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.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax