booking agency, so the Cash and Perkins bands became really close buddies on tour. This particular time we were driving John’s green fifty-three Plymouth in Arkansas, with Carl and John in the back. He propped his leg up on the back of the front seat and said, ‘Carl, we oughta write a song about some shoes.’ A little bit further on he went, ‘Why don’t we write about some blue suede shoes?’ ”
Released on New Year’s Day 1956, the single reached a peak position of No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 by March, kept at bay by Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” The song became Sun Records’ first million-selling single. Perkins just might have been bigger than Presley in the long run.
But as fate and tragedy would have it, while driving to New York to accept a gold record for the song on network television, Perkins was almost killed in an auto crash. His brother, Jay, broke his neck and sustained internal injuries, dying two years later of a brain tumor. While recovering in the hospital, Perkins received a note from Presley stating his belief that Perkins, not Presley, might have become rock’s superstar if not for that accident. Presley’s version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” on the other hand, went on to become a massive hit.
Distraught, Perkins turned to alcohol to ease his pain. In 1965, Cash, who had shared similar drug and alcohol-related problems, invited Perkins to become part of his stage show. Perkins remained until 1976 and made frequent appearances on Cash’s network television program.
Despite never recapturing the glory of that big hit single, Perkins still overcame numerous personal trials and tribulations to perform again. He continued to record into the 1990s, having been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’ll discuss Sun Records and the crazy saga of Jerry Lee Lewis not once, but twice.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding Perkins’ life was taken from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall and The Encyclopedia of Country Music, with Perkins’ biography written by Jimmy Guterman.
- Information regarding the rockabilly movement was taken from the book, How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A. by Micheal Kosser, with a special focus on the chapter, “When Country Music Almost Died.”
- Information regarding the song itself was taken from “The Stories Behind The Songs: Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes” from Louder Magazine, written by Rob Hughes.