New book chronicles southern rock

Friday, September 24, 2004

ATLANTA -- For many, Southern rock conjures up images of beer drinkin', hell raisin' and flapping Confederate flags.

In a new book, a former Rolling Stone editor and MTV executive casts the music of such groups as The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd differently -- as an art form born out of the civil rights era that defied stereotypes and gave voice to a generation of young, white Southerners uneasy with the region's backward image and racist icons.

In "Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South," author Mark Kemp writes that Southern rock helped him and his peers "heal at a time when we had no white role models who spoke as eloquently as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X."

"Instead, we had racist politicians such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox," he writes. "If we were to learn tolerance, we had to look elsewhere, and many of us looked to rock stars like Greg Allman and Ronnie Van Zant."

Kemp, who grew up in Asheboro, N.C., has spent two decades covering music and culture. His awards include a 1997 Grammy nomination for the liner notes of the CD "Farewells & Fantasies," a retrospective by protest singer Phil Ochs. For his book, released this month by Simon & Schuster, he calls on hundreds of interviews conducted over the years with musicians, producers and everyday fans.

He traces the roots of Southern rock to one of the nation's cultural and historical touchstones -- the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Soon after King was gunned down on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., black recording artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett closed ranks, working almost exclusively with other black musicians, managers and producers. Left in the wake were droves of white, Southern musicians who for years had made their livings playing sessions with those black artists.

At places like Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Capricorn Records in Macon, Ga., a new musical style was born, blending rock with blues, soul, gospel, country and jazz.

In the process, those artists presented a new image of what it meant to be Southern -- both to their fellow denizens of Dixie and to fans in other parts of the country.

"All of these albums allowed people to start seeing Southerners in new ways; new, very complex characters emerged," said Kemp, who now works in North Carolina as entertainment editor for The Charlotte Observer. "The only images people would see on television for so long were just the dumb redneck or the 'golly gee' nice guys."

In retrospect, some of the messages Kemp chronicles were simple.

In The Allman Brothers, the presence of black percussionist Jai "Jaimo" Johanson -- a former Otis Redding sideman -- sent a clear signal at a time when some Southern politicians promised "segregation forever."

"You think of it now and it seems absurd, but that was radical," Kemp said. "Just the image of The Allman Brothers, a mixed-race band from Macon, Ga., in 1969, was powerful."

The Allmans, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels campaigned and played benefits for upstart presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter, who as Georgia's governor in 1971 declared "the time for racial discrimination is over."

And on "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd defiantly fired back at rocker Neil Young, whose songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama" depict Southerners in general and Alabama specifically as racist.

Writers like Young and folk singer Ochs "tended to project a lot of the nation's guilt onto Southerners," Kemp said. "(Skynyrd singer) Ronnie Van Zant just called that into question."

The book's themes ring true for Patterson Hood, front man for the Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers. On the group's works, such as the 2001 double album "Southern Rock Opera" and last month's "The Dirty South," Hood's songwriting explores what he calls the "duality of the Southern thing."

"The South wore its racial issues so much more out in the open," Hood, 40, said in an interview from his home in Athens, Ga. "But many Southerners my age and younger felt the way I do -- had pretty liberal or tolerant views and couldn't fathom the racist views of our forefathers."

Kemp interviews both Hood and his father, Muscle Shoals session man David Hood, for "Dixie Lullaby." He said he discovered the band's "Southern Rock Opera" when he was halfway through writing the book and was surprised to find someone else exploring many of the same ideas.

"It showed that a lot of us have been thinking about this stuff," said Kemp, who started writing the book in New York but moved back to North Carolina to be closer to his subject. "Before, you couldn't talk about the kind of inner turmoil that young white children of that time period went through because it just wasn't politically correct to talk about."

Kemp said he hopes his book will help shine a light on not just Southern music, but on the complicated nuances of Southern culture in general.

"Music's what I do and I used music to talk about issues I thought were important," he said. "I do hope people outside the South will take time to read it to get maybe some insight they haven't had before about Southern folks."

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