Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Scourge of Southern Rock

 Boy howdy, 'dem Nashville punks surely hated them some Southern rock, didn't they?! Back in the day, say 1983 or '84, as the local rock scene was begin to form in some primordial tarpit of influences as disparate as the Clash, the Ramones, XTC, and the Sex Pistols, Nashville's young soul rebels were as adamant in their dislike of Southern rock as they were of the corporate Music Row establishment.

We all have to rebel against something, I guess, and for teenaged Nashville in the early 1980s, the tendency was to rail against the commercially declining Southern rock movement in much the same way that punks in cities like London, New York, and San Francisco in 1977 rejected what they saw as the bloated rock aesthetic of the decade.

It made a lot of sense, really…by 1984, to pick an entirely arbitrary point along the fluid rock 'n' roll timeline, what few Southern rockers that were left had long since risen out of the beer-drenched trenches of regional juke-joints and honky-tonks and were reaching for, unabashedly, the brass ring of record sales and big payday arena gigs playing in front of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people. Charlie Daniels, the one-time godfather of Southern rock, had begun his inevitable slide towards country music dotage, Lynyrd Skynyrd had been dead and buried for years, and even the Rossington Collins Band – formed by the unlucky survivors of the plane crash that robbed the world of the genius that was Ronnie Van Zandt – had fallen by the side of the autobahn.

So, yes, what Southern rock had evolved into by the early-to-mid-1980s was worthy of scorn and derision, but I suspect that it was as much generational as it was a musical thing, although nobody could ever mistake bands like CPS, the Ratz, Cloverbottom, or even Jason & the Scorchers for something as mundane as Southern rockers. To drive the point home, Nashville's rock underground even organized multi-band "Alternative Jams," scheduled up against Charlie Daniels' annual "Volunteer Jam" blow-out, and if the punks received little or no notice for their efforts beyond the couple hundred people that attended their show, they seemed to like it that way.

In the minds of many, Southern rock came to its skid-marked end on October 20, 1977 in a muddy Mississippi field near the Louisiana border when a chartered plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zandt, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines came crashing to earth, killing the three of them and injuring other band members. The Reverend was 20 years old at the time, several years older than many of the local musicians that would disdain Southern rock just a few years later, and unless you had grown up during the heyday of the genre, you couldn't possible understand the anger and sorrow that accompanied this tragedy.

The night the plane went down, we all got shitfaced drunk, and I saw young women (and more than a few men) crying tears of grief as we all bonded over the end of an era. It didn't matter which Nashville bar you went to for days after the plane crash, as they were all filled with grieving patrons and Lynyrd Skynyrd would be playing on the jukebox or stereo. The only other time I've seen a musician's death have such a widespread cultural impact is when John Lennon was shot down by a brainwashed mutant in December 1980.

Something that so many of those rebelling against what they perceived was the scourge of Southern rock never understood is that the genre itself was a rebellious response to the slick, shiny, studio-produced pop-rock of the 1960s. The first generation of Southern rockers wanted to dirty up the sound a bit, injecting a healthy dose of blues into a mix of hard rock, Memphis (and Muscle Shoals) soul, and honky-tonk country. Nashville; Macon, Georgia; and Jacksonville, Florida were the most important cities in the Southern rock universe, and the genre can be said to have begun in 1969 with the release of the Allman Brothers Band's self-titled debut album. Guitarist and songwriter Duane Allman, if you didn't know, was born in Nashville…

It took a couple of years for Southern rock to establish itself, but the enormous success of the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East album in 1971 would help launch a thousand ships. Charlie Daniels had already been kicking the can around the Music City for a few years, doing session work for folks like Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, and Leonard Cohen when he formed the Charlie Daniels Band in 1972. A year later, Lynyrd Skynyrd would release its debut album, a top 30 hit fueled by constant AOR airplay of songs like "Tuesday's Gone," "Gimme Three Steps," "Simple Man," and what is possibly the most over-played song of all time (with apologies to "Stairway to Heaven"), the dreaded "Free Bird." In short order, bands like Wet Willie, the Outlaws, Black Oak Arkansas, ZZ Top, and the Marshall Tucker Band began to pop up like kudzu vines across the South.

For five years, between 1972 and 1977, Southern rock vied on the charts and in the arenas with artists like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, admirably holding its own with a throwback sound that, curiously, incorporated a lot of antique, or at least wizened musical roots while still managing to sound fresh and contemporary. For those of us who grew up on the stuff while in junior high or high school (FHS class of '75! Woo!), Southern rock was simply part of the soundtrack to our teen years, along with the prog-rock of Yes and King Crimson and the hard rock of Alice Cooper and Bad Company...what is now known as the "classic rock" era. Punk rock and heavy metal had yet to be "invented," although you could hear the DNA blueprint for both genres being written in the sound of the New York Dolls, the Dictators, and like-minded fellow travelers at the time.

During the half-decade commercial peak of Southern rock, a lot of great music was released. Charlie Daniels' annual musical celebration, the Volunteer Jam, grew from the relatively-cramped confines of the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville to attracting ten thousand fans to the Municipal Auditorium each year. Although Southern rock had passed it creative sell-by date by 1979, it was still a commercially viable business for the major labels, and that year's Volunteer Jam – held in January 1979, long before Nashville's young punks had begun their protest against the event – culminated in the emotional reunion of the surviving Lynyrd Skynyrd members performing "Free Bird" with Daniels and band, and other guests. I was there, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house…

By 1984, however, our arbitrary jumping off point for the Nashville rock underground, Southern rock had become the zombie corpse that the Alternative Jam was protesting. Second generation bands like .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, and the Johnny Van Zandt Band continued to score modest chart hits well into the '80s while even early Southern rockers like ZZ Top or the Marshall Tucker Band had shed the influences that had made them special in the first place, becoming MTV darlings (the former) or a countrified pop band (the latter), more like REO Speedwagon or Night Ranger than truly dangerous or innovative. Those who survived the early 1980s, like the Allman Brothers Band or Elvin Bishop, retreated deeper into the blues, where they still sit today.

Still, for all the pointless Sturm und Drang displayed by the Nashville rock underground in the early 1980s, Southern rock remains a scourge to this day, albeit an influential one. Local (and regional) bands like Every Mother's Nightmare and the Georgia Satellites had as much Southern rock vibe about them as any band from the '70s, while the "jam band" phenomenon of the 1990s drew as much inspiration from the extended live performances of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band as they did the Grateful Dead. It's safe to say that bands like the Black Crowes (Allman Brothers), Gov't Mule (ditto, along with a helping of Skynyrd), Jackyl (Black Oak Arkansas), Black Stone Cherry (Molly Hatchet), and much of the Americana music of the 2000s wouldn't exist in the same form without Southern rock, if they existed at all.           

In defining the Southern rock aesthetic, music historian Martin Popoff wrote in his timeless Southern Rock Review, "It helps if you have long hair and beards and past-expiry bellbottom blue jeans. Cowboy hats are optional; they really are." For those of us who came of age during the Southern rock era, that sums it up about perfectly…and we never understood what all of those young 'uns were bitching about in the '80s, anyway. Boy howdy!

Photo Credit: Charlie Daniels & the Reverend, drinking whiskey at the WKDF-FM studios circa 1978, hyping my interview with Charlie in Take One magazine. Photo by Thom King, King Author Productions.

Excerpted from the upcoming book The Other Side of Nashville, An Incomplete History & Discography of the Nashville Rock Underground 1976-2006 by Rev. Keith A. Gordon

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