The Phantom Tollbooth

Jackson/Rubio's Rockabilly and Western Gospel Hymns
Artist:  Various
Label:  Jackson/Rubio Entertainment
Length:  16 tracks / 44:53 minutes

Rockabilly music, one of rock & roll's earliest strains, was brought forth in the mid-to-late '50s, when artists like Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Elvis and a host of others combined equal parts of rock, pop and country music to achieve the rockabilly sound.  Later, in the post-punk era of the late '70s and early '80s, rockabilly music experienced a revival of sorts under flagship groups like the Stray Cats and has alternately fallen into and out of prominence from that time to the present date.  As with most various artist tribute albums, the Rockabilly And Western Gospel Hymns release alternately hits and misses the mark in acknowledging its given slice of musical history.  Perhaps the main factor making this album so wildly inconsistent is its continual oscillation between energetic and heartfelt song renditions that commendably retain both the texture and culture of the rockabilly style, and cheeky, nearly parodied, versions of the represented songs. "Think Twice" by the Wednesdays and "Be Boppin Baby" by the Revelers are both fine songs faithfully constructed on the rockabilly stencil.  The former lays retro Elvislike vocals and the characteristic Bo Diddley beat over an energetic double-pumped drum attack.  And the latter is an equally impressive combination of sparse, well-placed guitar phrases, muted stand-up bass and authentic rockabilly lingo (every time I turn around/there's a new cat standing in my way/ ... well, she don't want no hip cat, greasy daddy/I pray some day she will), all of which give the song a delightfully subdued western swing feel.  On the other hand, the vocal delivery on Matt and Johnny Ray's version of "Amazing Grace," which purposely alternates between flat and sharp, ostensibly for satirical effect, does little except bring an otherwise passable song to a virtual standstill.  And the amateurish, near-cracking vocals on "I'll Fly Away" by Dave Heater and the Swing'n Doors are more off-putting than funny and only serve to highlight the song's lack of energy and distinctive instrumental work.

It seems a safe bet that at least a few of the cuts on the album will inevitably be compared, at least among country and gospel music purists, to their more famous cover version counterparts.  Uncle Tupelo's moving, country-tinged version of "No Depression" from their 1990 debut album, for example, stands much superior to the Burnside Cadilac compilation take on the classic Carter Family hymn, which lamentably whitewashes the song's beautifully melancholy essence with its overly energetic delivery.  And Ruby Joe's authentic sounding, but overly repetitive, rendition of the traditional African-American spiritual "Joshua Fit the Battle" grows fairly long in the tooth by the song's end and easily pales in comparison to, say, Elvis' more passionate and varied arrangement from his gospel magnum opus "His Hand in Mine." And even the delightfully perky "I Dreamed I Searched Heaven" by Thee Spivies, which stays exceptionally true to the original song's melody line while still capturing the group's unique power pop style and energy, is still no match for the late '50s country gospel rendering by Kitty Wells which is, at once, inescapably haunting and majestic.  Of course, the majority of the people who listen to this compilation will never have even heard the earlier versions of these hymns, and, indeed, most artists who try their hand at rockabilly music today would understandably come up short when compared to such formidable talents as Presley and Wells.

Still, in spite of its relative unevenness, the largely entertaining album certainly contains more fine songs than flawed ones and at least a few of the tunes in the lot are true gems.  To be sure, the minimalist guitar note placement, muted bassline and softly brushed percussion on Sons of Thunder's "Jesus You Are Worthy" infuse the song with a magnificently reverent feel, while the song's imposing vocal work is the perfect combination of earnestness and restraint. And the band's blistering fretwork, passionate delivery and razor-sharp harmonies each contribute to making "Saved! Saved! Saved!" not only an impressive entry into the neo-rockabilly swing catalog, but also a veritable template for great rock & roll music.  So, while the album isn't perfect from start to finish it certainly contains enough strong tracks to make it a worthwhile listen.  And even though it contains its fair share of weak and superfluous tracks, it nonetheless serves as a fine introduction to the history of both the gospel and western/rockabilly music genres, which is a commendable undertaking indeed.

Bert Gangl (8/20/99)

Jackson/Rubio Entertainment has taken sixteen of this country's favorite old hymns and put them onto one CD. That in itself is not unusual, but this particular compilation album's distinction is the rock-a-billy style of music it features by various artists, some of whom have come out of their comfort zone to record songs outside their usual genre.

What is rock-a-billy? The liner notes include a good description:

The album's song arrangements are creative and not at all the way one would sing them in most churches. The only instruments used on nearly all the tracks are guitar, drums and upright bass. In fact, on each song the sound coming from that large hunk of wood in the form of an upright bass is brought up in the mix adding to the overall rockin' feeling. Tracks such as Havalina Rail Co's version of "Train 13" and The Reveler's "Be Boppin Baby" feature neat guitar solos backing the lead vocalists. Other highlights include "Saved by Grace" performed by Sons of Thunder, Ruby Joe's takes on "Walk Dem Golden Stairs," and "Joshua Fit the Battle,"  and the Calicoe's interpretation of "Honky Tonk."

Sure to bring a smile to your face, there are also two bonus tracks, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" updated by Blaster the Rocketman, and Dave Heater and the Swing n Doors cover of "I'll Fly Away," which both recall the sound the band playing on a stage in the yard produced in the movie Sling Blade. If you haven't seen the movie, just envision someone playing a jug or a washboard sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of some Southern cottage.

Whether you already enjoy revisiting 50's rock-a-billy, or you are new to the genre, come with an open mind, a sense of humor and be ready to tap your feet and clap your hands. You may even want to put on your dancing shoes, grab a partner, and cut some serious rug. It's difficult to sit still while listening to this fun, rockin' album, where Jesus is honored on every track in pure rock-a-billy fashion!

  1. Thee Spivies - "I Dreamed I Searched Heaven"
  2.  Havalina Rail Co. - "Train 13"
  3.  Sons of Thunder - "Saved by Grace"
  4.  Ruby Joe - "Walk Dem Golden Stairs"
  5.  The Wednesdays - "Think Twice"
  6.  Burnside Cadillac- "No Depression"
  7.  The Calicoes - "Honky Tonk"
  8.  Matt and Johnny Ray - "Amazing Grace"
  9.  The Revelers - "Be Boppin Baby"
 10.  Ruby Joe - "Joshua Fit the Battle"
 11.  Mt. Ripley Dr. - Skull and Crossbones
 12.  Burnside Cadillac- "This Train" (listed in liner notes as "Farther Along")
 13.  Upside Down Room - "Show the Way"
 14.  Sons of Thunder - "Jesus You are Worthy"

 Special Bonus Import Tracks:
 15.  Blaster the Rocketman - "Just a Closer Walk With Thee"
 16.  Dave Heater and the Swing 'n Doors - "I'll Fly Away"

 Trish Patterson    (3/16/99)

$12 - for CD + 1.50 for postage = $13.50 + California residents add 8.25% for
tax Mail order to:

Jackson Rubio
Attn: Viki
PO Box 8609
Long Beach, CA 90808

Back during its heyday, original Rockabilly artists often incorporated Country and Western gospel hymns into their repertoire. In that spirit, Jackson/Rubio and their impressive rooster of new artists and friends have released an album jam packed with hymns played in everything from a retro-Rockabilly style to more updated Punkabilly. As anyone who has every heard a Havalina Rail Co. album knows, the fine folks at Jackson/Rubio are connoisseurs and purveyors of Americana Eclectica. This release furthers that reputation.

Being an album of hymns, the lyrical content from every song, including such standards as Amazing Grace" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," is thoroughly Christian and without controversy. Because of the Rockabilly style, these classics are punched into more accessible territory than your mere Sunday morning church choir renditions. That is, if you don't mind a little rock n roll styled worship. Although the music varies in tempo and competence, it is invariably well-played enough throughout to be consistently enjoyable. Unfortunately, due to the fledgling status of some of these bands, the vocal tracks are occasionally weaker than the music, and a few cross the line into annoying parody. More regrettably, cornball country antics are played up on some of these songs, especially vocally, which makes them feel more irreverent than worshipful. The Sons of Thunder is the only band to have two consistently impressive numbers included, whereas the rest of the songs form a more mixed bag of hits and misses. Hank Williams is probably not rolling in his grave. He'd sit up and take notice of as many of these tracks as he would sit out.

Steven S. Baldwin   8/4/99