Though he’s frequently credited with being an architect of rock & roll, Jerry Lee Lewis also had a profound impact on country music, having successfully made the jump to the country charts in the second half of the Sixties. That was particularly clear at last night’s Skyville Live tribute to the Killer, which featured sublime performances from a cast of country music all-stars.
The short, but sweet, live-streaming event kicked off with a quick rendition of “Lewis Boogie” by the talented singer/actor Waylon Payne, the son of Sammi Smith who portrayed Jerry Lee Lewis in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.
Then it was a murderer’s row of bona fide country legends and superstars offering their own versions of the Killer’s songs, particularly tunes from his country-focused period. George Strait was first up, turning in a rousing take on the rockabilly classic “Great Balls of Fire.” He slowed things down with “Middle Age Crazy,” a Sonny Throckmorton tune that Lewis took to Number Four on the country chart in 1977, prompting fellow performer Toby Keith to stand and salute with his ubiquitous red Solo cup.
Keith was next and, according to Strait, “knows more about Jerry Lee and his music than anybody out there tonight.” His first offering was a raucous take on “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” a 1973 single, then “Thirty-Nine and Holding,” a Number Four hit in 1981. He wrapped up with a scorching take on “Chantilly Lace,” frequently associated with the Big Bopper, but also a multi-week country Number One for Lewis in 1972.
Lee Ann Womack continued this trend with a pair of stunning ballads from the late Sixties: the boozy “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and heartbroken “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” Kris Kristofferson sang his own “Mean Old Man,” recorded by Lewis for a 2009 duets album.
Payne returned to the stage, nervously addressing Lewis. “The only reason anybody knows who I am is because of you,” he said. Of all the performers, he brought that wild, unpredictable energy so closely associated with Lewis to the stage during his performance of “Who Will the Next Fool Be,” doing his best to remain upright during an improvised shout-off with phenomenal backup singer Kyla Jade. After that, his solid take on “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” was a tad anticlimactic.
Fortunately, Chris Stapleton was yet to come. The soulful belter was joined by the McCrary Sisters for a low-and-slow version of the hymn “Where He Leads Me” – just five perfect voices and Stapleton’s guitar, restrained until the final, cathartic moments.
After a video message from Keith Richards, who’s on tour with the Rolling Stones, it was Lewis’ turn to close the show. “I wasn’t expecting this, but what are you gonna do,” he said, smiling.
The 81-year-old icon was stooped and needed assistance to get to the piano but, once seated, he was right at home. His voice was loud and clear, his fingers confident on the keys as he led the entire ensemble through “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” taking a couple of nonchalant boogie-woogie solos for himself.
Music may have changed in so many ways since Jerry Lee Lewis was first cutting songs at Sun Records, but he’s still powered by that same feral energy that made him such a thrilling performer. Watching him perform for a group of adoring followers, it seemed clear that he’s got a few things left to teach, and a little more shakin’ to do.