Rock(abilly) the night away at The Maryland Theatre
When it sprang from the South into mainstream culture during the 1950s, rockabilly was a fresh young sound which blended country-western with rhythm and blues, and paved the way for what became known as classic rock-n-roll.
Rock-a-billy artists like Johnny Cash, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley were hip and ground-breaking. As years passed on, so did many of the genre’s original artists. The core fan base aged as did most of the artists carrying on the songs and styles of rockabilly.
Then along came Willie Barry, 25, of Jefferson, Md. At just 16 years old, Barry began playing as a solo acoustic act doing mostly Bob Dylan covers during open mics at Beans in the Belfry in Brunswick, Md. Then one night back in 2010, Tomy Wright, who runs the open mic, and Barry were the only two who showed up to play.
“We went back and forth and traded songs. I started to see Willie out playing at other places more frequently,” Wright said.
Wright, 67, also of Jefferson, Md., said the two met up again at a charity benefit following the Haiti earthquake that same year. Wright and some of his associates including Barry Bryan of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., took a liking to the music of the younger artist. Bryan approached Barry and told him he thought his music would be better with some bass behind it.
“He suggested adding a little more bottom or sustenance to what I was doing,” Barry said. “He thought it sounded OK acoustic, but said that extra bass or percussion would give it a fuller sound and fill in the gaps.”
“Before you know it,” Barry said, he was playing with Bryan and Wright joined in.
Young Barry and his more seasoned companions became known and loved regionally as Willie Barry and His Chaperones. The group will perform Saturday, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m. at Rockabilly the Night Away at The Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown. The lineup also includes Phil Badell of Frederick, Md., on guitar and vocals.
A youthful student of music
Wright said Barry is a “true student of music,” and that he became smitten with the sounds of late artists Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“It was interesting for me because when I was growing up in the mid-60s, those were the artists I listened to,” Wright said. “A lot what I play now is what I listened to as a young teenager.”
But Barry has a knack for not only picking up on hits of major acts, but for digging up lesser-known gems as well.
“We do a lot of hits, along with some songs that may not be as familiar but people really like,” Wright said.
Audiences are often surprised to see the youthful Barry playing rock-a-billy.
“It’s uncanny the way that, when he sings Ricky Nelson, he sounds like Ricky Nelson. People are intrigued. When he sings the other giants of rockabilly, he does a pretty credible job,” Wright said. “You don’t normally hear this music coming from a young person and yet when he does it, he sounds like the original artist.”
Wright recalled a Facebook comment about Barry’s performance of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”
“He played ‘Pretty Woman.’ Someone commented that a lot of people won’t approach playing that,” Wright said, “but Willie is just fearless. If he takes interest in an artist, he will do his best to be as faithful as possible to the original song.”
Not only does Barry nail the musical end of rock-a-billy, but he also adopted the look. When Barry was a high school student, Wright said, he looked a little “shaggy.” As he grew into his rock-a-billy style, he underwent a physical transformation.
“He has the look – the rolled jeans. He got the haircut, the ‘50 and ‘60s-style clothing,” he said.
The backing of experienced elders
Barry appreciates the technical skill of the elder players.
“They are the kind of guys who could go play with anybody and make them sound that much better,” he said. “I started playing with them. I was having fun and it continued on from there. We just kept practicing and getting a tighter sound.”
Taking the leap from playing Bob Dylan to rock-a-billy seemed natural, Barry said.
“There are a lot of the same bluegrass roots, a lot of the music ran together. The artists we play had a lot of the same influences, like Hank Williams and those country western stars,” he said. “I switched from Bob Dylan to rock-a-billy but it was all in the same vein. Chuck Barry, Elvis (Presley), all of that stuff had a lot of similarities.”
Barry grew up hearing Hank Williams with his grandfather.
“You’re not really invested at the time but those things influence you. You don’t think you are affected then later you realize that stuff brings back memories and you want to find more that’s similar and keep that going,” he said.
YouTube is “a wonderful thing,” Barry said, and he uses it a lot to unearth and study sounds.
“It’s helps a lot in broadening the stuff you listen to and want to replicate,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of digging around to find artists related to one another by period and style and that’s helped me to branch out.”
Rockabilly is more appealing to Barry than modern music.
“It’s more excitable, more enjoyable. It swings more and keeps your foot tapping,” he said. “It’s very upbeat, not really focused on a message. It’s not political or anything. It’s about going out on Saturday night, having fun times, forgetting all your worries.”
It gives artists a chance to show off their instruments more than today’s radio music, he said. Rockabilly the Night Away at The Maryland Theatre will feature “a lot of good swinging songs and some deeper cuts that people might not expect.” Familiar titles could include “Blue Suede Shoes,” Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Maybelline.”
Doing his Chaperones proud
Barry plays with another rock-a-billy band called The Rock-A-Sonics. He’s played twice at Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, Nevada’s famous music festival which has featured acts like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Barry and the Stray Cats in the past.
“They’ve had all the legends. It’s a pretty big deal out there,” Barry said.
Following the show at The Maryland Theatre, Barry will head out to the West Coast to work on recording. For the time being he maintains a day job, but at some point he would love to travel full-time playing music.
Wright said Barry is learning and growing as an entertainer and a performer.
“People love him and it’s great,” Wright said. “We are happy to be a part of that.”
The Chaperones also are happy that Barry has stuck with them.
“We are glad he didn’t kick us to the curb. He has roots in Frederick County, but he is getting out of the county too, getting ready to go to the West Coast,” Wright said. “He is on his way and we are pleased and proud of him.”
Top photo: Willie Barry, front, will perform with His Chaperones, left to right, Phil Badell, Barry Bryan and Tomy Wright at Rockabilly the Night Away on Saturday, Nov. 9, at The Maryland Theatre.