Rock and roll was born of mixed-race in the American
South at the start of the 50s, and its main architects were southerners who
mixed local sauce with blues, country or rhythm & blues, so that when at
the start of the 70s people began to speak of Southern Rock, one of its main
protaganists, Gregg Allman, said
that to speak of it was redundant; and it is hard to say that the younger Allman
brother was not right. It is clear that at that time rock had already spread
throughout the world and was no longer identified with the regions of Memphis or
New Orleans. Nonetheless there still was some kind of movement, perhaps more
because of its roots rather than its soul. Southern Rock had two main focuses,
one based around the Allman Brothers with long jams and nods to jazz, and the
other more direct and hard rock, which was led by the second great band of the
movement, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Here we are going to review 10 of the most significant bands that might be included under the rubric; focusing on the 70s, but without forgetting about more current groups. We will leave out clear predecessors like Creedence or The Band (and their The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down), and parallel movements, like the country 'outlaws' such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, or groups closer to country rock like Cowboy and Pure Prarie League, and focus instead on the most rock part; of those bands that revered the guitar as an absolute God. So from the A of the Allman Brothers to the Z of ZZ Top, here are 10 our favourite Southern Rock bands.
The Allman Brothers Band
The group that began it all, it has been said that Southern Rock began when Duane Allman convinced Wilson Pickett to record a version of the Beatles’ Hey Jude, in which the older Allman shined with a long solo. The band broke racial barriers, soul lent a hand to rock, and white and black had a sliver less of importance. These first steps were taken in the Muscle Shoals of Alabama studios, where Duane recorded that version.
The Allman Brothers formed in Jacksonville, Florida, a place where the second great band of the movement would emerge, and they established themselves in Macon, Georgia, after being contracted by Phil Walden, ex manager of Otis Redding, and founder of Capricorn Records; the most significant record company of the movement. The rest was history, Duane brought together an incredible group of musicians, with two guitarists and two drummers, and brought in his younger brother, Gregg, as singer and pianist. The interaction between his famous Les Paul Sunburst and the SG of Dickey Betts provided the foundations of the new Southern dawn. Duane’s death at the end of 1971 was the first great tragedy of the movement but the flame did not burn out, and the band reorganised and continued to shine. Even at the end, the band had a couple of very distinctive and worthy guitarists in Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. In the band’s last concert, on 28 October 2014, Duane’s three Les Paul’s were present, and history closed with the first song that they played together in Jacksonville - the day that Gregg joined the band and his brother asked him to risk his throat singing Trouble No More by Muddy Waters.
Recommended albums: The Allman Brothers Band (1969), Idlewild South (1970), At Fillmore East (1971), Eat a peach (1972), Brothers and Sisters (1973), Hittin' The Note (2003)
The Black Crowes
Another pair of brothers formed a group in Georgia: Chris and Rich Robinson. The brothers had formed their first band in the mid-80s, influenced by the region’s most important band, R.E.M., without forgetting their genuine love for 70s Southern Rock bands, with Lynyrd Skynyrd at its head; but their style gelled when George Drakoulias discovered them and started to play them Faces and Stones records, which moulded their sound. However the song that made them famous was a cover of Hard To Handle from Georgia’s favourite son, Otis Redding. Their moment of glory arrived when the original guitarist Jeff Cease was substituted by Marc Ford, and one of the greatest guitar duos of all time was created with Rich Robinson, on albums like The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and Amorica.
Recommended albums: Shake Your Money Maker (1990), The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992), Amorica (1994)
Charlie Daniels Band
Even if it was only for composing the official anthem of the movement, The South is gonna do it again - on which some of the main protagonists of the movement are named (like Grinderswitch, The Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dickey Betts, Wet Willie and ZZ Top) - Charlie Daniels would already have his place on this list. But the bearded virtuoso of the fiddle delivered one of the great albums of the genre with Fire on the Mountain in which country spread its wings with some brilliant blues-rock 'jams', inherited from the Allmans.
Recommended albums: Charlie Daniels (1971), Fire on the Mountain (1975)
The most current group on the list - although they have two decades of career behind them - rekindled the flame of Southern Rock in the new century. With a mix of southern pride, profound lyrics, and for most of their career, a line up with three guitarists, the Truckers have used what they called 'The Southern Thing' as the basis of their main discs, from the canonic Southern Rock Opera to their latest album American Band, in which they talk about things like the inconvenience of continuing to wave the Confederate flag as part of the Southern legacy. An incredible group whose best period came when they bring together three talented songwriters like Mike Cooley, Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood; who, talking of heritage, is the son of David Hood, one of the famous Swampers from Muscle Shoals studios to whom Ronnie Van Zant pays respects on Sweet Home Alabama.
Recommended albums: Southern Rock Opera (2001), Decoration Day (2003), The Dirty South (2004), American Band (2016)
The Georgia Satellites
In the 80s it seemed that Southern Rock was dead and buried, but from Atlanta, Georgia, came the Georgia Satellites to remind the whole world that Rock runs through southern American veins like flamenco does in the south of Spain. Their Keep Your Hands to Yourself sounded as if the Stones had been born in Alabama and were breastfed on whisky. Dan Baird and his Telecaster, and Rick Richards with a Dan Armstrong 73, left it clear that it was only (southern) rock and roll, but they liked it.
Recommended albums: Georgia Satellites (1986)
Lowell George and Little Feat were born in sunny California but few groups have sounded more southern than them, like a good New Orleans stew in which everything can be thrown in. From the funk of the Meters to the country of Willin', the latter being the song that earned him his departure from the Mothers Of Invention of Frank Zappa - it is not known whether by his praise of drugs, because Zappa could not stand country, or because Zappa thought it was too good a song to be only a cast member. The fact is that Little Feat is another of the great 70s bands (Jimmy Page called them his favourite American band) and Lowell George, an absolutely original composer, is one of the most important names on this list. The characteristic sound of his slide, which he played with a Stratocaster - to which he added a Telecaster pickup and a lot of compression - is only a step below Duane Allman himself.
Recommended albums: Sailin' Shoes (1972), Dixie Chicken (1973), Feats Don't Fail Me Now (1974), Waiting for Columbus (1978)
One of the best rock groups, without any more adjectives necessary, in history. No-one with the slightest interest in the sound of the electrtic guitar, should avoid submerging themselves in the back catalogue of this group of renegades from Jacksonville, Florida. Captained by Ronnie Van Zant, the band had four of the best guitarists around - Gary Rossington, who preferred a Les Paul and SG, Allen 'Freebird' Collins, Firebird and Explorer, Ed King, Stratocaster and Les Paul, and Steve Gaines, Stratocaster. They were a poker who played three at a time, but the magic they created ended with the second great tragedy of the genre, the plane accident that killed Van Zant, Gaines and his sister Cassie, on 20 October 1977. But I don’t want to end this brief summary with a bad taste in the mouth, so I will close with the moment that the two best groups of this movement got to know each other. It was - how not? - in Jacksonville in the mid-60s, where the Allman brothers already had local renown as The Allman Joys, and they were going to give a concert in the town. Their support band were My Backyard and their guitarists, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, admired Duane, and when their turn came to play their covers, they included one from the Allman Joys. At the end of the concert Allman approached them and told them that they were good, and that they should write their own songs. Years later they confirmed that their advice had been followed when they dedicated the best of them, Freebird, to Duane.
Recommended albums: (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd) (1973), Second Helping (1974), One more from the road (1976), Street survivors (1977)
The Marshall Tucker Band
Another of the great names of the genre, the Marshall Tucker Band, also successfully crossed various styles, like the Allman Brothers. Guided by the guitar of Toy Caldwell, who used to use a 335 or a Les Paul, besides being an expert with the pedal steel, the group mixed rock, jazz, country and rhythm & blues superbly in a career which led to them being signed by the movement’s top record company, Capricorn Records. Formed in South Carolina, their most distinctive features included the use of the flute and saxophone by Jerry Eubanks, as well as the fiddle of the great Charlie Daniels.
Recommended albums: The Marshall Tucker Band (1973), Searchin' for a Rainbow (1975)
Formed in Tampa, Florida, the Outlaws got their first contract thanks to Ronnie Van Zant who said to the manager of the record company, when he heard that they were going to be the support act for Skynyrd, "if you don’t contract the Outlaws you are the dunmbest person I have ever known". In 1975, on their notable debut album, you could already hear the characteristic ‘three guitar attack’ of their countrymen. The Outlaws then added to the equation vocals that linked with the country rock groups of the period, like New Riders Of The Purple Sage and the Eagles; although their most remembered song, Green Grass and High Tides, is an excellent ‘jam’ in the Allman Brothers’ style.
Recommended albums: Outlaws (1975), Hurry Sundown (1977)
ZZ Top were formed in Houston, Texas, and live in their own world of boogie rock. Over a long career they have created a totally unique sound in which John Lee Hooker hooks with the New Wave, and Billy Gibbons guitars, like his Gretsch Billy Bo or his 59 Les Paul 'Pearly Gates', hold hands with synths. Listening to, for example, Jesus has left Chicago one understands why the Australian Bon Scott appeared in some concerts wearing a belt buckle with the confederates flag...
Recommended albums: Tres Hombres (1973), Degüello (1979), Eliminator (1983)