Southern rock’s masterworks show this century a viable southern heroism: the quest to overcome the dread of Jim Crow and the pall of ruined empire. This bittersweet, miscegenated sound enabled the Allman Brothers to sell out almost the entirety of March at the Beacon Theatre, made the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd the hottest act of the summer concert season, and lives on in ’90s bands the Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, and Gov’t Mule, not to mention a fair chunk of Dean Budnick’s tome Jam Bands: North America’s Hottest Live Groups (ECW Press, 1998). The storied and much beleaguered American region known as the South is once again— as it was at the turn of the ’70s— supplying oxygen to rock’s flagging form.
Everybody knows the obituary for southern rock was written on October 20, 1977, when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane descended into a Mississippi swamp. Of course the genre’s eulogy could as easily have been delivered on the other Dixie Day the Music Died: October 29, 1971, which saw the passing of guitar legend Duane Allman. Jacksonville’s Allman Brothers Band, founded in 1969 and signed to Macon’s Capricorn Records, were the unwitting pioneers of a modal jazz-blues-soul-gospel-country, a rock tinged by syncretic Africana. This Cosmic American Music extended from the Florida bands and Stax and Muscle Shoals house crews to Delaney & Bonnie’s road company, Leon Russell’s Electric Horn Band, and southern California mavericks like War and Little Feat. These days you can see the spread of its influence, good and bad, in folks like the psychobilly Southern Culture on the Skids, “polyethnic Cajun slamgrassers” Leftover Salmon and fellow jam band the Aquarium Rescue Unit, New Country icon Travis Tritt, ATLien hip-hoppers OutKast and Goodie Mob, rockers Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ and the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, retro-nuevo soul stirrers Corey Glover and Dionne Farris, funky Dag, and descendants of southern rock royalty the Derek Trucks Band.
But the de facto flagship act of southern rock’s second flowering has long been Atlanta’s Black Crowes. Simultaneous to grunge, these cocksure rock & roll champions stormed out to counterattack lite metal and the ’70s gerontocracy, led by “Mouth From the South” Chris Robinson. The Black Crowes have railed against the criminalization of marijuana, the corporatization of rock, the corruption of fellow musicians, and, above all, the loss of heart and soul in both the music and its partisans. Catalyzed by the arrival of heroic lead guitarist Marc Ford, their second album, The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, made peace with the southern rock they’d initially disparaged, pursuing an elusive earthiness (“Black Moon Creeping,” “My Morning Song,” “No Speak No Slave”) and gospel sounds (“Thorn in My Pride,” a swampy, second-line cover of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell”).
Since then, while their media exposure has faded, the Crowes have experimented drastically with their sound, adding son percussion, elements of deep-fried funk, and even more of their southern forefathers: Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, fellow Georgian Gram Parsons. 1994’s Amorica, though repudiated by critics, consumers, and band, lifted the Crowes from MTV darlings and cock-rock clones to cultural worthies, with complex arrangements, extended (not excessive) improvisation, wounded lyrics, social criticism, and instances of profound beauty and clarity (“Nonfiction,” the Allman-esque “Wiser Time,” “Descending”). The ensuing Amorica or Bust tour, with the brass band Dirty Dozen as openers, saw them at their best ever live, despite the dissipation of severe intraband throwdowns and disillusionment, documented on their Cocksucker Blues equivalent for debauched excess, A Night in the Life of a Corkscrew— initially produced by MTV as an Amorica promotional film but censored by the network and group and indefinitely banned.
The follow-up, Three Snakes and One Charm, comfortably handled heavy funk, country strains, rollicking rhythm & blues, and a familial, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” vibe, but it was another dismal seller, leading to the much mourned departures of Ford and bassist Johnny Colt in 1997. By Your Side, which comes out in early January, displays both a retrenchment toward their debut Shake Your Money Maker‘s straight-up rock and a leap of faith into purer soul (“Diamond Ring”), downright giddy gospel (“Go Tell the Congregation”), and even “black rock” (the accusatory “HorseHead” is like Sandra St. Victorera Family Stand). If next year’s Souled Out tour sees the band undone by their high-wire strut between pride and commerce, these freewheeling, freedom-fighter progeny of the New South irrevocably resuscitated the music, invoking the multi-aspected deity of Rock & Roll and asking that It have mercy upon Its fallen flock.
Meanwhile, their cult’s moved on to Widespread Panic, the first signing of the reestablished Capricorn Records in 1991. But these H.O.R.D.E. veterans, who recently sold out Roseland, ironically reject the fawning sovereignty the jam band devout have conferred upon them. Equally devoted to jazz and psychedelic-derived improvisation, the University of Georgia graduates prefer to note that their major influences include Talking Heads. This year’s live double disc, Light Fuse Get Away, features Branford Marsalis on their best song, “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” which sounds at times like a Headhunters outtake. But the band’s obvious commitment to a fraternal orientation is major proof of their spiritual southernness and they do jam by jiminy, and how; rarely do their songs clock in below five minutes, frequently taking on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”like lyricism and invoking the dexterous virtuosity of New Grass master Sam Bush. Culled from 300-plus shows, the album’s 19 songs feature easily as many styles, and from lead guitarist Michael Houser’s Lowell Georgequoting fretwork to the bubbling polyrhythms of percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, the band make this conversation between categories their raison d’être nightly, with their choruslike crowd in cahoots.
The power trio Gov’t Mule, Panic’s Capricorn labelmates, are probably the most formally accomplished of southern rock’s second generation, emanating from the Allman Brothers Band as they did. After an ’80s stint in the Dickey Betts band with Mule drummer Matt Abts and then as a vital key to the Allmans’ ’90s revival with Mule bassist and songwriter Allen Woody, Carolinian singer-songwriter Warren Haynes has become a bona fide guitar god and, along with Marc Ford (and Aquarium Rescue Unit’s Jimmy Herring), the greatest of the Duane Allmaninspired slide axmen. While nurturing the Mule side project, Haynes managed the heretofore impossible feat of stepping into Skydog’s slot, putting his own stamp on the Allman tradition.
The Mule so far has succeeded in avoiding the quagmire of blues cliché: “Birth of the Mule,” a perfect balance of the Coltrane-Miles jazz Haynes loves and metallically spiked country/blues rock, best points out the complicated path this band has chosen. Abts and Woody’s steady propulsion and fleet-footed stomping are integral and essential, but the talking drumtype call and response that occurs within Haynes’s guitar alone, which sings like a kora, is astonishing both on wax and especially in concert. Haynes started as a straight soul singer in love with Motown and the Sound of Philadelphia; he’s as good a white blues singer as there’s been since Gregg Allman, illuminating a path for mannered young Jonny Lang. And yes, Haynes, like Chris and Rich Robinson and ex-Crowe Johnny Colt particularly, is an unabashed funkateer. Twice this year, from the pulpit of Irving Plaza, Gov’t Mule set fire to the city by having P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell guest both as a soloist and with his mighty mighty Woo Warriors. These Worrell collaborations— on Little Feat’s funky “Spanish Moon,” “Afro Blue,” “Doin’ It to Death,” and an otherworldly “Maggot Brain/Cortez the Killer” epic— have rendered tapers babbling madmen.
So go southbound toward an aural utopia of unlimited devotion! Thrown out of the nitty-gritty of post-deseg existence in America, these songs are hymns, paeans to a country and heritage fraught with ugliness and pride in equal measure. Grizzled holy fools and barefoot politicians, Duane Allman, Ronnie Van Zant, Chris Robinson, and their kindred spirits have stared down the barrel end of their identity. Embracing dark cultural legacies, they’ve dared to invent a transcendent southern man.