Kid Rock, the Rebel Flag and Southern Rock's Summer of Reckoning

How radioactive is the Confederate flag nowadays? A museum now showing a bunch of Kid Rock's stuff recently took some heat about it, except the museum in question never even possessed the controversial banner.

That was the gist of the flap earlier this month, when the Michigan chapter of the Al Sharpton-founded National Action Network held a protest outside the Detroit Historical Museum, which is currently featuring the “Kid Rock Music Lab.” Other notable Motor City musicians with exhibits on display there include Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Eminem, but Kid Rock is the only big enough Lynyrd Skynyrd fan for the rebel flag to become an issue. Although he has in the past, Kid Rock hasn't featured the flag at his concerts for several years, leading the museum to issue this statement to Detroit's WXYZ: “There are no displays of the Confederate flag in the Kid Rock Music Lab or anywhere else inside the Detroit Historical Museum.” Rock’s message to the protestors was even more succinct: via a message to Fox News, he told them, “kiss my ass [and] ask me some questions.”

A few days after the June 17 shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. left nine African-Americans dead, investigators discovered photos of the suspected killer, a young white man named Dylann Roof, waving around a Confederate flag, sometimes referred to as a “Southern Cross.” That touched off a reckoning that has been one of the most awkward, fascinating and revealing stories of the summer. Most major retailers have pulled items bearing the image of the flag from their inventories, and TV Land even pulled reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard because the roof of the show’s signature car, the General Lee, features the Southern Cross. An image that had once appeared everywhere from The Muppet Show (during a performance by Johnny Cash) to the Alamo (Keith Richards held a rebel flag during a photo shoot on the Rolling Stones’ 1975 U.S. tour) all but vanished from public life in a matter of days.

But before we go any further, we are not talking the actual standard of the Confederate States of America (the “Stars and Bars,” one of the six that have flown over Texas), but rather a battle flag from the Army of Northern Virginia that was resurrected by opponents of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. It seeped into pop culture and quickly came to stand for both heritage and hate, just not to the same people. Now we shall resume calling it the “Confederate flag,” just to be clear which one we're talking about.

Outside Dukes of Hazzard enthusiasts and select college-football fanbases, no one group has become more closely identified with this flag than Southern rockers and their first cousins, outlaw-country musicians. Southern rock's flagship band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, adopted the Confederate flag early on and employed it as their stage backdrop for many years, including in the above 1977 YouTube clip of “Freebird” taken three months before lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and several other band and crew members died in a plane crash. But in 2012, guitarist Gary Rossington (Skynyrd's only surviving original member) told CNN the flag's negative connotations had finally prompted them to retire it from the stage.

It became such an issue about race. We had it in the beginning because we were Southern, and that was our image back in the '70s and late '60s, because they branded us as being from the South, so we showed that. But through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads and people have kind of kidnapped the rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers — that’s what it was about – and they made it look bad in certain ways.

Although African-Americans have argued for years that the flag has always looked bad, the backlash from Skynyrd's fan base was so severe that a few days later Rossington backtracked and promised it would continue to be a part of the band's stage display. It returned, albeit in a much less prominent role. In the band’s most recent concert dates, though – such as this photo from Grand Prairie earlier this month – it's nowhere to be seen, and the Ottawa Sun noted last week that “Onstage, the only symbols the band sported were the American stars and stripes or the Southern cross dangling from their necks.” The reporter goes on to say he hardly even saw anyone wearing any of the band’s merch items featuring the notorious symbol, which has now also been purged from Skynyrd’s online store.

The Drive-By Truckers are among the biggest Skynyrd fans on the planet; their 2001 album Southern Rock Opera tells the story of a young music fan who grows up to join a (very) Skynyrd-like band. But long before the Charleston massacre, the Truckers have been unequivocal about their condemnation of the Confederate flag. In an article in the July 9 issue of The New York Times Magazine, singer/guitarist Patterson Hood zeroes in on a song from the album called “The Southern Thing,” and notes that the band rarely plays it in concert these days because they started noticing some fans waving the Confederate flag during the song. “It’s high time that a symbol so divisive be removed,” he wrote.

If we want to truly honor our Southern forefathers, we should do it by moving on from the symbols and prejudices of their time and building on the diversity, the art and the literary traditions we’ve inherited from them. It’s time to study and learn about who we are and where we came from while finding a way forward without the baggage of our ancestors’ fears and superstitions. It’s time to quit rallying around a flag that divides. And it is time for the South to — dare I say it? — rise up and show our nation what a beautiful place our region is, and what more it could become.

Tom Petty grew up in Gainesville, Fla. and moved to L.A. in his mid-twenties as a member of Mudcrutch, who morphed into the Heartbreakers soon afterward. He has never particularly identified as a Southern rocker, but a Confederate flag was part of the set decorations for the tour supporting the Heartbreakers' 1985 album Southern Accents, specifically to illustrate the character in “Rebels.” In the wake of the Charleston shooting, Petty told Rolling Stone last week that today he thinks the decision was “downright stupid.”

I used it onstage during that song, and I regretted it pretty quickly. When we toured two years later, I noticed people in the audience wearing Confederate flag bandanas and things like that. One night, someone threw one onstage. I stopped everything and gave a speech about it. I said, "Look, this was to illustrate a character. This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn't who we are."

It got a mixed reaction. There were some boos and some cheers. But honestly, it's a little amazing to me because I never saw one again after that speech in that one town. Fortunately, that went away, but it left me feeling stupid. That's the word I can use. I felt stupid. If I had just been a little more observant about things going on around me, it wouldn't have happened.
Last week Pantera also removed its “Hesher Dream” T-shirt design, which featured the flag, from its online store. After explaining that it wasn’t him who made that call, the band’s former singer, Phil Anselmo, told Loudwire, “My only feeling on the whole thing is, with the world the way it sits today and spins, we have a lot more and more pressing and bigger problems than worrying about some f—ing flag, and that’s how I feel about it.”

Some older musicians have been slower to come around, though. Two different Facebook pages dedicated to outlaw-country singer David Allan Coe are awash in Confederate-flag imagery, including his official page. (Coe performs at the Pub Fountains in Stafford Thursday night.) And following a Hank Williams Jr. concert in Salt Lake City last week, the venue’s top official said he might reconsider booking “controversial” acts after several fans complained that vendors were selling Confederate flags featuring the singer’s head on them. Some even walked out. "I think it's safe to say that we probably wouldn't have booked this act, if we had known everything that we now know,” Greg Lee, executive director of the Red Butte Garden, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Lee also told the Tribune he was unaware that Williams had been fired from ESPN’s Monday Night Football after comparing Barack Obama to Hitler. The venue is owned by the University of Utah, and is forbidden to ban items for sale at its events after a contract with the act is signed, unless the products are illegal. (The flags sold so quickly the vendor had to return to his truck to get more, reported a different Tribune article.) Thus far Williams has not commented publicly on either the events in Charleston or the Confederate flag; the store on his Web site is temporarily closed.

Reflecting on how much has changed in the South since he was born in 1936, Charlie Daniels defended his “heritage, not hate” view of the flag in an article in the “Soapbox” section of his Web site last month. In it, he also reflected on the seeds of Southern pride, which Daniels said sprang from resentment of most Northerners looking down on Southerners as “inbred, backward, uneducated, slow-talking and slower-thinking people, with low morals and a propensity for incest.” That, Daniels writes, is how Southerners came to view the Confederate flag as a symbol of defiance, “a sign of pride, a declaration of a geographical area that you were proud to be from.” But then Charleston changed everything.

Unfortunately, the Confederate battle flag has been adopted by hate groups — and individuals like Dylann Roof — to supposedly represent them and their hateful view of the races. Please believe me when I say that, to the overwhelming majority of Southerners, the flag represents no such thing, but is simply a banner denoting an area of the nation and one's pride in living there. I know there will be those who will take these words of mine, try to twist them or call them insincere and try to make what I've said here some kind of anti-black racial statement, but I tell everybody who reads this article, I came up in the days of cruel racial prejudice and Jim Crow laws, when the courts were tilted against any black man, the segregated educational system was inferior and opportunities for blacks to advance were almost nonexistent.

I lived through the useless cruelty of those days and did not get my feelings out of some sensitivity class or social studies course, but made my own decisions out of experience and disgust. I hold no ill feelings and have no axes to grind with my brothers and sisters of any color. The same God made us, the same God will judge us, and I pray that He will intervene in the deep racial divide we have in this nation and make each person — black or white — see each other for what we truly are, human beings, no better, no worse.
Especially after this summer’s events, the days when even a totally innocuous band like Alabama can put a Confederate-flag design on several album covers (My Home’s In Alabama, Mountain Music, Roll On) are obviously long gone. You probably won’t hear any more lines like “Tearin' down a dirt road/ Rebel flag flyin’/ Coon dog in the back” from big-time country stars such as Blake Shelton, either. (That's from 2010’s “Kiss My Country Ass.”) But Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legacy will long outlast the flag — this Friday, the band will release One More For the Fans, a live album/DVD package recorded last fall at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre and featuring Skynyrd performing their best-known songs alongside guests including Cheap Trick, Blackberry Smoke, Peter Frampton, Gov’t Mule and Gregg Allman. Charlie Daniels shows up for “Down South Jukin’”; Alabama on “Gimme Three Steps.” Still other guests include Jason Isbell and Jamey Johnson, who represent the sound of today’s outlaw country — where the music has much less to do with Southern pride than it does navigating modern relationships and responsibilities.

As for Kid Rock, who performs at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion tonight, he couldn’t make it to the Fox Theatre for the Skynyrd special but will be paying his respects to “Sweet Home Alabama” all summer long in “All Summer Long,” his good-timin' anthem that became one of the biggest hits of his career in 2007, 33 years after "Sweet Home Alabama" was released. However, one song that definitely won’t be in the set list is “Kiss My Rebel Ass,” a purported duet with Ted Nugent that was announced shortly after Kid’s comments to Fox News. Several Web sites picked up the story and began running with it — and to be fair, it is pretty plausible — until someone noticed a few days later that the news had been originally reported by a right-wing parody site called Conservative Frontline. The song doesn’t exist. The whole thing was a hoax.

Finally, something has come out of this whole uncomfortable situation that we can all laugh about.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray