Rave on cats, he cried

Carl Perkins, 1932-1998

Perkins was part of a musical generation not that far removed from the black culture whose music it loved. He was born on a tenant farm in Lake County, Tennessee, near Tiptonville; his family were the only white sharecroppers, and he learned the rudiments of guitar from his fellow cotton-pickers. After marriage and stints in both a battery manufacturing plant and a bakery, he and his new wife moved to housing projects in Jackson, where he, Jay, and Clayton started the Perkins Brothers. Upon meeting Perkins, Chuck Berry is reported to have been amazed he was facing a Caucasian.

Elvis was a genius of assimilation, but Perkins was the real deal: his "Matchbox" successfully translated the sharp, dispossessed despair of the original into a new genre. Perkins was the songwriter that Presley could only dream about being, however, and he wrote one of the best rockabilly--if not just plain rock--songs ever when, in 1956, he wrote "Dixie Fried."

A song that starts at five in the morning with a quart of whiskey and continues through much razor-flashing fun before winding up with the protagonist's imprisonment, "Dixie Fried" contains one of the most fervent exhortations to good-time barroom nihilism ever put to paper:

Rave on children, I'm with you
Rave on cats, he cried
It's almost dawn and the cops are gone
Let's all get Dixie fried

The verses and chorus are punctuated with a seminal--in every sense of the word--guitar lead from Perkins, as greasy as a catfish po'boy and as sharp as the point of a knife.

In 1970, he cut Boppin' the Blues with the highly respected, then-underground band NRBQ. An inspired pairing of roots-worshippers with the real thing, Boppin' the Blues combined Perkins' still-hot spark ("All Mama's Children") and country instincts ("Turn Around") with NRBQ's goofy whimsy ("Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard" and "Flat Foot Flewzy") into an uniquely appealing whole. The album--which was a decade ahead of its time and still sounds as if it could have been released yesterday--was reissued in 1990.

That was the start of a resurgence for Perkins. He finally kicked the bottle for good, and in 1971 another masterpiece--"Put Your Cat Clothes On"--was released after lying on the shelf for 15 years. He left Cash's band in 1975 in order to play his own music with his two sons, Stan and Greg, and continued to draw strength from the adulation he received in England. In 1978 he released Ol' Blue Suede's Back, his comeback album on the UK label Jet that featured old compatriots Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, who had played piano on the original "Matchbox."

In 1979, struck by a newspaper story about a fatal case of child abuse in which the victim resembled one of his sons, Perkins helped found the Exchange Club--Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention--and dealing with the results--of child abuse in West Tennessee. In 1997 the Center--the largest of its kind in the nation--served 1,263 children and 721 families.

His songwriting continued to serve him in good stead, as it had throughout his career: The man who wrote "Daddy Sang Bass" for Cash and "So Wrong" for Patsy Cline also wrote Dolly Parton's "Silver and Gold," the Judds' "Let Me Tell You About Love," and George Strait's "A Man on His Own." He duetted with old admirer Paul McCartney in 1982 on "Get It," off of McCartney's Tug of War album, and played rhythm guitar "Ebony and Ivory," that album's hit McCartney-Stevie Wonder duet. After the 1986 release of a recording session made in December of 1956 with the Million Dollar Quartet--Perkins, Cash, Lewis, and Orbison--the retrospectives and box sets came fast and furious, as did the accolades: A National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Hall of Fame Award and a Grammy in 1986, followed by induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '87. In 1996 he released Go Cat Go, which featured a number of old favorites done as duets with people who had begun singing his praises as his failing health heightened awareness of his place in music history. In the '90s he battled lung and throat cancer and had a blocked artery removed from his neck in June 1997. The first of the three strokes struck him in November. Among those who contributed to Go Cat Go were Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Bono, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Willie Nelson.

Even though his vital spot may be in music's past rather than its present, even though he had been denied Cash's multiple rebirths and final status as a post-grunge icon, and even though his last 40 years had been based on the four that preceded them, Perkins betrayed little bitterness or regret.

He gave the keynote address at last year's South by Southwest Music Conference, a gently rambling affair that was full of homilies and hymns. Some were neither amused nor interested in what he had to say, deeming his speech cornball. I prefer to think of what he said--in a voice perhaps dulled a bit by age--as wisdom, informed by the knowledge that nothing really ever lasts.

Scene, heard
The Old 97's journey down to Austin on Monday, January 26, to tape an episode of Austin City Limits with good buddies Whiskeytown...Piercers' pal and onetime Dallasite Joe Christ returns to Dallas and the Orbit Room on Sunday, January 25. Christ will show his unique not-recommended-for-the-squeamish films--which involve ritual cutting and other extremities of body modification--after which local band the Blue Flames will play...

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