The South Rises Again: The Improbable Return of Redneck Rock

Robert Gordon on Capricorn Records and the Southern Rock Revival

In the parking lot behind the 7-11, Bobby’s trying not to get throw up in his hair. Jennie watches from the front seat of their truck, fastening her halter top after a couple swigs of bourbon. She asks Bobby if he’s alright but before he can answer, her favorite band comes on the radio and she turns the volume up real loud. It’s the Allman Brothers, and the South is doing it again.

And again.

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With new albums from once-defunct Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allmans, with .38 Special’s best radio entry in their 14 year history, with the revival of Capricorn Records and the renewed prominence of several classic Southern producers, ole drunk Bobby could wake today from his 1970s stupor and not know 20 years had passed. Except that reefer is a lot harder to come by.

“‘Southern rock’ is an expression I don’t know if I ever fully understood,” says Phil Walden, again president of Capricorn Records (under the aegis of Warner Brothers), the original home to the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop and many other acts associated with the heyday of 1970s Southern rock. “I never really saw the close identity that was drawn between those bands. But I guess it’s just easier to heap everybody into one category.”

But that category is difficult to define. In its prime, Southern rockers were essentially blues-based, guitar-driven bands from the South. Producer Tom Dowd, who came to prominence recording early hits for rhythm & blues-based Atlantic and recently produced both albums for the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd, views Southern rock as a mixing of roots. “There is some traditional blues in it, some folk. You can’t turn your back on mountain music or the derivation of bluegrass. They’re playing rock and roll and swinging like jazz.”

As the music was heard outside the region, its locality was no longer a sufficient definition.

“Calling Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Southern rock was just a packaging concept to sell more corn flakes,” says Jim Dickinson, a producer and session player for many Southern albums. He throws attitude into the mash. “What the Allman Brothers initially had was that element of danger. Part of it was image, part was lifestyle, but part of it was the real thing. Skynyrd had some of it, even some of the others.”

And as time passed, rockers from the South changed sounds. Ten years ago, REM became labelled as the voice of the New South. “As far as what we do and how we live,” says Jefferson Holt, the Athens, Georgia band’s manager, “Southern rock doesn’t affect us. The ’70s may have been cohesive, but I think a more interesting and viable story now would be telling about bands that have rejected that and tried to create something different. Maybe you could call it the ‘cosmopolitan-ization’ of the South.”

While drawl-less Southern bands rise, the improbable return of the redneck seems to be upon us. “What are Guns & Roses if they’re not rednecks?,” asks Dickinson. “Country music would be heavy metal had it not been for the corporate mentality in Nashville and elsewhere. It’s nothing but that homogenized corporate thing that kept it from happening.”

Indeed, even the poetic hearts of our pals Bobby and Jenny had room for the pastoral flute of the Marshall Tucker band, but it was the guitar that really thrilled them. And the more guitar, the more they liked it.

“People are tired of manufactured music,” says Johnny Sandlin, who produced albums by the Allman Brothers, Elvin Bishop and Bonnie Bramlett in the ’70s, and recently did Widespread Panic, the new Capricorn’s first signing. “People want to see somebody out there sweating and know they’re not listening to tapes or samples. Technology got in the way in the 80s, artists were at the mercy of it. People forgot the feel and the magic of playing music.”

Widespread Panic may be one of the leaders in the new rebellion. As the first signing to the new Capricorn, they will forge a path of some sort. Their new album, with its Allman Brothers-ish groove on the lead track, reaches to its roots as it moves forward. And of course, it’s real people playing real music.

“I’ve done layered albums with process,” says Dowd, “but when we talk about Southern rock, I’m talking about people flying, where there’s an empathy one for the other while they’re playing. When I’m producing, I’m trying to capture that, I’m not trying to manufacture it. And there’s a distinct sound quality that goes with that.”

Which takes us right back to another contradiction at the heart of Southern rock. Not only were Skynyrd and the Allmans recording down here, so were Otis Redding, Arthur Conley (both managed by Phil Walden) and other soul acts – another Southern genre based on feeling. “I distrusted it when they started calling it rock instead of rock and roll,” says Dickinson. “Rock implies Aryans. Even today they distinguish Black rock.”

“Music always seems to reflect contemporary culture,” says Walden, “and I think the South is different now than it was 20 years ago. If anything, Southern rock and roll has matured so that many genres can coexist. REM, the B-52s, the Allman Brothers and the Black Crows can all be from Dixie and still make great music.”

Whether the social climate of the South has matured to accept diversity is open to debate, but the rest of the nation certainly likes what’s coming out of here. REM and the Black Crows have recently topped the charts, and when Gregg Allman joined the latter on stage, a circle seemed to have closed.

Or did I just get vomit on my shoes?

“The Black Crows are posers,” says Dickinson. “The fact that they happened at all is good for everybody who plays roots music, but the only element of danger in them is they might be dangerous to themselves. Lynyrd Skynyrd solved problems in the alley, they whipped ass. Supposedly the Black Crows’ producer beat up the singer. If the singer had beat up the producer, the element would have been in the band.”

“Popularity is such a pain in the butt,” says Dowd, “because it’s the measure of negotiating a new contract and not the measure of artistry. The Black Crows are a great new band. They put a lot of elements together that everybody likes to listen to. I’m anxious to see what the evolutionary process is a few albums from now.”

When the originators share the spotlight with their influences, the suspicion is bound to be raised that has-beens are capitalizing on a trend. “Maybe some of these guys needed to get away from each other for awhile, grow up a little bit,” says Walden. “The Allman Brothers always had a lot to say musically. I see no reason why they should not continue into the 90s saying it.”

Dowd believes the break probably helped the music. “I think there’s a point in an artist’s career where it is good for them to change influence and be sensitive to other cultures and continue to grow. The Allman Brothers don’t all live in the same culture now. They live in different parts of the country doing different things. You have a potpourri of input.”

Walden: “I think, if anything, a number of the key Southern groups of the 70s got trapped into the very thing that they tried to avoid when they started making records: they started making records in the Southern rock formula, and it lost a lot of its fire and its spirit.”

“If I’m reading the signs right,” muses Sandlin, “bands that hit now will have to be able to improvise and know their stuff. That keeps it alive for the musicians as well as the audience. In the ’80s, the whole country got so conservative and uptight, there didn’t seem to be room for a lot of artistic expression. Record companies were taken over by accountants, that’s why Southern music died.”

The return of Capricorn Records bodes well for all of rock and roll. “The resurgence of Capricorn is a real good thing,” says Dickinson, “because it was a Southern record company. We haven’t seen that since regionality was a bad word.”

“Record companies see a hole in the market for Southern rock,” says Dowd, “but when you give them a Southern rock record, they say, ‘We can’t sell this.’ Well of course you can’t, because you haven’t got any Southern rock awareness. That’s why Capricorn is destined for success. Phil living and dying this stuff all his life can give labels things they can’t conceive of sitting in New York or L.A.”

If the South works as a third coast, independent yet in touch with the corporate two (and their Nashville subsidiary), it makes for a healthy atmosphere of innovation and response. Disco set fire to rebel rock’s flag, but it looks like sweaty musicians playing real instruments just spilled kerosene all over the hi-tech dance floor.

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Bobby and Jenny are standing in the alley behind Studio 54 humming ‘Disco Inferno’ when Bobby gets the heaves again. Jenny trips as she kicks his butt, bent over a trash can, and when she falls her halter top comes loose. Bobby lands on Jenny with an “oomph” and they roll out the alley into the street. A cab stops and the couple stumbles into it. Good thing, too, because there was no designated driver within sight.

© Robert GordonCreem, 1995

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