Out Here

Survival of the fittest
Just Rockin' and Rollin'
Ronnie Dawson
Upstart Records

The once and future Blond Bomber makes his national debut for the second time in his career, 40 years after he hit it small with "Action Packed" and signed to Columbia--as a black singer, no less. But this time around, there's no mistaking Dawson as a teen-age gimmick with the voice of a girl: He's the realest of the real things, a middle-aged man kept eternally young by nothing so much as simple shuffling rock and roll.

Had Ronnie "made it" in the '50s, he'd only be a novelty today, less revered than regarded; but Just Rockin' and Rollin' is the record he's been saving for a lifetime, bigger than Rockinitis and badder than Monkey Beat! and more brazen than Still a Lot of Rhythm--all his previous comebacks, though you really can't come back when you're still waiting to go somewhere. The record kicks off with a horn blast on the title track, swaggers into a purist rockabilly beat ("You Got a Long Way to Go"), croons a pure pop sound ("Veronica," which owes its heart to Buddy Holly and soul to the Everly Brothers), then goes off on the sort of tangents that separate the aces from the journeymen.

Dawson's more than just relevant, more than just a guy to prop up on the stage when the party gets slow: He's a link between country and blues and their bastard cousin called rockabilly, a bond between Texas music's past and present. The previously absent horns lend a King Curtis kick, the guitars swing for the bleachers without leaving the front porch, and if it's tradition you want, the whole package packs a transistor-radio wallop; never has something so small come off sounding so big, and if it sounds old, it's only because it's the genuine article rendered by a man who still likes to stand on tables instead of hide underneath them.

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Like labelmate Nick Lowe, Dawson shuffles between pop and rockabilly: "High on Love" peddles the sort of hooks Dawson usually sacrifices for a guitar shuffle or a prolonged rockabilly riff; it's a quick, subtle little song that sneaks up on you and proves Dawson can hide the trademark lyric-through-a-goofy-grin and guitar-up-front sound and come away as more than just another "survivor." Survivors are content with just getting off the stage every night in one piece; survivors are content with just getting invited to play another show. Dawson performs with enough electricity, enough nerve, and enough flash to prove "survivor" is just another word for someone who's stopped living.

Jerry Lee's a survivor, and so's Carl Perkins--if only because they're content to rehash old echoes instead of create a new sound. Dawson could have been, too, but he figured out early on that it's never too late to be great.

--Robert Wilonsky

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