Skinny Jim & the Number 9 Blacktops are set for a mid-July release of their new studio album Daredevil Action, an appropriate title for a southern Illinois trio that dared to stretch its rockabilly wings on their latest effort.
“It’s faster and more aggressive compared to our last album (Horsepower! Horsepower!),” says frontman Jim Rotramel. “It’s still rockabilly by all means but the tones are more aggressive and there’s more of a driving tempo. I’m not ashamed to say that this album is hard-hitting rock and roll, but with pop melodies. It still has the same rockabilly beat behind it — the walking bass line, the Gretsch/Fender amp tone — but I think it breaks the mold and is not the monotonous stuff that’s been done a million times before.”
Carving out a niche in the rockabilly world is tough to do. As Rotramel notes, “It’s all been done before so you have to break the mold. You can’t just play a song that’s G-C-D because it’s all going to sound like ‘Rock Around the Clock’ or ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’”
So Rotramel blended his wide-ranging musical influences — Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Brian Setzer and the Black Crowes — with a tempo borrowed from his childhood exposure to bluegrass music to create a brand of rockabilly that’s been dubbed “hot-rod rockabilly.”
“I have always considered us as being right down the middle between rockabilly and psychobilly bands,” says Rotramel. “Most rockabilly songs are going to be in this I-IV-V progression whereas psychobilly bands don’t really have walking bass lines. They are doing all the crazy punk rock stuff. A lot of our songs have that bluegrass tempo that’s on the 2/4 count.”
Rotramel’s bluegrass guitar tempo preference was influenced by his father, who introduced him to Bill Monroe and John Hartford while he was still a young boy.
“I’ve always been a bluegrass fan because that is what I was raised on by my dad; I just didn’t want to play as old of music as him,” says Rotramel. “But my dad got me started playing the guitar and I’d just play bluegrass rhythm guitar behind his five-string banjo. A lot of the licks I play now are basically banjo licks that I’ve converted to the Gretsch guitar and thrown into rockabilly songs. I’ve kind of bastardized bluegrass banjo licks into rock and roll a little bit.”
Rock ‘n’ roll wrapped its tentacles around Rotramel when he first watched 1985 hit film Back to the Future. In it, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, travels back in time and rips into Chuck Berry’s hit “Johnny B. Goode.”
“Seeing Michael J. Fox play guitar in that movie was just one of the coolest things to me,” shares Rotramel. “I wanted to be him.”
Although the West Frankfort, Ill., native has yet to make it in Hollywood, he did come across the perfect onstage occasion for borrowing a few of McFly’s lines when Skinny Jim & the Number 9 Blacktops enjoyed the incredible honor of opening for Berry at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis in 2008.
“Right before we started the set, I turned to the guys and said, ‘All right guys, uh listen, this is a blues riff in B. Watch me for the changes and try to keep up,’” shares Rotramel. “The guys about died laughing and I’m sure people in the audience were wondering what the hell was going on.”
But it was an excellent tension breaker for Rotramel, who lists Berry as one of his idols.
“I felt like I was a freshman doing a speech in front of a class full of cheerleaders,” he recalls. “To have the gentlemen, who, in my opinion, invented rock and roll, come out and talk about giving it up for our band…it was one of the most exciting days in my life.”
Skinny Jim & the Number 9 Blacktops will repeat their opening duties for Berry again at Blueberry Hill on July 21.
“It’s awesome,” says Rotramel of the opportunity to test drive material from the new album in front of Berry’s sold-out crowd.
Since he last opened for the “Father of Rock,” Rotramel has also assembled a new lineup with drummer Taylor Sprehe and standu-up bassist Blake Bramlett.
“These are the two best guys I’ve ever worked with,” says Rotramel. “They love to play and love to play out. We do it for the love of the music. None of us can play golf so this is what we all do for a hobby — just at night time.”
By day, Rotramel can be found at Tuff Luck Tattoos in Carbondale, Ill., where he tells Gretsch News, “You name it, I’ve poked a needle through it.”
Although he’s in his ninth year working as a body piercer, he hasn’t a single piercing of his own. He does, however, boast a slew of tattoos, including one of a Gretsch/Bigsby tailpiece on his arm.
“If I played anything else, I guess I’d be a hypocrite,” says Rotramel, who used a vintage 1960 6120, a standard Nashville 6120 model and a White Falcon on Daredevil Action.
“I always lean toward Gretsch guitars because they have everything I need,” he says. “The pickups always have a snarly tone as opposed to some of the other brands with just humbuckers in them. Seems like the Gretsch guitars still have a full tone but it’s a biting tone. I always use Bigsbys, so I always use the vibratos on them. Plus Gretsch guitars go along with the rockabilly culture and the genre.”
Rotramel also stayed true to the lyrical code of rockabilly: girls, cars and beers.
“It’s just a tree with those three branches,” says Rotramel. “And then there are a few subgenres like ugly girls, or fast cars and motorcycles or whiskey and bourbon. So I try to stick with those themes, but write about what I know so that I sound like I know what I’m talking about.”
It was Southern Culture on the Skids guitarist/vocalist Rick Miller who imparted that little nugget of wisdom to Rotramel.
“I thought that was brilliant advice and so I write about little things I know; try to make them rhyme and try to keep them interesting,” says Rotramel.
Take for instance, “Silver Bullet,” a new track about a 1974 Chevy Nova once owned by one of his buddies.
“He wrecked it the first day he had it, and instead of getting it fixed he put a Band-Aid on the bumper, so the lyric is ‘Band-Aid on the fender dent from a 24-hour accident.’”
There’s also “57 Dragstrip,” a song about a stretch of Interstate 57 right outside of his hometown, and “Bubba Blackwell,” an ode to a real-life daredevil from southern Alabama whom Rotramel came across when his band played at a Harley-Davidson dealership in nearby Marion, Ill.
“Bubba was ramping a Harley over 14 Dodge trucks or something and I was like, ‘That’s it — I’m writing a song about this guy. He’s nuts, he’s from Alabama and his name is Bubba so there’s something there,’” says Rotramel. “And it’s probably my favorite song that I’ve ever written of all time. It’s just a rocking rockabilly song with a rhythm solo in it.”
And since it’s his favorite, Rotramel borrowed part of its lyrics for his latest album title.
“I’m always a fan of naming the album after a lyric that’s in one of the songs,” explains Rotramel. “The last album was Horsepower! Horsepower!, which came from a lyric in ‘Firecracker Cadillac.’ So there’s a lyric in ‘Bubba Blackwell’ that goes ‘daredevil action, you’ve got to see,’ and that’s what I took the new album name from.”
And now that we’ve ramped up the new Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops album, get it here beginning Friday, July 16.