It’s 1993 in Arboria Park, but although 16-year-old Ruby has learned from her dad to love all kinds of music, she’s not really into grunge, like her peers, or hip-hop, like her brother Jason. Like her older sister Autumn and Aunt Stacy, she likes to go to basement punk shows. Her life changes when new neighbor Duke (an older man who has been making noise complaints about Ruby’s favorite basement venue, Syrup Space) is invited to catch a show featuring a punkabilly band.
The show turns into a late-night jam session with Duke, who turns out to have been a 1950s rockabilly artist who toured with country with the likes of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. As Ruby sings and plays guitar with the other kids at the show, Duke singles her out and compliments her voice. Soon Ruby and her pal, Chris, are spending all their free time with Duke and his wife, soaking up lessons in music and history. She’s especially interested in women singers like Janis Martin, Wanda Jackson, and Lorrie Collins.
But as Ruby dives deep into the 1950s scene and introduces Duke to her family, she realizes that he is a product of the racism of that era. Musicians of color and women’s voices were exploited for hit records, but ultimately white men ruled the charts and reaped the benefits. She realizes she can’t face Duke again until she and her dad have researched the real roots of the music she loves and figured out her place, as a mixed-race woman, in the scene.
This chapter was the most challenging and the most fun to research and write. If I had time to become part of another scene, rockabilly would be it. Like Ruby, I especially enjoyed learning about the women and black musicians whose names are no longer household words but who helped build rock’n’roll from the ground up. Starting with Rosetta Tharpe:
Ike Turner, with his Kings of Rhythm band (credited on the record as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats), made what was arguably billed as the first rock’n’roll record:
Janis Martin, the “female Elvis” was a teenage girl who wrote and sang rockabilly in the mid-1950s. Her career was wrecked after a secret teen marriage led to pregnancy and exile from the business.
Wanda Jackson is still going strong as a rockabilly singer:
Lorrie Collins performed with little brother guitar whiz Larry as the Collins Kids and as a solo artist:
Ruby discovers black performers like Ruth Brown:
And Ray Sharpe:
And of course there would be no rock’n’roll without Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Ruby confronts Duke with her research, and he acknowledges the debt owed to all these musicians—and his regrets about the past.
Ruby and Jason begin to build their own musical alliance when he makes her a birthday mixtape containing his loves and hers, along with all the music their parents have taught them about through the years. Ruby’s still ready to take on the rockabilly world—but on her own terms.