April 23, 2012:
6. Ten Bands That Define Southern Rock
I’ve always been a fan of Southern Rock. I grew up about halfway between Atlanta and Athens — two Georgia cities with vibrant music scenes, and over the years I’ve found myself drawn to the music of this colorful region of the country.
Though much early rock music originated in the South, a subgenre emerged in the late ’60s and ’70s — a melding of rock, country, and blues that earned the name Southern Rock. The themes of regional pride, wanderlust, and hardship are as prevalent in Southern Rock as the universal themes of love and loss, and many modern Southern Rockers have tried to come to grips with the South’s sometimes difficult and painful history.
Today, Southern Rock is far from monolithic — in fact, there’s something for just about everybody. The genre covers ground as varied as the region itself, from storytellers like Shawn Mullins and Bill Mallonee, to jam bands like Widespread Panic and the Derek Trucks Band, to the soulful stylings of artists like Mother’s Finest, Ashley Cleveland, and Alabama Shakes, to the new Southern sounds of bands like Kings of Leon and The Features. Even Christian bands like Third Day and Needtobreathe have managed to successfully cultivate a Southern Rock sound.
Here’s my list of ten bands that define Southern Rock. I don’t intend for this to necessarily be the most comprehensive list, nor do I mean to imply that these bands are the absolute best of the genre. My main criterion was to limit the list to bands that originated in the South — that’s why you won’t see bands like The Eagles, Poco, Ram Jam, or Bad Company on the list, even though they may well deserve to be. I also didn’t include solo artists on the list.
With all that said, enjoy the list!
In the early ’70s, a group of seasoned studio musicians made the move from Florida to Doraville, “a little bit of country in the city,” (so the song goes) just outside of Atlanta. They forged a uniquely soulful style and quickly became the party band of choice throughout their adopted hometown. Unforgettable hits like “So Into You” and “Imaginary Lover,” made them more than just a regional phenomenon. Their music provided the soundtrack for the youth of a growing Southern city, and a few of their songs have gone on to become staples of classic-rock radio. (Essential listening: “Doraville,” “Champagne Jam,” “So Into You”)
Hootie & The Blowfish spent years traveling throughout the South, honing their skills on the college circuit. In 1994, they teamed up with Don Gehman to record Cracked Rear View, creating an album of brilliant rock with a true Southern flair, a pattern they followed, more or less, for the next few years. Their guys-next-door accessibility put a pop patina on their sound, and their exploration of Southern themes (more so on the album cuts than on the singles) and celebration of their influences (especially on 2000′s Scattered, Smothered, & Covered) renders their Southern-ness undeniable. The fact that they were a racially integrated band in the unfortunately fragmented world of modern radio shouldn’t go without mentioning, and of course it’s interesting to note that lead singer Darius Rucker has gone on to become the first black artist since Charley Pride to top the country charts. (Essential listening: “Hold My Hand,” “She Crawls Away,” “Gravity Of The Situation”)
8. ZZ Top
Texas trio ZZ Top formed in 1970 with musicians who had grown up on a steady diet of Texas music. The band made a name for themselves as a gritty blues combo, grinding out tight riffs and catchy tunes, but as the ’80s dawned, ZZ Top decided to embrace the changing times. Adding synthesizers to the mix and making memorable videos, ZZ Top experienced greater mainstream success than they ever had before. Throw in a unique look — long beards and spinning guitars — and you have the makings of a band destined to make a splash on MTV. As popular as their ’80s output has been, nothing can top the scruffy, bluesy, indelibly Texas rock ZZ Top released in the ’70s. It’s worth nothing that ZZ Top is one of the few bands out there with their original lineup intact after over 40 years — that’s no small feat in and of itself. (Essential listening: “Legs,” “La Grange,” “Sleeping Bag”)
R.E.M. came along at an exciting time in the history of what we now call alternative rock. The first wave of punk had subsided, and New Wave hadn’t quite caught on. It was the perfect time for R.E.M. to experiment with chiming guitars and lyrics that celebrated the mystery of the South. The band honed their sound at the University of Georgia (my alma mater) and played at soon-to-be legendary venues on the burgeoning Athens music scene — places with names like 40 Watt and The Georgia Theatre. Somewhere along the way they took on the title of the “Fathers of College Rock.” Over the years they achieved astounding success and made plenty of changes to their sound, but the graceful and gloriously weird Southern Rock they made in their early days still manages to elicit chills. (Essential listening: “Driver 8,” “Fall On Me,” “Imitation Of Life”)