A list compiled by Brion McClanahan, Tom Daniel, and Jeff Rogers
Blood in the Water – The Jompson Brothers
Before Chris Stapleton became Grammy Award winner Chris Stapleton, he was a singer/songwriter from Kentucky who wrote several hits for other musicians and kicked around Nashville as a part of other bands, including the bluegrass outfit The Steeldrivers, a nod to his family roots as Kentucky coal miners. He formed the Southern rock band the Jompson Brothers after leaving the Steeldrivers in 2010. They released one album, briefly opened for the Zac Brown Band, and hit the dive bar honkytonk juke joint circuit with minimal commercial success. But all was not lost. Stapleton snuck in a few Jompson Brothers tunes on his most recent albums, and his current bass player was also part of the Jompson Brothers lineup. This song highlights the hard groovy Southern sound they did so well.
Shake for Me – John Hammond
New York blues musician John Hammond went to Nashville in 1969 to record a new album. Things did not go well, so he called music producer Jerry Wexler and asked him what to do. Wexler sent him to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals so he could record with the “Swampers.” He thought they were black—they thought he was black—and there was an uneasy tension between this New York Yankee and these country boys from rural Alabama. After they recorded four substandard tunes, Hammond almost packed it up. That’s when Duane Allman showed up in his old ice-cream truck wearing a “City Slickers” t-shirt. He told the guys at Muscle Shoals that Hammond was great and asked if he could jam with them. That led to the song “Shake for Me” with Allman on slide guitar and then the album Southern Fried. The Allman Brothers later opened for Hammond, one of those times that the opening act was far better than the headliner.
Ghost Riders (In the Sky) – Outlaws
This tune was first recorded in 1948 and has been covered dozens of times by major and minor acts since. The Florida based Outlaws recorded the song in 1980. While not their biggest hit, it’s probably one of their best efforts, and arguably the best version of the song. The band stays true to the original but adds a blazing triple guitar solo at the end of the tune that is rivaled only by Skynyrd’s Freebird.
Atlanta’s Burning Down – Dickey Betts and Great Southern
Dickey Betts left the Allman Brothers in 1977. He already recorded a solo album in 1974, but after leaving the band produced two more with his band Great Southern. This tune was written by Billy Ray Reynolds and accurately chronicles the sorrow Southerners experienced during the War. You could still get away with singing pro-Confederate songs in 1977, and Betts never shied away from his admiration of Southern heroes. Of course, it might be rejuvenating for Atlanta to burn down today.
Caught Up in You – .38 Special
.38 Special features Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Donnie on guitar and vocals. They had substantial commercial success in the 1980s, and this song is one of their biggest hits. .38 Special combined a pop rock sound with a Southern accent and themes and never lost the feel for good driving Southern rock guitar. This song was all over the radio when it was released in 1982 and became one of the band’s only top ten hits.
On the Western Skyline – Bruce Hornsby and the Range
Virginia native Bruce Hornsby has been credited with creating the “Virginia Sound” in modern Southern music, a mix of jazz, bluegrass, and rock with a heavy dose of Hornsby on piano. This tune, released on his multi-platinum album The Way It Is, appeals to the Jeffersonian agrarian small-town sensibilities of rural America. While not as popular as many of his other songs, the song has a great guitar solo and a real Southern feel.
Nights of Mystery – Georgia Satellites
Everyone knows the Georgia Satellites tune “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”—we’ll feature it in a future essay in this series—but most people have never heard the rest of the album. The Georgia Satellites will go down in history as a one hit wonder, but many of the songs on their 1986 debut album are better than the tune that received all the radio airplay. “Nights of Mystery” is perhaps their finest effort. Dan Baird is arguably one of the best songwriters in the history of Southern rock.
Don’t Misunderstand Me – Rossington Collins Band
After the airplane crash killed several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins formed The Rossington Collins Band along with Skynyrd members Billy Powell and Leon Wilknson. They tried to avoid being affiliated with Skynyrd by hiring a female vocalist Dale Krantz (later Gary Rossington’s wife), though this is undoubtedly what Skynyrd may have sounded like had the crash not happened. They used to close each show with an instrumental version of Freebird. “Don’t Misunderstand Me” is unmistakably Skynyrd without Van Zant. The band would eventually break up after Collins and Rossington fought over the affections of lead singer Dale Krantz.
Let it Roll – Dixie Witch
The “Stoner Rock” movement of the early 1990s led to a renaissance of the fuzzy, bass heavy Black Sabbath sound. Several Southern bands emerge as part of this genre, including Texas based three-piece band Dixie Witch. Lead singer Trinidad Leal is also the drummer, a unique arrangement among Southern rock bands. This tune features an aggressive guitar riff with a distinctive Southern melody and sound.
Mud – Whiskey Myers
Texas has become the heart of the modern Southern rock sound, and Whisky Myers is at the forefront. Their second album, Mud, has all the elements, from homespun lyrics to a “muddy” musical ambiance. Whiskey Myers are often labeled “country rock,” but that is the modern method of classifying anything as Southern lest it be called “racist.” This song has a reverence for history, place, and people, and is a full expression of Southern distrust of banks and Northern money. “Ain’t no love for a poor dirt farmer, a genuine son of the South,” and “We’re just some good old country folk, tryin’ to weather the storm, but how we gonna pay when the interest rate just got higher than the corn.”
Rebels – Tom Petty
Tom Petty was a rock superstar until his death in 2017. He was also unabashedly Southern and even featured—gasp—Confederate flags at his concerts in the 1970s and 1980s. His mainstream hits have found favor with just about every segment of American society and are staples on classic rock radio. Rebels is his tribute to growing up in Florida. Notice the large battle flag in this 1980s music video. Curious that Petty was never blacklisted by the Hollywood elite.
Never Trust a Stranger – The Marshall Tucker Band
“Never Trust a Stranger” showcases Doug Gray’s powerful vocal style, Toy Caldwell’s masterful and haunting guitar, and Jerry Eubanks on flute. Caldwell could play anything, from rock to country to blues. This song could have made it on the country charts but is, in reality, Southern rock. It’s also good advice. Never trust a stranger.
Up in Smoke – Blackberry Smoke
Georgia based Blackberry Smoke took their name from a Black Crowes song. They have been compare to the Crowes, Skynyrd, and a host of other Southern rock bands, but lead singer Charlie Starr has his own sound and flavor. The band’s first album, Little Piece of Dixie, is arguably their best, and contains several tracks that display their affinity for classic Southern rock. “Up in Smoke” is a tribute to the life on the road and has a really nice bass intro and “redneck backbeat.” “It’s a hillbilly hoedown.”
Come to Me Tonight – Barefoot Jerry
Not many people have actually heard a Barefoot Jerry song. They know the name from Charlie Daniels, but they couldn’t name one tune by the 1970s band from Tennessee. Barefoot Jerry is like the Crosby, Stills, and Nash of the South. They blend perfect harmonies with Southern inspired lyrics and music and a 1960s counterculture vibe. This is your hippie Southern rock band, perhaps even more so than the Allman Brothers. “Come to Me Tonight” has one of the most beautiful piano intros of any 1970s Southern rock tune.
Workin’ for MCA – Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Workin’ for MCA” is one of the most Southern of all Skynyrd songs and contains the iconic line, “But we smiled at the Yankee slicker with a big ole Southern grin.” When Skynyrd performed the song live, Van Zant would often change one of the lines to “Yankee steel my money, since I was 17.” How many Southerners have been ripped off by Yankees since Reconstruction? This is a modern ballad of Northern exploitation.
Blue Sky – Allman Brothers Band
A timeless classic by the Allman Brothers, Blue Sky with Dickey Betts on vocals is the perfect Southern song for a warm spring day. Not many tunes express such a deep affinity for nature and a leisurely Southern lifestyle. The guitar work is flawless and is one of the best Allman Brothers songs following Duane’s death in 1971.
Voodoo Chile – Stevie Ray Vaughn
Many critics consider Jimmi Hendrix to be one of the best rock guitar players in history. His Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) fully showcases his ability to bend strings and distort sound. Texian Stevie Ray Vaughn did it better and with a Southern feel. Anyone who plays guitar is envious of Vaughn. There are people with talent truly inspired by God. Vaughn was one of those men.
Troubled Wine – Pride and Glory
When Ozzy Osbourne fired guitar player Jake E. Lee in 1987, he filled the position with a teenager from New Jersey named Zakk Wylde. Wylde idolized former Ozzy guitarist Randy Rhodes and tried to mirror his stagecraft, but he also loved Southern rock and during a break from touring in 1994 released a Southern rock album titled Pride and Glory. He played a Confederate Flag Les Paul guitar on tour in support of the album. This song is a raw and swampy tune that could have been written in the Mississippi Delta.
Gator Country – Molly Hatchet
Almost every Southern rock band of the 1970s had a State anthem and Florida’s Molly Hatchet was no different. In fact, other than Sweet Home Alabama, it may be the best. Gator Country has one of the best guitar riffs of the late 70s and explains why “Gator Country” is superior to any other Southern State. Most importantly, the “wine and women” were free. Danny Joe Brown’s “Redneck Power” shirt in this video is classic 1970s South. Billy Carter, Jimmy Carter’s brother, had a softball team by that name and he eventually produced “signature” shirts, along with his “Billy Beer.”
So Into You – The Atlanta Rhythm Section
The Atlanta Rhythm Section is a vastly underrated Southern rock band of the 1970s. Co-founder and keyboard player Dean Daughtry used to place a large Battle Flag on the back of his piano for live shows. “So Into You” features their signature jazzy sound and reached #7 on the charts in 1977 and led to a successful touring schedule where they headlined with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and later tours with bands such as Aerosmith and other acts.
Road Fever – Blackfoot
Florida’s Blackfoot featured former Skynyrd member Rickey Medlocke on guitar and vocals and was a nod to his American Indian roots. His grandfather, “Shorty” Medlocke, was often featured on Blackfoot albums playing banjo or harp and was a heavy influence in Rickey’s life. Road Fever displays the band’s furious guitar style and relentless devotion to touring. Medlocke rejoined Skynyrd in the 1990s and has since relaunched Blackfoot with a new and younger lineup.