By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
—The Kinks,"Muswell Hillbilly," 1971
The American obsession with The songs of the south is almost timeless. Recall for a moment Pennsylvania-born-and-bred Stephen Foster's romantic visions of "darkies" and plantation life in the pre-Civil War era; the extraordinary "coon song" craze that swept this country at the dawn of the recording era (even African-Americans were in on that one: Ernest Hogan, an African-American, penned the 1890s hit "All Coons Look Alike to Me"); the huge success enjoyed by northern minstrel performers in blackface, such as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. Even Paul Robeson, the legendary, New Jersey-born singer best remembered for his precocious leftist politics, began his career crooning such signature tunes as "Ol' Man River," "Shortnin' Bread" and "When It's Sleepytime Down South" before re-examining his comportment and becoming an outspoken civil rights activist in the WWII era.
What the Kinks' Ray Davies seemed to recognize by 1971 was that such contemporary country-rock groups as Creedence, the Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, legitimately lauded in their time as groundbreaking artists, were simply the latest generation of Yankees striking a hillbilly pose.
Right on the heels of all this contrived shit-kicker chic, the real-live South rose again. Jan-yew-wine plaque-toothed, goat-ropin,' chicken-fuckin' hayseed-rockers became all the rage; it was revenge-of-the-rednecks time. In the hands of groups like the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels Band, sagas of Southern life were related firsthand rather than filtered through the hyperbolizing instruments of outsiders.
Southern rockers were at first countercultural; they clearly rejected old-time, Deep South values. The Allmans' music—as down-home as a reeking outhouse and as ethereally psychedelic as a tab of Owsley's Orange Sunshine—was targeted directly at the same drug-gobbling, anarchist freaks who embraced the Grateful Dead. Self-proclaimed "Long Haired Country Boy" Charlie Daniels' first hit, "Uneasy Rider," found him running just ahead of hippie-lynching rednecks in Mississippi, although his music was rooted in the honky-tonk tradition of his tormentors.
If Southern rockers embraced the great music of their region and played it with an authenticity that most Northern groups could only parrot, their stance and lyrical content were at odds with those who initially formed the sound. It wasn't until much later that some of the music's main protagonists ironically and dishearteningly switched gears to become just the sort of hateful scum they so vocally disdained in their youth—something in the water, perhaps? Other Southern rockers were born right wingers.
Whatever its ultimate outcome, the Southern rock movement of the '70s was fleeting but fertile, producing some of the finest, fiercest, most eclectic rock & roll ever recorded. It drew from every classic American music form—and all of those, of course, were Southern-born, from blues and jazz to country and western swing. Much of this great Southern rock is now forgotten, woefully dismissed or even unduly derided 30 years after its heyday.
I blame "Free Bird."
There's a widespread and unfortunate misconception that Lynyrd Skynyrd defined the Southern rock genre. In fact, Skynyrd was a late entry in the Southern rock sweepstakes—and an anomaly. The group's politics were hard right from the get-go; Skynyrd famously taunted Neil Young for his anti-bigot anthem "Southern Man" in their own anthemic retort, "Sweet Home Alabama." Ironically, Skynyrd's music was also far less Southern than their brethren's; they owed a deeper debt to British rock groups like Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones than Bob Wills, Smokey Wood and George Jones. And they never approached the talented Allman, Daniels and Tucker crews.
But Skynyrd did inadvertently define the genre in one important regard: its members tended to drop like vermin in a Raid commercial. Premature death was and remains the leading cause of death among Southern rockers like some ancient Egyptian curse: so many key members of Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band and Grinderswitch died prematurely that it's difficult to keep an accurate body count.
The Marshall Tucker Band's brain trusts, Toy and Tommy Caldwell, lie at rest.
What's left plays tonight at Orange County Performing Arts Pavilion. The very notion of this appalls me to the marrow: continued use of the name is disrespectful to the Caldwell brothers' legacy—especially Toy's; he was a hellfire guitarist, the group's primary songwriter and a better singer than his frontman. The sole original member, Doug Gray, has come to embody every negative stereotype of Southern rock. He's a shameless douchebag who won national news coverage during the Toby Keith vs. Dixie Chicks war a couple of years ago as a clearly desperate Chicks-basher, clinging for dear life to Toby's short coattails. Sans the fashionable fascist posture, Gray would certainly never have warranted television exposure, even on his hometown local news, had he done the gracious and gentlemanly thing and croaked in Toy's stead.
Daniels, though, was the first to switch gears. He pulled a commercially expedient political 180 at the dawn of the Reagan era, becoming a spokesman for just the sort of murderous peckerwoods he'd castigated in song only a few years before. Retarded jingoism, violently hateful gay-bashing, unclever Arab-baiting: Daniels' material became so extreme as to make former KKK politico David Duke blush in mortification. And his record sales soared. There's a market in hate, and Daniels remains somewhere to the right of Kim Jong Il, but the hits ceased long ago. Though I'm loath to admit it, his music is still magnificent; just don't listen to the lyrics.
That seemed to be the advice of Dickey Betts, former Allman Brothers guitarist/current front man of Great Southern. When I spoke to him recently, Betts said Daniels "is frightening, and I didn't even know Doug Gray had gotten involved in that stuff. But they don't represent all us players from down South. I enjoy playing with 'em, but let's just leave it at that. Bob Dylan can take care of the political stuff."
The positive legacy of Southern rock endures to this day, albeit largely uncredited. While the Grateful Dead seem to serve as official avatars of the modern jam-band scene, most contemporary jam bands owe a larger musical and spiritual debt to the greasier, bluesier and tighter Allman Brothers, forever godfathers of the sphere they fashioned back in the late '60s. Modern Allman devotees include Gov't Mule and the Derek Trucks Band (both groups actually feature current ABB guitarists), Robert Randolph & the Family Band (think ABB-meets-P-Funk), North Mississippi Allstars (ABB-meets-the-Ramones), Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, and even such non-jam-band kindred souls as White Stripes and Black Keys—tell me Jack White hasn't worshiped at Duane Allman's altar, and I'll tell you grits ain't grocery, eggs ain't poultry and Mona Lisa was a man.
Interested in the modern groups above but never heard the old-timers? Check out early releases by the Allman, Daniels and Tucker crews, and I guarantee you'll be hooked, even if the music comes as a guilty pleasure in light of subsequent political reversals. When you see Marshall Tucker in concert tonight, tell Doug Gray the Dixie Chicks sent you.
THE MARSHALL TUCKER BAND AT THE ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS PAVILION, 801 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 550-0550; WWW.OCPAVILION.COM. THURS.-FRI., 8 P.M. $70-$110. ALL AGES.