By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Apr 09, 2004 at 5:22 AM

{image1}Defining the term "rockabilly" is as slippery as the grease in Elvis' hair or the black stain of a 1953 Chevrolet on a garage floor, and although to define it is almost to debase it, for the love of knowledge, we'll give it a whirl.

"Most people don't say 'I'm a rockabilly' (because) that would box you in too much," says MatTrat Davis, 35, who has been into rockabilly music since he was just eight years old.

Musically, rockabilly started out as a martini shaker of blues, country and gospel sounds that were prevalent until the mid-'50s. Arguably one of the purist forms of American roots music, rockabilly was the launching pad for rock 'n' roll and originally introduced by Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and many others.

Today, most rockabilly -- also referred to as "rockin'" or RAB -- fans appreciate these old schoolers as well as present-day players, from The Stray Cats and The Polecats of the 1980s to the more modern Darrel Higham and The Barnshakers to Milwaukee's Rust Belt Boys and The Uptown Savages.

For some Milwaukeeans, the rockabilly scene transcends the airwaves, and includes a love of all things from the 1950s, images of dice and flames, hotrod cars, pin-ups, funky glasses, tough jeans, gas station stuff, jukeboxes, leather jackets and, unlike the grandpappy rockabilly generation, lots of tattoos for both men and women.

"I like the clothes, lifestyle and camaraderie associated with the scene," says Steve Brown, who has been into rockabilly for more than 20 years. "But the music is the driver for almost everyone associated with the rockin' scene. It's like a society of fellow travelers."

Brown says that when he moved to Madison from London he immediately found people to hang out with based on their mutual appreciation of rockabilly music. "The same thing has happened to me in other cities around the world, too," he says.

Los Angeles, New York City and Denver have the largest RAB networks in the country, according to Brown, but Las Vegas hosts The Rockabilly Weekender, one of the most popular rockabilly festivals in the world. This year it's being held April 8-11 and features more than a dozen bands, both classic and new, including Gene Summers, Deke Dickerson and Wildfire Willie and the Ramblers.

Milwaukee's rockabilly community is smaller, but dedicated.

"Milwaukee has a small scene of maybe 25 hardcore people that you know are always going to be there and have the look going on, but there are a lot of people that are just getting into it or people that don't dress in the style but you see them at shows. There is a good 100 or so of them," says Davis, who was once a member of the local jump band the Swingin' Kools and currently plays with The Uptown Savages.

Jim and Lisa Dutcher are cornerstones in Milwaukee's rockabilly community and both have been into the music and lifestyle since they were teenagers. The couple met at a rockabilly concert eight years ago, got engaged within two weeks and married just three months later at the now-defunct Denver Rockabilly Festival.

Today, the Dutchers own the vintage clothing and collectibles store, Tip Top Atomic Shop, 2343 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., and live in a '50s style ranch house on the South Side, complete with a Pepto-Bismol pink kitchen, a peacock blue sectional couch and a basement tiki bar.

"Rockabilly defines a whole subculture," says Jim Dutcher. "We have our own dress, haircuts and life style."

Like the music, rockabilly fashion has always reflected nonconformity. Rockabilly guys often wear white T-shirts, "tough" jeans, leather jackets, wallets with chains and boots.

Dutcher has a "high and tight Hollywood" hairstyle, and Davis wears a blond pompadour -- called a "quiff" in England. Rockabilly ladies often deck out in cuffed-to-to-the-calf jeans, vintage dresses, "granny" glasses and short bangs. Lisa Dutcher almost exclusively wears dresses from the '50s.

"People sometimes ask me if I'm going to a play," she laughs. "You just don't see '50s dresses everyday, even though they had so much more style back then."

Jon Ziegler, known by many as "Johnny Z," hosts a predominantly rockabilly radio show on Friday mornings on WMSE (91.7) from 9 a.m. to noon called "The Chicken Shack." The show, now in its eighth year, is a mix of rockabilly, vintage country and R&B.

"Milwaukee audiences are open-minded when it comes to rockabilly," says Ziegler, 35, who fronts The Uptown Savages and plays bass in the surf garage band The Nelsonics. "The Milwaukee rocker scene is really starting to come alive again."

Jim Dutcher agrees. "It's starting to come back nicely. Over the past six months, a lot of music came through. Plus, the Rust Belt Boys are back together and a lot of national acts are starting to come alive again," he says.

Classic rockabilly maven Wanda Jackson will perform at Vnuk's Lounge, 5036 S. Packard Ave., on Fri., April 9 with Tim Cook and the Riverwesterners, and Lisa Dutcher will be there.

"Rockabilly has always been a guy's world," she says. "For women of that era to do something outside of being a housewife was pretty incredible."

The Palomino, 2492 S. Superior St., The Y-Not II, 706 E. Lyon St., and Vnuk's are a few of the joints frequented regularly by those into rockabilly, as was Reed's Street Station in Walker's Point before it closed.

Davis, a bartender at Palomino, plays the upright bass in The Uptown Savages and says the inclusion of his instrument draws the line between rock 'n roll and rockabilly or psychobilly, which is faster, louder rockabilly that's sometimes called the "bastard son of rockabilly." Other signature sounds of rockabilly music come from the slant bass, a "crying" guitar and a heavy drumbeat.

Although rooted in the '50s, rockabilly is more alive today than ever, with bands like The Twisted Tarantulas taking the standards to a new level. RushMor Records, 2660 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., has a great selection of new and old rockabilly music, but all stores, chains included, will have a small rockabilly or American roots section.

"A lot of people are bringing back the '50s sound, but doing it their own way," says Lisa Dutcher.

"And I love it all," says Jim Dutcher. "You could take away all of the 'stuff' and we would still be into the music."

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.