The South's Done It Again

Well the Dickinson boys are cookin down in Mississip' / And the Garza boys are making Texans shake their hips / People down in Bama get their jams / When the Drive By Truckers pick down in Birmingham / Holy Roller Novocaine is druggin' Tennessee / And My Morning Jacket's rockin' Kentuck-y

It was 25 years ago -- about the last time that that so-called Southern rock was hot -- that Charlie Daniels first sang a song like the one Racket has adapted and rearranged above. The Allman Brothers were the first, followed by Lynyrd Skynyrd and then a series of bands of increasingly diminishing stature such as Molly Hatchet, .38 Special and the Marshall Tucker Band. ZZ Top, Tom Petty and Steve Earle are the survivors -- the only guys from the first, second or third wavelet of the first flood to retain relevance today.

The bands were often integrated and the music was ballsy, steeped in the history of the region and the blues, and like the blues, its practitioners were dogged by horrid luck. Stevie Ray Vaughan went down in a helicopter crash. The Allman Brothers saw two of their members die in motorcycle wrecks on the same stretch of highway two years apart. And then there was the plane crash that ended Skynyrd for all intents and purposes. Of course, both the Allmans and Skynyrd have re-emerged, but Skynyrd without Ronnie Van Zant was as much like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger as the Allman Brothers without Duane Allman is like the Stones without Keith Richards. Nothing at all like the real thing.

At some point in the early '80s, Southern rock splintered. Hank Williams Jr. and Charlie Daniels sucked the rowdier crowds countryward, or at least some of those that didn't become enamored with the cowpunk of Jason and the Scorchers and their followers in the alt-country camp. At some point, college kids took over what was left. Austin, Athens, Georgia, and the research triangle of North Carolina became the epicenters.

It was probably in reaction to the blatant and proud redneckery of Williams and Daniels, not to mention the fact that Skynyrd's "Free Bird" -- the "Stairway to Heaven" of the South -- became so popular that the great song is now treated as an ironic joke, that R.E.M. and their fellow Athens-based jangle rock bands spearheaded a much less blues-based, much less Dixiefied version of Southern college rock.

Also popular at colleges was the jam-band stuff that took its cues from the Allman Brothers, but Widespread Panic on its best day couldn't touch Duane's Allman Brothers on their worst.

There was a failed revival in the late '80s and early '90s with bands like the Georgia Satellites and the Kentucky Headhunters, and thus it has remained ever since. "The Satellites got a big backlash from 'Keep Your Hands to Yourself,' " says Drive-By Truckers singer-guitarist Mike Cooley, whose band performs at the Continental Club September 19. "They got tagged as a novelty act. It's a cool song, but it was a little funny, and sometimes if something's funny you don't get taken seriously."

Save for the walking ghosts in the new editions or offshoots of bands like the Allmans and Skynyrd, there has been no mainstream to Southern rock since about 1983, and it's most popular among aging hippies and bikers. And country fans, adds Cooley. "Skynyrd had to survive by getting embraced by TNN and CMT," he says. "Their crowd had gotten older -- the people that were into that had grown up and gotten into country, so bands like Skynyrd kinda lost their rock and roll connection. They didn't really have credibility with the rock crowd anymore. The only thing you ever heard from them for a long time was when people like Travis Tritt would do a tribute."

The college kids in the big cities have been into Southern indie, alt-country and Southern jam, and out in the sticks redneck country-rock has remained popular, but all have been distinct.

Seldom would you find a Busch-sodden fan of boogie bands like Travis Tritt, Montgomery Gentry or Confederate Railroad at a No Depression Southern Culture on the Skids show, or a tattooed, Jack Daniel's-fueled Dickey Betts fan at a weed-reeking Widespread Panic extravaganza. "You'd never find anyone that would admit it," clarifies Cooley. "Everybody would crank Skynyrd up when nobody else was in the car. Among us indie rock fans -- I say 'us' 'cause I was one of 'em for a while -- it became uncool to be into that stuff. But every single time 'Gimme Back my Bullets' would come on the radio, we'd turn it up."

For a time, in Texas at least, Shaver and Steve Earle were exceptions that proved the rule, but there was precious little else to unite the tribes, though Houston had Horseshoe, Jug O' Lightnin' and Carolyn Wonderland, each of whom was equally at home in hipster Montrose and in the hippie scene at the Last Concert Cafe, much as the jam-bandish Moses Guest and the alt-countryish Opie Hendrix are today.

But that's all changing now. There is again a center. Tennessee's Kings of Leon, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Kentucky's My Morning Jacket, Alabama's Drive-By Truckers, Virginia's Scott Miller and Texas's own Los Lonely Boys are proving Charlie Daniels right -- the South is doing it again.

"I think people are enjoying the real rock and roll aspect of most of those bands," says Pete Gray, manager of Houston's Continental Club. (Drive-By Truckers will be appearing there this week.) "Basically it's really good old-school rock and roll. They can label it country, blues or whatever, but really what it boils down to is good old rock and roll. It's really appealing to the younger folks. You take Hank III, you couldn't call that a country show. It's a rock and roll show. Same with the North Mississippi All-Stars -- I wouldn't call that a blues show even though that's what it's labeled as."

"It's all about the roots," says Greg Ellis, Compadre Records manager of secondary distribution and a Southern rock fan since childhood. "And it is just basic rock and roll. That first song Scott Miller played Wednesday night at Rudyard's ["It Didn't Take Too Long"] was just Chuck Berry. I'd much rather hear that as an influence than Metallica, and that's what you're getting with most modern rock bands. Their influences don't go back farther than Iron Maiden, which is fine, but the hard rock and metal stuff from the '80s on -- they took the blues completely out of the equation. It's all based on the classical European metal. Maiden, Def Leppard and whatever."

The trend also reached into the South in the 1980s. "Whereas the Southern rock acts that improvised like the Allman Brothers were rooted in the blues, you had an '80s Southern rock band like Love Tractor that did a nine-minute guitar version of a Kraftwerk song. There wasn't much blues on that whole deal."

The two most successful bluesy bands of the 1970s were Led Zeppelin and Skynyrd, and both are enjoying revivals now. Bands like the Datsuns and the White Stripes have made Zep hip again, have stolen them from the Spinal Tap hell their own excesses placed them in, while the Drive-By Truckers embraced Skynyrd whole hog in 2001 with their landmark album Southern Rock Opera. This was the first time the cool kids have done so since Skynyrd's heyday. For years, Skynyrd's popularity with the wrong sort of fans rendered their cool factor nil, but what people tended to forget was that, like Zeppelin, they were a tremendous band.

"You have to listen to the cuts that aren't the superhits to tell whether those bands really had something or not," says Gray. "With both those bands you can do that. You listen to the stuff that you don't hear on the radio all the time and say, 'Hey, that's really good -- I forgot how good that is.' That's what shows whether a band has real staying power or real influence."

And now Kings of Leon are the toast of Britain and making waves over here. Los Lonely Boys have picked up where Stevie Ray Vaughan left off. The Truckers have put Bama back on the map. Polaris, the North Mississippi All-Stars' outstanding new album, has the potential to fulfill the sticker on the cover that heralds it as a whole new direction in Southern rock.

It's all making a prophet out of the self-described redneck fiddlin' man. On the second chorus of "The South's Gonna Do It Again," Charlie Daniels sings the words in the title and then adds, "And again." It appears he was right.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Little Joe Washington has played his last Wednesday-night show at the Continental Club for a while. In addition, he has moved out of the building…Rusted Shut will be playing a show at an unlikely venue: The River Cafe. Watch the mayhem unfold September 12…From the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Cowboy Mouth and Great Big Sea will kick off the Houston Press Groove Tour concert series at Fitzgerald's on September 12…Another item from the D.S.S-P.: Watch for a cameo from yours truly on Channel 8. On September 30 at 9:55 p.m., and again on October 5 at 5 p.m., the PBS affiliate's show The Connection will air a special on Houston blues. The show will be hosted by Doris Childress and will feature interviews with blues artists Jewel Brown, Trudy Lynn, Texas Johnny Brown and Calvin Owens and segments on KPFT disc jockey Nuri Nuri, author and Press contributor Roger Wood, and another on the El Dorado Ballroom, not to mention performances by Owens, Jimmy "T-99" Nelson and Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters.


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