There’s probably not a better example of the classic American tale of a rockabilly musician who never quite broke into the big time than Art Adams. And like many great American musicians who never achieved the recognition and A-list success they dreamed of, Adams is for some reason inexplicably popular in Europe while virtually unknown in the United States. But his induction into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the growing demand for his early and rather obscure recordings is an indication of how good he was. And the most incredible thing about Art Adams is that after bowing out entirely from the commercial music scene in the sixties, he’s back and better than ever. I heard Art play recently in a small venue in Indianapolis, Indiana and he’s still got chops.
Art’s story is as unique as his sound. Born in rural Kentucky in 1935, he never went to high school and married his wife in Indianapolis when he was only fifteen years old. Say what you want about the wisdom of such an early wedding, he and his wife are still married and nearing seventy-six years old.
I got a chance to talk with Art after his set and a quick chat turned into a long series of tales about his life. The regret was palpable in his voice when he described his dreams of getting a record deal from Sam Phillips’ Sun Record label being shattered. He and his group, The Kentucky Drifters, had recorded some songs in 1954 and made the trip to Memphis hoping to get a record deal and break into the rockabilly scene. Unfortunately, Art sounded like Johnny Cash and Sun Records happened to already have a Johnny Cash around so Art’s Memphis dreams were never realized. He had to settle for the less edgy Nashville alternative.
Art never wanted to get pulled into the Nashville sound. And though he was continually coaxed to move toward the Chet Atkins heavily produced style known as the “Nashville sound”; he was reluctant to stray far from his rockabilly roots. This produced a tension between him and his band mates which resulted in a split. The Kentucky Drifters split and Art acquired new band members and renamed them the Rhythm Kings.
In 1959 the Rhythm Kings finally got a three-year record deal from a small Kentucky label. This brief time period resulted in a run of excellent songs—among others, “Indian Joe”, “Dancing Doll” and “Rock Crazy Baby.” Art was finally making the music he wanted to make, but he had missed his chance again. Rockabilly music had lost its popular appeal just as Art had finally gotten his record deal and begun to live his rockabilly dream. Art continued to play professionally for another eight years with a less edgy, more mainstream sound. But it was mostly backup work for touring musicians passing through Indianapolis who hadn’t brought their own backup bands with them. In 1968, Art quit the music business entirely to devote all his time to his vending machine business.
After a renewed interest in his early music began to blossom in the late 80′s and throughout the 90′s, Art was approached by a bass player named Mile Strauss. Strauss talked Art into jumping back into the rockabilly scene and they’ve been touring together ever since. Although he tours through Canada and the United States, Art seems to have found a much larger fan base in Europe. At nearly 76 years old, his vigorous performances give a good hint to his frenetic energy in the 1950′s. If you’re lucky enough to get the chance to see him play live, don’t miss the chance to see a true rockabilly in action.