[4 September 2014]
Southern rock is often maligned and misunderstood and Scott B. Bomar’s recent illustrated history on the topic gives readers a new appreciation of the music. It’s an excellent read on a topic that some may come to kicking and screaming.
For skeptics, Lynyrd Skynyrd has become synonymous with faux encore calls for club and bar bands everywhere, and for many, Molly Hatchet was a one-hit wonder that fell off the face of the Earth long before “Flirtin’ with Disaster” fell off the radio. The Allman Brothers Band command respect today, but some of that comes more from what the band has not been for more than 40 years. In truth, Skynyrd was a band that was far more accomplished and diverse than given credit for and ABB has been expanding horizons with its latter day incarnations as much as any other band faithfully touring the American concert circuit these days. (Though, yes, ABB is getting off that ride.)
But those are just two of the many entries in the history of Southern rock. In fact, the term is something of a misnomer, because one could easily argue (and Bomar probably should continue the thread in these pages longer than he does) that all rock is Southern rock. It is music birthed in that rural climate, created by black and white Southerners who continue to bring it out of that region and around the globe year after year.
What now stands without argument is that this subgenre was birthed in Muscle Shoals one afternoon when Duane “Skydog” Allman convinced Wilson Pickett to record a version of “Hey Jude”. As was his style Allman played some blistering leads on the outro to that track. That, if you listen, gives you the inception of Southern rock, where city meets country, soul meets rock, and black and white influences become irrelevant.
From that moment forward you will hear a sound that is distinct: there are traces of country roads, hot burnt nights in urban nightclubs, tales that advance Southern mythology, and themes that are universal but which somehow maintain that Southern accent. The music also has to properly be in the Southern portion of the United States. No Yankees will do. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils are not welcome in these pages. And there can’t be any whippersnappers, either. Drive-By Truckers have elements, Bomar writes, of Southern rock, but Drive-By Truckers is not a Southern rock band.
So, who is? Well, the usual suspects: Atlanta Rhythm Section, Wet Willie, Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws. And some that are less usual. ZZ Top, a group that is famously from Texas and doesn’t sound much like the bands mentioned above, makes the cut (and deservedly so), as does Black Oak Arkansas. That group may be one of the most polarizing here, as some will no doubt want to debate Jim Dandy & Co.’s musical merits and strength beyond influencing David Lee Roth. (Black Oak Arkansas may belong in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum than it does in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, but somehow those strange creatures made an impression.)
A high yield of these groups were signed to or had affiliations with Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia and the story of that imprint and the name behind the name, Phil Walden, comes up enough that you find yourself begging for a whole history of Capricorn itself. Walden had the eye and ear of old time record moguls but with a taste for the excess visited upon a higher number of his contemporaries. The story of Capricorn and the story of the first true wave of Southern rock is tragedy (the death of Duane Allman, the Lynyrd Skynyrd saga) but a beautiful tragedy, at that.
The Skynyrd and ABB sagas get the most play here, but there are lengthy pieces covering 38 Special, Blackfoot, and even lesser-known outfits such as Grinderswitch and Hydra. We’re also treated to a revealing portrait of Hank Williams Jr. as he left behind his strict country roots for something that appealed to a much broader audience. Bomar has an impressive grasp on each act’s discography and history and has researched the topic thoroughly.
True to its title, this is an illustrated history with numerous photos that reveal as much of the story as the words do, making for a rare and impressive marriage that makes Southbound one of the best music-themed books of the year. (The only complaint being that Marshall Tucker Band man Doug Gray’s forward; it’s not his words that bother, but instead the design. The print is simply too small and the background is dissonant with the type.)