As I have discussed in previous posts trying to pigeon hole bands into genres and subgenres in particular is a tough task at times. That said when we think of Southern Rock there are certain names that come to mind. Most likely those would be ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ (LS) and ‘The Allman Brothers Band’ (ABB). I’ve read that the late Ronnie Van Sant who was the lead singer of LS said they were “a rock band who just happen to be from the South” and this is certainly true. But there are some characteristics of the subgenre which set it apart in more ways than just geography. The all too obvious songs we can point to are “Sweet Home Alabama” by LS (1974) and Charlie Daniels “The South’s Gonna Do It” (1975). The former I touched on a bit in my post on Neil Young as his “Alabama” and “Southern Man” both struck a nerve in the south and prompted LS to strike back with an ‘answer song’ both eschewing his view of the south and calling him out by name in the lyrics. They promoted their ‘southern pride’ all the way to a #8 hit song. While the latter from Charlie Daniels was only a minor hit, it lists the names of the some of the Rock bands from the ‘South’ like LS, Grinderswitch, ZZ Top, Elvin Bishop and a few others. Here he is promoting a resurgence of the music and putting the ‘South’ back on the Rock & Roll map. Incidentally a song covered by …no one, while “Sweet Home Alabama” ironically was first covered in 1981 by Charlie Daniels . I should mention here that R&R started in the ‘South’ and perhaps the “British Invasion” made some forget that fact, hence I think that’s why this subgenre is so important.
So we listen to these ‘we the south’ lyrics and say there’s some kind of point they need to prove. However much of the stuff, and we are talking primarily of a period from 1969 to 1990 in particular is just straight up Rock and Roll. Having heard just a small cross section of the songs identified as ‘Southern Rock’ I can’t support the “loss of identity” theory or any common thread other than Blues/Country roots, and a good dose of regionalism. I read that many of the songs included political or social statements and it’s true American President Jimmy Carter certainly had a thing going with Gregg Allman and the ABB among other musicians. But most of the things I heard were not political in nature that I could discern. It also seems the music could be progressive and quite inclusive in what has been described as the “post civil rights era”. I’m not an expert but I can read a newspaper and I’m not so sure there is a such a thing as “post civil rights” anywhere in the world, but let’s stick to the music. In the end it’s not unlike how we could describe much of Rock music in general with songs about many things including the struggles of day to day life, the human condition, relationships and a bit of fun as well.
Despite the similarities there is something about these American practitioners that is quite unlike their UK Rock counterparts such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or even the earlier starting Blues influenced Rolling Stones. And while Eric Clapton’s music (in his various incarnations) contains in it’s very fiber Delta Blues roots and his use of styles and songs from JJ Cale and music from Elvin Bishop, it’s not truly ‘Southern Rock’. Some do credit his tastes with bringing more attention to the subgenre and that much I agree with. What gives the music part of it’s flavour is that many lyrics contain regional references. So much so that record companies were sometimes reticent to release songs fearing ‘outsiders’ would not quite “get it” and how wrong they were as the subgenre grew way beyond its southern borders. Yeah, because nobody really liked “Penny Lane”.
‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ (LS) was formed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969, though some of the founding members started playing together as early as 1964. After playing local clubs and traveling around the neighbouring states, they would launch their first album in 1973, ‘(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd)’ and this catchy name would contain several songs which have become rock classics, such as their signature tune “Free Bird” and one of my favorites “Gimme Three Steps“. Their next album ‘Second Helping’ would produce the aforementioned “Sweet Home Alabama“. The band as many will know was victim to a great tragedy when their plane ran out of fuel and crashed in a forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi, October 20, 1977. Band leader Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, backup singer and Steve’s older sister Cassie Gaines the assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray all died. The other members of the band (Allan Collins, Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, and Leslie Hawkins), tour manager Ron Eckerman, and several road crew suffered serious injuries. Some of these surviving members reformed in 1987 for a tour and Ronnie’s youngest brother Johnny Van Sant stepped in as lead singer.
‘The Allman Brothers Band’ (ABB) also started in the ‘Southern Rock’ hotbed of Jacksonville, Florida with brother Duane and Gregg and an impressive group of original members (Jai Johanny Johanson know as ‘Jaimoe’, Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks). They pretty much made Macon, Georgia their home almost immediately when they quickly signed with the local and ‘Southern Rock’ recording epicenter, Capricorn Records and Phil Waldon in 1969. Known for such classic songs as; “Whipping Post“, “Blue Sky” and the great “Ramblin’ Man“. They would lose Duane Allman who at age 24 died in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971. Duane was one of the finest electric guitarist of our time and was a highly sought out session player as I referenced in my post on Aretha Franklin , she requested him for her cover of The Band’s song “The Weight”. He also played with acts such as Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, Percy Sledge and extensively on Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ album. ABB’s quality playing, production and professionalism went a long way to adding to the credibility of ‘Southern Rock’.
As with most genre and subs they don’t happen in isolation and there were other artists out there making ‘Southern Rock’ music, and at the risk of bringing more wrath on Canada, before Neil Young made such a ruckus there was ‘The Band’. As listed on Wikipedia: Rick Danko (bass guitar, vocals, fiddle), Garth Hudson (keyboards, accordion, saxophone), Richard Manuel (keyboards, drums, vocals), Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals), and Levon Helm (drums, vocals, mandolin, guitar). Their debut album ‘Music from Big Pink’ was released July 1, 1968 and had some strong southern flavours, in particular “I Shall be Released“(Bob Dylan) which has both Gospel music and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” as influences. Also “The Weight” (Robbie Robertson) was delivered (both vocally and instrumentally) quite intentionally as an American Southern Folk song. These two songs were released on the only single from the album in August of 1968. The group, and in particular the lead songwriter Robertson spent a lot of time visiting the ‘South’ talking to people, listening and doing additional research in libraries. If we look back a bit the group had plenty of southern exposure. Gradually, starting with Levon Helm in 1958 and the others added in 1961, they were all members of the ‘The Hawks’ which also included Bob Dylan as the backing band to Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins. So the ‘southern’ influence came from a genuine sense of understanding but of course not ‘living it’ do to the fact they were all but one, from Southwestern Ontario in Canada. Then in 1969 before either LS or ABB were known north of the Mason-Dixon line Robertson wrote a song (taking 9 months) called “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“. This songs thoughtful storyline of a moment in time and it’s sincere delivery resonates with many people, but none more than those from the South whose memories and ancestors accounts truly appreciate the horrible aftermath of the Civil War, or any war for that matter. Perhaps ‘redeemed’ by the lead vocals being sung by the only American in the group, Levon Helm (born in Arkansas) it’s chronologically* at the very least, the prototypical ‘Southern Rock’ song. There is no doubt it was strongly influenced by Helm who also sang his heart out but unfortunately never received songwriting credits. To my knowledge he did not perform the song ever again after ‘The Band’ split and “The Last Waltz” was recorded in 1976. (see ** below for more on this song)
I said the music is very diverse, in addition to the Blues and early R&R there’s certainly a fair bit of Country influence as well. As evidence, here are some other identifiable names in this subgenre with song lyrics and titles that speak to my point on regionalism and musical styles that go beyond just State lines.
As previously mentioned from North Carolina, Charlie Daniels is a stalwart of the genre. He has co-written a song for Elvis Presley, played on Dylan, Cohen and Marshall Tucker albums but is best known for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979), covered about 45 times here is Blues Traveler with a live cover, awesome harmonica and great vocals from John Popper, not a bad ‘Southern Rock’ sound from a New Jersey band.
‘The Marshall Tucker Band’, “Can’t You See” is from their debut album in 1973 and a true classic. Waylon Jennings hit #4 on the Hot 100 Country chart in 1976 with a cover version. This band deserves another mention, “Heard It In A Love Song” from 1977. It is really worth checking out their repertoire.
‘ZZ Top’ and I am guessing most will have little difficulty placing them in this subgenre. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill are known for their iconic long beards, ironically the drummer is named Frank Beard (real name) and typically sports a mustache and occasionally a very short beard. They started in Houston in 1969 and since 1970 it’s just been the three of them making some awesome music incorporating blues, hard rock and certainly a harder ‘Southern Rock’ sound.
Too many great tunes to list here but sticking closely with the genre I think “La Grange” (1973) fits in quite properly. It’s written about the brothel immortalized in the play and film ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas‘. If you listen to Delta Blues legend John Lee Hooker who developed his own talking, hard driving, rhythm boogie blues style (pretty much unrelated to ‘Boogie Woogie’) you can certainly hear the influence, in particular the song “Boogie Chillen” from 1948 and his music inspired artists from this and other genre as well.
‘.38 Special’ (they also started in Jacksonville) with founder and lead singer Donnie Van Sant, the younger brother to Ronnie of LS and older brother to Johnny. “Wild Eyed Southern Boys” is a genre classic but you likely know them better for songs like “Hold On Loosely”
I talked about J.J. Cale’s influence on Clapton in the post ‘25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #76-100‘ but here is another one of his songs “Call Me The Breeze” (1972) an apt song as his music is just like a warm southern breeze. And fellow ‘Tulsa Sound’ artist Elvin Bishop whose roots during his time in Chicago are with the Muddy Waters protégé Paul Butterfield and then later his own band that often co-billed with the ABB. A bit of an uncharacteristic song but it was his biggest commercial success “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (1975).
‘Black Oak Arkansas’, “Jim Dandy“, ‘Canned Heat’ “Going Up the Country“, ‘Cowboy’ (Jacksonville) featuring Duane Allman “Please Be With Me and ‘Wet Willie’, Keep On Smilin’. ‘Grinderswitch’ with “Roll on Gambler” (1974). The short lived success of ‘Molly Hatchet’ (Jacksonville) may not come to mind but they are a ‘Southern Rock’ band, best known for “Flirtin’ with Disaster” from 1979.
Then there’s the ‘Georgia Satellites’ from Atlanta with their big hit “Keep Your Hands to Yourself“, this 1986 release has become a bit of a latter day ‘Southern Rock’ cover band anthem and also fits into that “One Hit Wonder” category.
‘The Kentucky Headhunters’ with the rollicking “Dumas Walker” (1990) loosely it is a reference to a real guy named “Dumas” who owned a retail shop in Moss, Tennessee near the Kentucky State line that the band members would frequent. Though the actual central theme restaurant was in Greensburg, Kentucky. Here they got their “Slaw burger, fries and a bottle of Ski“, it was really named “Adolphus Ennis” and I’m guessing they thought ‘Dumas Walker’ rolled off the tongue a bit easier. Have a listen, it’s a very good song and a lot of fun!
There are many great songs and bands I’m leaving out (including more recent followers of the the style) but this will give you a good start for sure. I know in a previous post I said I’d include ‘Creedence Clearwater Revival’ (CCR) in this subgenre. I have tried to resist placing them into what I had considered the less than flattering subgenre of ‘Swamp Rock’ but the more research I do the more sense it makes to me (and the less they fit it here) so look for another post to talk about one of my favorites and oft mentioned-John Fogerty and his band CCR with a bunch of other swampers!
*When going by ‘release date’ this song was released as a single by ‘The Band’ on September 22, 1969 and the ABB’s first record release came out November 4, 1969 with the album ‘The Allman Brothers Band’, although the music itself was recorded in August of 1969, so before The Bands release.
**Truth be told there was already quite a bit happening in the ‘Southern Rock’ scene in 1969 besides this particular song and despite some evidence it was receiving radio airplay, particularly in the south it was on the “B” side to the song “Cripple Creek” (also southern rock) a single released on Sept. 22, 1969. It (Dixie) was not really popularized until the much more famous Joan Baez version in 1971. However she covered it without the actual lyrics or sheet music, which was more common than you might think. So she recorded it adding a “the” saying “there goes (the) Robert E. Lee” which was at the time an active Steamship named after the famous General, the original song is talking about the man himself, not the ship. She sang it as “so much cavalry” and it’s actually “Stoneman’s Cavalry”. It was her biggest hit song. Both of these errors while not egregious do mess up the accuracy of the historical references and not until many years later did she start to perform the song using the correct words. Her version spent five weeks at #1 on the Easy Listening chart and went to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Regardless ‘The Band’s’ influence is undeniable and this song is a true classic; though The Band’s version never charted it is #245 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time and on the list of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Click here for my Spotify Playlist “MMC Blog Southern Rock”
References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Secondhandsongs.com
Keith, Brandon P., “Southern rock music as a cultural form” (2009), http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/2039, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/oct/30/jimmy-carter-president-interview, http://theband.hiof.no/articles/dixie_viney.html
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