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!
10. Atlanta Rhythm Section
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) render 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”)
No other modern band has captured the spirit of the hard-working, hard-living poor of the American South like Drive-By Truckers. My friend Trey Bailey calls their music “dirty Southern trailer park rawk,” and there may not be a more apt description. This is a band that has turned the plight of the stubborn, proud, underprivileged Southerner into an art form. (And, because of them, I never refer to what I’m wearing as an outfit.) One listen to any of their dark masterpiece albums will open up the world of the people of the South that writers, musicians, and filmmakers alike often overlook or make fun of. Drive-By Truckers has created fascinating songs, worthy of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Truly amazing stuff. (Essential listening: “Ronnie and Neil,” “Outfit,” “Never Gonna Change”)
South Carolina’s Marshall Tucker Band walked a fine line between several distinct musical styles — country, folk, rock, jazz, and jam-band — and synthesized them into their own unique Southern Rock sound. One can’t help but wonder whose idea it was to invite the flute player into the band, but the flute somehow manages to add to the band’s unique flair. The band honed their craft in the early 1970s, in a rehearsal hall owned by, you guessed it, Marshall Tucker, until they became a tight unit, crafting a sound that included long jams, expert musicianship, and Doug Gray’s vocals, which sound like a cross between Waylon and Willie. Their well-known songs, such as “Heard It in a Love Song,” “Fire on the Mountain,” and “Can’t You See,” tell only part of the story: other songs like “This Ol’ Cowboy” travel across multiple musical styles while still sounding like Southern Rock. Oh yeah, and the flute never really sounds out of place. (Essential listening: “Heard It in a Love Song,” “Take the Highway,” “This Ol’ Cowboy”)
When they think of The Charlie Daniels Band, most music fans immediately remember “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and maybe even “In America,” the band’s two biggest Hot 100 hits. CDB have been even more successful on the country charts, and they definitely walk the country line of Southern Rock. Daniels is more than just a virtuoso fiddle player and vocalist — he also wields a mean guitar and has played alongside some of the biggest names in music. Daniels fearlessly speaks out about what he believes in — God, love of country, Southern pride, and freedom — and he and the band have never shied away from exploring these themes in their music. Daniels barely allowed a 2010 stroke to slow him down, and after 50 years of hits on the pop, rock, country, and Christian charts, the Charlie Daniels Band is still going strong. (Essential listening: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Still in Saigon,” “The South’s Gonna Do It Again”)
Rolling Stone once called this band “the most ‘rock & roll’ rock & roll band alive,” and they deserve a place on this list for “Remedy” and ”She Talks to Angels” alone. The Black Crowes look and play as if they just walked out of some kind of 1970s time warp. All the elements of vintage Southern Rock are there: blistering guitars, soaring B-3 and electric piano, gospel-styled female backing vocals. Those elements set the stage for Chris Robinson’s fiery, soulful vocals to unfurl like some gritty banshee. Chris and his brother Rich feuded with the best (or worst?) of rock & roll brothers, and the band’s flashy showmanship and fiery passion caused critics and record buyers to take notice. The road they’ve traveled is littered with great rock & roll stories and even more incredible songs. (Essential listening: “She Talks to Angels,” “Remedy,” “Kickin’ My Heart Around”)
Everybody knows “Sweet Home Alabama” and (yell it) “Freebird.” Everybody knows about the plane crash. Their story is almost as legendary as it is true. And yet, most people don’t realize what set Skynyrd apart from the other bands of the day, Southern Rock or not — the swagger and bravado of the late Ronnie Van Zandt. Blues and country influences, a whopping three guitarists, and Billy Powell’s perfect boogie-woogie piano helped add to the distinctive sound as well. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music was largely about pride: pride in the South itself, pride in traditional values, pride in the band’s own ability to rock. Skynyrd gamely carries on today, traveling much of the same musical territory as 35 years ago, but the near mythic status of Ronnie Van Zandt and a showstopping, powerful band is a tall shadow to stand in. (Essential listening: “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Simple Man,” “Workin’ for MCA”)
No band in Southern Rock history has had the staying power or the unique ability to transcend genre as the Allman Brothers Band has. Often sliding into country, sometimes stretching into blues, usually jamming live, turning songs into 20-minute opuses, the band touches on all the conventions of the Southern Rock genre without turning them into cliches. They’ve weathered the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, only to emerge stronger and more successful. They have featured distinct vocals by Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, and later Warren Haynes, and have still managed to create a sound that is largely consistent and mostly excellent. They still put on an amazing live show — with two drummers! For forty years and counting, the Allman Brothers Band has defined and redefined Southern Rock genre, making it better, not by polishing it, but by highlighting the rough edges of rock. (Essential listening: “Jessica,” “Blue Sky,” “Whippin’ Post”)
So there’s my list. My hope is that you’ll discover some music you haven’t heard before or dig a little deeper into the artists you already love. Southern Rock is such a vast genre of music that even the most casual listener is bound to find something he or she can really enjoy.