Southern rock is all things to all people. It’s a joyous celebration of being alive, a gritty reflection on the human condition and the perfect soundtrack for beer drinkin’ and hell-raisin’. It’s also inextricably tied to the land and character of the American South, something outsiders have used as a stick to beat it with (the past and current use of the Confederate flag remains a hot button topic) but ultimately gives it a sound and identity that’s unmistakably its own.
Southern rock’s golden age was the period spanning the early 70s to the early 80s, with acts such as The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet blazing a dusty trail. But it continues to thrive via bands like Drive-By Truckers, Blackberry Smoke and Whiskey Myers, all of whom put a distinctly modern spin on it.
If you’re new to the genre, or want to go deeper than Free Bird, here’s our beginner’s guide to Southern Rock in five albums.
The Allman Brothers Band - Eat A Peach (1972)
‘Bearing sorrow, having fun.’ That phrase from Melissa captures the essence of this masterpiece album. After Duane Allman died in a motorbike crash, the band rallied and made a studio-meets-live double album (including choice leftovers from their landmark 1971 live album At Fillmore East) that was part benediction, part bridge to the future.
Every song here is a classic, from the southern soul stirrer Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More to the epic Mountain Jam to Dickey Betts’s uplifting Blue Sky to the delicate acoustic jewel Little Martha. Drummer Butch Trucks called it “the apex of who we were,” and Gregg Allman said it “has the roots of our whole thing as a band”.
Lynyrd Skynyrd – '(Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd)' (1973)
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic debut, is the quintessential southern rock album and includes the most sacred of all southern rock songs. Gary Rossington said of Free Bird: “It wasn’t anything heavy, just a love song about leavin’ town.” But this nine-minute epic is Skynyrd’s Stairway To Heaven, a legendary rock anthem.
The album also features two beautiful blues-based songs: Simple Man and Tuesday’s Gone. And on the swinging Gimme Three Steps, Ronnie Van Zant recalled having a gun pulled on him by the jealous boyfriend of a girl named Linda Lou – the archetypal southern tale.
ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (1973)
Are ZZ Top really a Southern band? The argument has raged down the years, but the truth is that while ‘The Li’l Ol’ Band From Texas’ may be slightly removed from the genre’s main highway, their shared musical legacy is undeniable.
There are some who’d regard 1983’s Eliminator as the trio’s most important record, but Tres Hombres is the one that saw their unique vision of blues, Cajun music, funk and hard rock – not to forget that humorous sense of the absurd – take root on a grand scale. It was songs such as Jesus Just Left Chicago, Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers and, inevitably, La Grange that made the band a significant force.
Molly Hatchet – Flirtin’ With Disaster (1979)
The second album from the Jacksonville band who seem to have been doomed to live out their career in the shadow of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Nevertheless, the group’s altogether more metal approach, allied to such monumental songs as Whiskey Man and Boogie No More, helped to make this their biggest seller in America.
The late Danny Joe Brown’s mountainous voice and their trademark triple-guitar frenzy gave Hatchet a real edge, both live and in the studio. And the unmistakable Frank Frazetta artwork also helped to get the band attention. They came close to matching the record on 1983’s No Guts… No Glory, but this is still their standout.
Drive-By Truckers - Decoration Day (2003)
Few bands embody the complexity of southern rock in the 21st century like Georgia’s Drive-By Truckers. Founders and chief songwriters Patterson Hood (son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood) and Mike Cooley earned their spurs on the local punk rock scene, balancing punk’s iconoclasm with an unironic respect for such forebears as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allmans.
2001’s Southern Rock Opera was a sprawling dialogue that addressed the good and bad sides of that amorphous yet distinct geographical and spiritual entity that is ‘The South’, but it’s this follow-up that stands as the Truckers’ finest hour, whirling through tales of rebellion, religion and redemption. As laidback and intimate as a Sunday afternoon on the porch, as ragged and electrifying as any punk rock band, it’s the spirit and soul of southern rock reinvented for today.