Billy Lee Riley

Billy Lee Riley

Hillbilly Rockin’ Man


Billy Lee Riley was there at the beginning, the ground zero of rock and roll. His band played on most of the rockabilly sessions cut at Sun Studios in Memphis, and his “Red Hot” and “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll” have become classics. But unlike other graduates of the Sun era, Riley hasn’t achieved the status of a Presley, Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis. The reasons for this may be many — bad timing or lack of songwriting, perhaps — but his newest release, Hillbilly Rockin’ Man, illustrates why Riley hasn’t garnered the attention of say Johnny Cash. While Cash revitalized his career when he signed with Rick Rubin’s Def American label, producing some of the strongest material of his life, he did so knowing he was taking a risk. It was a risk that paid off. He performed material from people as disparate as Soundgarden and Nick Cave and original material such as the chilling “Deliah.” Riley, instead, plays it safe. Calling this record “the country album I’ve always wanted to make,” one wonders why. This is passionless, by-the-books country music of the sort not seen since the Opry days of the ’70s. While his band is great (particularly guitarist Robby Springfield), they feel tamed and restrained. Most of the songs are about, surprise, Billy Lee Riley, and how much of a star he is. The definition of power is that you don’t have to define it. Sure, you wrote songs for the Travis Tritts of the world, but none of them are here. Riley would be better served finding a young producer (this record is self-produced) that will surround him with challenges and provide a backing worthy of his talent. Because, the man has talent. You just don’t have a way of knowing it from this record.

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