Charlie Feathers is one of the great mystery men of early rock 'n' roll. Never a star in his own right, Feathers and his work caught the attention of many fans after the first wave of rockabilly had passed. Further helping his reputation was the role he played in Sun Records' and Sam Phillips' recordings of the early rock legend: Nobody can agree on what Feathers did, aside from co-writing "I Forgot To Remember To Forget," but everyone agrees he was around. Get With It, a new two-disc collection of Feathers' work, helps put things in perspective. By compiling everything Feathers professionally released and much that he didn't, it shifted the focus to Feathers' accomplishments rather than his mysterious reputation. The Onion recently spoke to one of the last of the original rockabilly masters from the city he's long called home: Memphis, Tennessee.
The Onion: With the release of the new CD collection, you've gotten a lot more attention than you have in a few years. Why do you think it's taken so long?
Charlie Feathers: Lord, I don't know, man, I really don't. [Laughs.] That's a hard question. It sure is. I don't know. I've always been there.
O: You were more popular in Europe than you were in America. Why do you think that is?
CF: People believe in the real, real stuff over there. That's why. Over here, I don't know, man, people over here don't know what's real and what ain't real.
O: Why do you think people in Europe have a better sense of what's real?
CF: They search it out, man. They come over here searchin' on me way back yonder. I didn't even know that was goin' on. I'm chewin' tobacco and sittin' out on the porch now. I really don't know. They came over here and they searched it out. Them people are real, man. At anything they do. They're real. They're 30 years ahead of us.
O: What is it about the music of the South that allowed rockabilly to happen?
CF: The cotton-patch blues. Cotton-patch blues and bluegrass. It was mixed, man. And it was the beginning of the end of music.
O: What do you mean by that?
CF: It will never be no more. It won't.
O: You mean versus the music today?
CF: I can hear rockabilly in the music that they play today. They're all still coppin' from rockabilly today. Bluegrass and the cotton-patch blues. They're still coppin' from that today.
O: When you say it was the beginning of the end, do you feel like music has gone downhill since then?
CF: Oh, sure, it's going the wrong direction now. But it'll come back to one music: rockabilly. It will come back to that. And hey, that's never died. It's so explosive, exciting, and if you do it mono, that's when it's more exciting. It don't have to be stereo and all that.
O: Is it true that Sam Phillips didn't want to release the song "Tongue Tied Jill" because he thought it would insult handicapped people?
CF: Yeah, that's true.
O: That's funny, because the song doesn't seem insulting at all.
CF: Nah, it's not filthy. I've never put a filthy record out in my life.
O: Did you and Phillips get along for the most part?
CF: In a lot of ways we did, and in a lot of ways we didn't. We had our disagreements. Just like he believed that "Honey Don't" was a hit and I believed that "Blue Suede Shoes" was a hit. And we were both right, but "Blue Suede Shoes" was the biggest hit.
O: What was the average day like at Sun?
CF: Average day?
O: Was there an average day?
CF: Well, yeah. Just bein' there was an average day.
O: What went on?
CF: Nothing much. Just there, just always thinking about music, something like that. Wasn't nobody there hardly but Mary [Phillips employee and Memphis radio personality Marian Kesker] and me and Sam, and black people would come in and do a session. Then he started cutting a few white people, and it just went on from there.
O: Do you still play and record now?
CF: Yeah... I haven't been here lately, but I do and I can. I was in the hospital for a while. Had a lung taken out and had bypass surgery. But I'm all right now. I have diabetes, and it bothers me a little. I can go and do anything I want to.
O: You grew up listening to Junior Kimbrough. What was it like recording with him?
CF: I was in about one session with him, way back yonder. He did a song called "Meet Me Over In That City." I always liked it. I just grew up with him and around him, played with him out in the country. See, we were country guys. We grew up out in the country and we'd play out there a lot. He was just the greatest guitar picker that I ever was around. And it turned out to be he was still the greatest picker after I was around all the rest of them. [Laughs.]
O: What was it like recording for the first time after just playing live for so long?
CF: The first recording? Well, I played with some boys; they played over in Nashville for a long time. They come by and they worked the song out, and we just went down and recorded it. Sam was wantin' to record me all along, and I cut a lot of stuff with Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black, Elvis' musicians], but he never did get around to releasing that. He's still got it.
O: What kind of songs did you record with them?
CF: Rockabilly, sure was.