WHILE THERE are plenty of musicians, record collectors and journos who will argue (as only musicians, record collectors and journos can) that all rock is “Southern rock” due to its geographical origins, Southern rock is nonetheless a well-defined genre.
And that genre finally gets its comprehensive Bible in Scott B. Bomar’s Southbound – The Illustrated History of Southern Rock (Backbeat Books).Insanely detailed with band bios, rare live and publicity photos, and chapters giving the context of Southern rock in both the greater world of music and its ’70s heyday, Southbound covers the genre’s giants (Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top), mid-level players (Marshall Tucker Band, Atlanta Rhythm Section) and more obscure groups (Cowboy, Grinderswitch).
Recently Rocks Off spoke with Bomar, a researcher and music-industry pro who specializes in reissues, about the book, the bands, and how Southern Rock helped elect a U.S. President.
Rocks Off: First, what made you want to tackle this topic?
Scott Bomar: Back in the ’70s, they had all these “Illustrated History” books on bands and musical styles. And as a young music geek, I loved them because you could see the bands and read about a bunch of them at once. Today, in the age of the internet, you can find the [story] of any band immediately, so the Illustrated Histories kind of went away.
So this book is kind of a throwback to that format, a retro-style book about a retro music. And the original manuscript was at least twice as long! I have one copy that I printed out in the most enormous three-ring binder you’ve ever seen. But I had to cut it in half before the publisher would even look at it!
The two towers of Southern rock are, of course, the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But both Gregg Allman and Ronnie Van Zant have said many times that they didn’t like having their music called that or the tag as a whole.
I interviewed almost 50 people for this book, and most of them did not want to be associated with the term. Only a small minority embraced it. I think it’s because they didn’t want to be known as “Southern rockers”, but just “rockers” who happened to be from the South and not some subcategory somehow not worthy of full membership in the rock world. We don’t call Led Zeppelin “British Rockers”.
These guys grew up in the south in the ’60s and had their bands and were long-haired freaky rock and rollers in a largely conservative culture. People think of Southern Rock as “redneck music” nowadays, but back then, a redneck would more likely be a guy with a crew cut and not smile upon these long-haired rock guys.
And the musicians bonded together in that they were the same in a culture that didn’t like how they looked or acted. Then, once they got into the rock world, they were further [ostracized] for being from the South, because they had funny accents or whatever. So they started out as outsiders, and even after they got successful, they were still outsiders!
Of all the lesser-known bands in the book, which one do you think as a music fan should have been much more successful, but for whatever reason wasn’t?
I think it’s surprising that Grinderswitch wasn’t a bigger band. The songs were there and the quality of playing was there. And they were opening for the Allman Brothers. Everything was lined up correctly for them, but there’s just those intangibles that you can’t explain why some bands have success and others don’t.
All the pieces were in place for this band to catch on, but they didn’t. I can look at some of the other bands and see where there was a misstep here or something that might have derailed them, but not Grinderswtich.
One chapter is about the strange intersection and interaction between then-Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and the Southern rockers, especially the Allmans and Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden. Do you think Southern Rock ultimately helped elect him?
Carter himself has said that the benefit fundraiser concert that the Allmans did for him in Rhode Island literally kept him in the primaries. And had it not been for that, he didn’t know where he would have gotten the money to stay in the race.
Carter gave explicit lip service to the idea that these guys were an important part of getting him elected, and he didn’t forget that. And a lot of the Southern rockers were part of the inauguration festivities.
And Carter was sort of the Southern-rock President and the first one to publicly embrace rock musicians, and he was criticized for that. He didn’t make any attempt to distance himself from them, and he gave them their props. And he was a big fan of acts like the Allman Brothers and Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
You make a point toward the end of how contemporary country music on the radio sounds a lot like…classic Southern rock. How did that happen?
It started with Hank Williams Jr., and Charlie Daniels was an important bridge. Hank was never thought of as anything but a straight-up country artist, but in the ’70s he was dissatisfied with the music he was making, so he embraced Southern rock and guys like Dickey Betts who would play on his records.
And some of those albums were complete flops, but he stuck with it and people came around. And now, Charlie Daniels is pretty much considered country, though his music hasn’t changed that much. Today, country radio sounds a lot more like Lynyrd Skynyrd than George Jones. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but it is what it is! [laughs]
Finally, since I’m calling from Houston, talk about ZZ Top’s place in the genre.
In the 1980s, the golden era of Southern rock fell apart. And the only two bands to transcend that and go on to greater things were .38 Special and ZZ Top. ZZ Top had such phenomenal success beginning with the Eliminator album, that the fact they had been part of the Southern rock world was forgotten and they became a mainstream rock act.
When I interviewed Billy Gibbons for this book, I didn’t know if he would embrace the description or not. He doesn’t think of ZZ Top that way, as exclusively a Southern rock band, but he also doesn’t reject that term. ZZ Top incorporated country and blues and straight-up rock and roll, and that pretty much sums up what Southern rock is.
He also told me that Texas is definitely part of the South, but that it’s also its own planet at the same time!
© Bob Ruggiero, Houston Press, 5 September 2014