Bassist for Phoenix rockabilly outfit ponders enduring popularity of rockabilly

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FARMINGTON — It is a curious characteristic of the rockabilly music crowd that, while it has rarely, if ever, come to represent a significant portion of the listening public, it never goes away, either.

Year after year, decade after decade, rockabilly continues to find an audience, even as widespread appeal eludes it. Tommy Collins, the bass player for the veteran Phoenix-based rockabilly outfit Voodoo Swing, admits he’s just as mystified by the genre’s survivability as anybody else. But he’s more than happy to be a part of it.

“I don’t know how it keeps going, but it does,” he said, wondering aloud how a commercially marginal musical style has found a way to hang around for more than 60 years.

“To explain it, I have no idea,” said Collins, who will be joining his bandmates for a show this weekend in Aztec. “You see the same people over and over again at the same places, so it’s almost like high school in that we have common interests.”

Popularized in the 1950s and retaining many of that decade’s iconic symbols, rockabilly may be the music of a subculture, but it’s a thoroughly American one with its ducktail hairstyles, leather jackets, classic automobiles, cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve and, of course, rootsy, energetic, guitar-driven rock tunes. Collins said he loves everything about that culture.

“Just all of it – it just reminds me of growing up,” he said last weekend from Bisbee, Ariz., where he had performed a show a night earlier with one of his side projects. “It was the music I heard growing up. And it reminds me of working on cars with my grandfather and whatever grade you were in when you read ‘The Outsiders’ in school.”

Those associations may come to mind quickly for Collins now, but he said it wasn’t until he got out of school that it all came together for him. It wasn’t until then, he said, that he realized there even was a rockabilly scene.

“When I was in high school, I had a big ol’ Mohawk, and I was listening to punk rock,” he said, laughing. “I was into hiding my country roots.”

But for a guy who grew up listening to the stack of Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck and Buck Owens records he had found in his grandparents’ attic, it wasn’t a big leap to go from punk back to rockabilly. Collins believes the music has a simplicity and basic appeal that make it timeless.

It also has the benefit of being an integral part of American car culture, which is the glue that holds the rockabilly scene together, he said. The genre and classic car shows go hand in hand, Collins said, even in places where they aren’t native.

“When we play in Germany, I see more classic American cars there than I see at any car show in America,” he said.

Collins considers himself fortunate to live in Phoenix, which long has had a thriving rockabilly scene. In fact, he said the only scene he’s witnessed that compares to it is the one in Western Europe, where Belgian and Dutch fans have all but made it a religion.

Collins has been a member of Voodoo Swing for four years, but the band has been around in one form or another since the early 1990s. Its current lineup consists of Collins, Shorty Kreutz on lead guitar and vocals, and Walt Spano on drums.

Playing in other bands and booking talent for Phoenix-area clubs, Collins had long been familiar with Voodoo Swing before he became a member. That opportunity came when the group’s then-bassist left to take another gig and Kreutz invited Collins to join.

He didn’t have to think twice about it, Collins said.

“I had just moved back to Arizona, and Shorty called me up and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a new bass player – you interested?’ ” Collins said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I had been a fan for a long time. We started playing together, and, for me, it just kind of turned into magic. This is one of the coolest projects of all of them I’ve ever done.”

The group has released eight discs over the years, the most recent of which was the appropriately named “Fast Cars, Guitars, Tattoos & Scars” in 2014. Collins said the group is planning on hitting the studio soon to create a new album.

“We have started writing again, and for the Aztec show, we’ll be playing some brand-new songs nobody’s heard before,” he said. “So it will be a testing ground for us, as this will be our first opportunity to play the new ones.”

Collins said the band is also planning a European tour next summer, and that trip will demand that the group have a new product to push. He said in addition to the studio disc, Voodoo Swing also hopes to put out a live album in 2016.

It only makes sense to plan for the future, Collins said. After all, it doesn’t look like rockabilly is going away anytime soon.

“I just love the whole idea of it,” he said. “It’s a simpler life.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610 and measterling@daily-times.com. Follow him @measterlingdt on Twitter.

IF YOU GO

What: Concert by Voodoo Swing

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3

Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec

Tickets: $15 at crashmusicaztec.com.

For more information: Call 505-427-6748

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