(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
During the press conference just prior to the taping of the CMT Outlaws concert, a very interesting question was presented to the “Members of Lynyrd Skynyrd” (due to legal complications, they have to call themselves that). The questioner asked if the members of the pioneering Southern rock group were there as a sort of contrived attempt by CMT to incorporate Southern rock into the show.
Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington almost jumped down the questioner’s neck. “Hell, no!” he said. “We belong here. Skynyrd would be considered a new country band if we came out today.”
And he is exactly right. Southern rock has been stone country from day one. Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Hank Williams Jr., the Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, Jason and the Scorchers and so many others have been the linchpin for young country audiences. In some ways, Southern rock has saved country from its own worst excesses and brought it back to its core values. Hank Jr. and Charlie Daniels are wranglers who have been behind-the-scenes forces to steer rock and country in subtle ways.
Southern rock has also been an enormous cultural force, completely aside from its musical impact, as writer Mark Kemp notes in his new memoir Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South(Free Press). Kemp is a Southerner who fled north for the hip life at MTV and Rolling Stone before reconsidering his direction and realizing that his Southern ways were what he really cherished. Like many white Southerners who came of age in the 1970s, Kemp loved rock ’n’ roll, but he early on figured out that he had nothing in common with an effeminate prancer such as the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger. He did identify with, he knew, Southern stone rockers such as Duane Allman and Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant. That was his cultural identity.
The flashpoint in Kemp’s rock ’n’ roll identity crisis and his rock ’n’ roll revelation was his realization that Southern rock provided him with a healing process while shedding the identity of the old South, of finally discarding the racism of his parents and grandparents, of seeing role models in Southern rockers instead of in Southern politicians like George Wallace. And also in standing up to the ridicule and disdain that’s often heaped upon Southerners for simply being from the South. Anyone with a Southern accent can still count on being ignored or ridiculed. Kemp recognizes, rightly, that it’s a class issue, not a regional one. It’s bias against the working class that exerts itself as cultural fascism. “In popular culture,” Kemp writes, “blue-collar Southern rock and country fans have traditionally been easy targets for ridicule.”
Southern — or Midwestern or Western or anywhere small-town — artists can rail against that or they can deal with it. Gretchen Wilson’s “Pocahontas Proud” is every bit a class-proud song: We may be small-town, Wilson sings, but we’re still proud of who we are.
Today, the leading flag bearer of Southern rock is the group Drive-By Truckers, whose chronicles of everyday life in the South ring true. It’s unapologetic, gritty, reality-based triple-guitar, post-punk, rootsy rock ’n’ roll. They first made me take notice with their fourth work, Southern Rock Opera, a brilliant two-CD concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd. The follow-up Decoration Day and the current The Dirty South confirm their place as supremely confident journeymen rockers and master songwriters. It’s like a modern-day synthesis of The Band and Bruce Springsteen. Some song titles provide a clue and show why the Truckers are writing with honesty, just the way the best country writers are: “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” “Loaded Gun in the Closet,” “Plastic Flowers on the Highway,” “Women Without Whiskey,” “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac, ” “Dead, Drunk and Naked.” Some people call this Southern Gothic music. I think it pretty much stands proudly on its own.
How would the Truckers react to class ridicule? Here’s part of the Truckers’ Patterson Hood’s mission statement: “The South is a geographically beautiful region. Big rivers cut through red clay hills, green grass and shady trees. At least it was that way before they strip-mined and strip-malled us into bland suburbia and conformist complacency. Our factories are all shutting down and our farms are being replaced with poultry plants. Hell, even our small towns have sprawl. In some cases, the sprawl predates the town. Many of the hard times being sung about in these songs have been replaced by even harder times. Sam’s Club has got baloney in them big ol’ sticks, and we got free samples out the ass, but our small downtowns and court house squares are being boarded up and torn down. Welcome to the Dirty South. It’s a tough place to make a living but we ain’t complainin’, just doing what we got to do. Trying to raise our kids and love our women. Do right by the ones you love. But don’t f**k with us, or we’ll cut off your head and throw your body over a spillway at the Wilson Dam. We’ll burn your house down. We mean business and it ain’t personal …”