A History of Southern Rock (and a closer look at Southbound)
Southbound, a new book by Scott Bomar, profiles the musicians, producers, record labels, and movers and shakers that defined Southern rock, including the Allmans, Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, the Charlie Daniels Band, Elvin Bishop, the Outlaws, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, .38 Special, ZZ Top, and many others. Before you delve into this richly informative book however, you must first have an understanding of how the genre of Southern rock came to be. Here is an excerpt from Scott’s introduction that teaches us the history of Southern rock and how it fits into the rock ‘n’ roll scene as a whole.
Rock and roll was born in the American South. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the overwhelming majority of rock’s pioneering artists of the 1950s emerged from below the Mason-Dixon Line. But by the following decade, it was the British Invasion that assured rock music’s place as a permanent cultural fixture. Though Southern music was a major influence on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the myriad of British and American bands that rose up in their wake, the rock- and-roll revolution ultimately transcended any region. Instead, rock and roll belonged to an emerging national youth culture in need of visceral musical expression.
Ironically, the land that gave birth to rock and roll was perceived as the most resistant to the cultural changes that accompanied the soundtrack of the era. The South came to be viewed not as the spiritual homeland of rock’s roots but as a mysterious backwater that didn’t cotton to the ways of young rockers with shaggy hair. By the time potent new rock bands from the Southern states were rising to prominence in the early 1970s, their geographic origin was regarded as a peculiarity that necessitated the designation of a distinct subgenre. Southern rock became the battle flag under which long-haired kids from states like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, were able to rally.
As much as it was a new movement, so-called “Southern rock” was a renaissance. “We didn’t invent something that was already there,” Allman Brothers Band drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson remarked in Candice Dyer’s Music from Macon. “If we supposedly invented ‘Southern rock,’ what the hell was Little Richard, Elvis—who was a disciple of Little Richard—Brenda Lee, and . . . Hank Williams? If ‘Jambalaya’ wasn’t Southern rock then tell me, what is? Don’t get me wrong—I’m very proud of our achievements, but, shit, Southern rock was going on fifty years before we came along.”
What Jaimoe’s comments illustrate is the ongoing reality that Elvis and Little Richard, both Southerners, are simply considered rock-and-rollers, while the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, the Charlie Daniels Band, and the Outlaws are almost always identified as Southern rockers. While stereotypesof Southerners date back even further than Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the writings of Mark Twain, it was the proliferation of mass media in the 1960s that helped solidify a pervasive Southern caricature. Television programs— including The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Green Acres, and Hee Haw—portrayed white working-class Southerners as affable simpletons whose out- of-step-with-modern-times eccentricities were played for comedic effect. By the latter part of the 1960s, and into the 1970s, movies like In the Heat of the Night, Easy Rider, and Deliverance built on this image, adding frightening stereotypes of bigoted and menacing white Southerners that captured the popular imagination and helped cement an image of the South as a culturally deprived wasteland that was populated pri- marily by idiots and racists. As a result, the region’s artistic exports—including its rock music—were increasingly treated as some- thing distinct from the culture at large.
Sadly, some of the Southern stereotypes were not simply media inventions but reflections of real-life bigotry. Highly publicized battles of the civil rights movement, for instance, found high-profile politicians defiantly embracing racist, regressive attitudes that cast a shadow over the entire region. Over the years, the term “Southern rock” has suggested a number of connotations. For many, it simply suggests the authentic good-time working-class music that’s rooted in the Southern traditions of blues and country. It’s music that remains free from the pretensions of heavily produced performers who rely on theatrics and studio trickery over honest-to-God- shake-your-butt-’cause-it’s-Saturday-night rock and roll. For others, the term “Southern rock” has conjured images reminiscent of decidedly urban rock critic Lester Bangs’ char- acterization of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd as “crude thunderstomper hillbillies whose market value rested primarily on the fact that they could play their instruments about like they could plant their fists in your teeth.”
Despite these negative stereotypes, the world of Southern rock was built on a rich foundation of musical traditions that covers a complex system of roots and branches, including the blues-heavy, jazz-tinged improvisations of the interracial Allman Brothers Band; the choreographed triple-guitar attack of Lynyrd Skynyrd; the country-oriented instru- mental subtleties of the Marshall Tucker Band; the lean, Stones-influenced boogie of Wet Willie; the lushly harmonious pop strains of the Atlanta Rhythm Section; or the foot-stompin’ stage show of the Charlie Daniels Band.
The majority of the players widely recognized as pillars of the Southern rock genre, however, have long grappled with the label and its associated presuppositions. “There’s something about the perception of how folks look at Southern people,” Marshall Tucker Band lead singer Doug Gray sighed in 2013. “The Marshall Tucker Band is Southern, but it ain’t about Honey Boo Boo, and it ain’t about making moonshine!”
Many of the musicians who are squeezed into the category insist the term is little more than a music industry invention. “‘Southern rock’ is an expression I don’t know if I ever fully understood,” mused Phil Walden, who helmed Capricorn Records, generally regarded as the quintessential label in the genre’s history. “I never really saw the close identity that was drawn between those bands,” he elaborated to Robert Gordon in 1995. “But I guess it’s just easier to heap everybody into one category.”
To a large degree, Walden benefited from the term by establishing a unique identity in the marketplace for his Macon, Georgia–based record label in the 1970s. “Around this time,” Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts explained to journalist Alan Paul, “everyone started calling us ‘Southern rock,’ which I always had real mixed feelings about, and which I don’t think any of us ever liked.” The Outlaws’ guitarist, Hughie Thomasson bristled at the categorization. “That’s a label that was stuck on us,” he insisted to author Marley Brant. “We didn’t put it on ourselves.”
The very diversity of the Southern rock landscape, however, has proven to be a compli- cating factor when it comes to defining what, exactly, Southern rock is, and who should fall into the category. For the purpose of this book, the term “Southern rock” refers to music that was rooted in a specific time, belonged to a particular place, was created by musicians with similar formative and cultural experiences, and served as a key expression of a uniquely countercultural movement in the South.