Many music fans believe Southern rock died in 1977 when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed in the Mississippi woods. Certainly, there were Southern bands that had some commercial success afterward—Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams, Jr.—but the Southern sound quickly disappeared from mainstream rock music and was replaced by the pop-driven scene out of Los Angeles and New York. It was obvious. Plastic and glamor took precedence over soul, roots, and story.
Even country music suffered. The blue collar, working man’s blues of Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash had been co-opted by pop singers with a twang catering to Midwest housewives. Instead of kicking out the footlights and getting rowdy with their friends, country music fans felt like a woman drinking strawberry wine in wide open spaces. Art imitated life. The South had been emasculated and so had its music.
But not all were dead. Much like the Southern tradition itself, the classic Southern sound and the musicians who played it held on in pockets during the 1990s and early 2000s. They were guardians of the faith, scribes of the ancient texts, bards playing outlawed tunes, or so it seemed. Many of these artists were young, reared on the songs that had been relegated to cover bands in run-down honkey-tonks, clichés in some second rate film about inbred rednecks with swastikas tattooed on their foreheads, or as background music for a heroin addict ready to do a nosedive from ten stories.
Thankfully there has been a resurgence of the traditional Southern sound, mostly based on the work of a few good songwriters and bands that have decided to emphasize their Southern roots.
One such band is Steeldrivers, a bluegrass outfit out of Tennessee formally fronted by singer/songwriter Chris Stapleton. They have an edgy sound that appeals to both bluegrass fans and casual listeners. Their “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” was famously recorded by Adele, but the original with Stapleton on lead vocals is better.
Waylon Jennings’s son, Shooter, has released several fine albums and has shown the ability to integrate an outlaw country sound with a modern rock feel. Southern Comfort, off his first studio album Let’s Put the “O” Back in Country, is a classic country/soul/rock anthem with his mom, Jessi Colter, on backing vocals. What’s better, he named his daughter Alabama. Very Southern.
Jamey Johnson, from Montgomery, Alabama, personifies outlaw country. His voice, playing style, and songwriting scream Waylon Jennings and George Jones—hence the song I chose below. Lyrically, Johnson pays homage to his roots in several songs, from “Back when the only L.A. I knew was Lower Alabama,” to “I left Alabama, but it never once left me, and sometimes it’s the only refuge in my mind.” Johnson is popular for a reason. He knows who he is and where he’s from and he constantly sticks it to the superficial North, be it California or Yankee bankers.
Texas based Whiskey Myers tapped their roots with the hit “Ballad of a Southern Man” in 2011. “I still fly that Southern flag. Whistlin’ Dixie loud enough to brag. And I know all the words to Simple Man. Guess that’s something you don’t understand.” Those words still resonate, but it is probably more an indictment of modern American culture that a Southern band needs to proclaim their interest in the Confederate past. That used to be a given. Either way, Whiskey Myers blends Southern rock, country, and blues into a powerful mixture good enough for mainstream radio and Southern enough for real America.
Georgia based Blackberry Smoke is as traditional Southern rock as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their name comes from a Black Crowes tune and they pay homage to other Southern bands throughout their discography. Little Piece of Dixie is a Southern rock masterpiece, as is their second major effort Whippoorwill, but I remember the first time I heard the band. I found a video from a 2007 concert in Lansing, MI titled “Son of a Bourbon.” I was hooked. It is quintessential Southern honkey-tonk with rowdy lyrics and a bit of honesty, “I’m a dying breed of rock n’ roll left ass up in a ditch.” Much like the South to the rest of the U.S. after 1865.
These bands give me hope that future Southern musicians will continue to go back to their roots. Southern culture is organic, grown not poured in. From the Appalachians, to the Mississippi Delta and Black Belt, to the French Quarter in New Orleans, and to Green Texas, Southern music is America. As the Agrarians pointed out in 1930, the South was the last region to resist consumerism and industrialization. She has fallen prey to both in the last eighty years, but there are still people singing, playing, writing, and painting what made the South the cradle of real America. We should support their efforts.