Southern rock died as a distinct genre in the 1980s, but the raw, scruffy spirit of the music made by groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers is alive and well in contemporary country.
Montgomery Gentry, Gretchen Wilson and Shooter Jennings echo Southern rock’s 1970s heyday. Brothers Johnny and Donnie Van Zant — of the groups Lynyrd Skynyrd and 38 Special, respectively — have a hit country album that’s close to their rock roots. Even pop-leaning country stars Tim McGraw and Keith Urban have paid homage to the music.
“So much of country music is derived from that scene,” said Brian Philips, general manager of Country Music Television, which is airing a 90-minute documentary, “American Revolutions: Southern Rock,” Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. (It’ll re-air throughout the month.)
“People are still borrowing phrases and licks and ideas all these years later. All of our stars pay their dues working in clubs where you played ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ ‘Ramblin’ Man’ and ‘Gimme Three Steps’ every night,” Philips said.
The CMT documentary includes interviews and rare footage, such as Duane Allman, then a young session guitarist, recording the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” with soul singer Wilson Pickett in Muscle Shoals, Ala. — a watershed that some consider the start of Southern rock.
The genre drew from the heavy blues-rock bands of the period as well as from honky tonk and Bakersfield, Calif., country, according to the online music reference allmusic.com.
Songs such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” were strong, even defiant, expressions of regional pride, while the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and “Ramblin’ Man” were country-flavored tunes with rural imagery and soaring guitar solos.
“I had never seen Southern rock as a genre of music. The genre was the people playing the music,” Charlie Daniels said. “It was people raised the same way who came up in the same social, religious and social situation playing music.”
A source of prideFor some fans, Southern rock was a source of pride in the wake of civil rights unrest.
“A lot of Southern kids were almost feeling a little ashamed of the region and its intolerance,” said Jay Orr, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Kids who were looking to find a new way saw Southern rock as a way to be proud of who you were.”
While Lynyrd Skynyrd performed in front of a huge Confederate battle flag, they also played benefits for the presidential campaign of then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who was progressive on race relations. The Allman Brothers — an integrated band with one, and at times two, black members — also supported Carter.
The groups played hard and lived hard. The Allman Brothers broke up in acrimony amid federal drug charges in 1976; a year later Lynyrd Skynyrd lost three members in a plane crash, including lead singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant. Both bands later reformed and continue today.
Besides the Allmans and Skynyrd, others found success, though often with a more polished sound. Daniels, the Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top, the Outlaws, Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot, 38 Special and the Atlanta Rhythm Section all filled arenas in and out of the South.
But by the mid-1980s musical tastes and radio formats had changed and the genre all but disappeared.
“Album-oriented rock kind of went away as a big format,” Daniels said. “I don’t think you’d hear (Bob) Dylan today outside of college or alternative stations, and it’s a shame because it would be a big loss.”
Country-rock connectionThe kinship between country and Southern rock goes way back. Mavericks such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. shared some of the same audience. Nelson even inducted the Allmans into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. More recently, alt-country artists such as Lucinda Williams have blended bluesy rock music with country songcraft.
But the current crop of gritty country songs stands out because they’re on mainstream radio and follow a long period of polished, pop-oriented music. Wilson mentions both Skynyrd and Daniels in her smash “Redneck Woman,” a defiant anthem of redneck pride in the vein of Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy.” Montgomery Gentry’s hits “Gone” and “If You Ever Stop Loving Me” are guitar rockers reminiscent of Skynyrd and 38 Special. Shooter Jennings’ new album “Put the O Back in Country” is loose and raw with frank lyrics about pot smoking and life on the road.
“Look at Montgomery Gentry. If those boys came out in the 70s, they’d be Southern rock. Look at Gretchen Wilson. If she came out in the ’70s she’d be the queen of Southern rock,” Johnny Van Zant said.
Orr believes the Southern rock thread in contemporary country is part of an overall trend that’s blurred the line between country and rock and brought huge success to artists like Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and McGraw.
For Eddie Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry, Southern rock showed the possibilities of country music. He says he mimics Ronnie Van Zant’s stage moves in his own act.
“They were really singing country music with rock ’n’ roll guitars,” Montgomery said. “It was music that was raw and in your face. It was the good, the bad and the ugly and the party on the weekend. … It wasn’t ‘We’re going to grandma’s on Sunday.’ It was ‘We’re going to grandma’s on Sunday after blowing it out on Saturday night.”’