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Brian Setzer starts rockabilly riot, Sun Records style

By Ken Burke, September 2005

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Contacted at his home in Golden, Miss., Simmons remembers, "I wrote the song when I was 18, 19 years old at Sun Records. Since then, Sun has released it on various albums over in Europe. I had a complete song when I recorded it. But see, it never was released, and it lay on the shelf back there with 20-something other songs. So, somewhere along the way in mixing that tape down, someone must have broke the tape and didn't try to put it back together."

When Setzer asked Simmons for the complete lyrics, the veteran rockabilly simply couldn't oblige because throughout the ensuing decades, he'd never had reason to sing it.

However, Simmons - who co-wrote Tim McGraw's signature hit "Indian Outlaw" - offered an alterative. "I said, 'Brian, I don't know whether I can get back in the mood to write that song's missing first verse or not. Why don't you just write the first verse, and we'll share the song?"' He said, 'Well, I'll sure give it a try.' A few days later, he sent me a copy of what he wrote and I said, 'Man, that's cool. That's different.'"

The delighted Simmons was even invited to Nashville to see Setzer record the song and ended up singing harmony on the catchy street-racing chorus.

Once upon a time, appropriate setting for all this high-spirited music was the Sun studios were in Memphis, but it didn't happen. "I wanted to go back to Sun," says an earnest Setzer. "Unfortunately, most of the gear is gone from Sun. The way I take it now, it's almost like a tourist destination. So, it would have been pretty difficult to have brought all the gear into Sun to make it like it was in the '50's."

"All the guys that I wanted to use - the producer and everyone - lived in Nashville anyway. I really wanted to use all the old gear with the tubes, microphones, old guitar and amplifiers, all that stuff. Even the bass had gut strings, and the drums had calfskin heads. Everything was like it was back in the '50's. All the gear that I wanted - old guitars, anything I wanted - it was all in Nashville. So, it kind of made sense to just move it over there."

On guitar, Setzer paid homage to the great Sun guitarists la Scotty Moore and Roland Janes, while asserting his own style. "I didn't want to take the guitar solos down note-for-note, but more or less use them as a map, and keep all the hooks from the guitar playing, and let myself come through."

Asked if the same method held true for his rhythm section, Setzer chuckles, "No. I didn't give them that type of luxury. Those drum parts were so integral to that original rockabilly. People don't play that anymore. So, Bernie Dresel added little different things than they would, but a lot of those original drum fills, he kept all those. Mark Winchester on the bass, same thing. So, it was kind of like a tip of the hat to the original musicians. Mark told me that (Elvis Presley's bassist) Bill Black only played on the A and the D strings. He never used the bottom E or the low G - always in the middle there. He told me that, but I didn't want to make Mark play like that. I just thought that he should hear it the way he does."

Setzer and crew sound like Billy Riley's Little Green Men on steroids. Musically, they swagger defiantly and execute the hot bop with enviable rhythmic command. "You could never top an original like a Sun record, but I basically just wanted to do it like they did."

Some archivists may gripe about the changes the singer-guitarist has wrought, but that doesn't worry Setzer. "A lot of people put all that stuff on a pedestal, and they won't touch it. They're afraid to do anything different. But I don't think that's the reason (the original artists) did that. I think they played that stuff out of pure joy, and they're just happy that you're influenced by that. (Presley's original guitarist) Scotty Moore, I'm sure would say that."

A three-time Grammy-winner, the artist also has a new Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas album due out this fall, "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus."

Setzer's enormously popular big band and seasonal tours keeps him viable. "Yeah, I'm very lucky that I came back around," he modestly admits. "I didn't know I was going to be part of the swing revival. I just wound up on that wave. It was something I've always wanted to try and all of a sudden these bands were popping up - Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. I was lumped in with that. I just kind of rode that wave, and we're still playing."

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