The History Of Southern Rock In 30 Songs

Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd backstage at a concert in 1976
Southern Rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd: the band behind Free Bird (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives\/Getty Images)

Southern Rock is the genre that refuses to die. From its roots in the post-hippie 60s, through its 70s heyday and up until today, it may have faded in and out of fashion but it’s never gone away. And hallelujah for that.

For fans, it embodies the rebel spirit that mainstream rock lost a long time ago. Giants of the genre Lynyrd Skynyrd rule the airwaves even today, but go beyond them and there’s a host of bands who have stayed unswervingly true to the foundations it was built on. A new generation of Southern Rock bands have emerged since the turn of the millennium, notably Blackberry Smoke, proving that it isn’t about to lay down and die any time now. Here are the 30 songs that built Southern Rock.

The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (1969)

Written by guitarist Robbie Robertson – a Canadian enthralled by the mythical south – and sung by Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm, Dixie tells the story of the end of the Civil War from the point of view of an southern soldier: beaten and tired, overtaken by the march of progress.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird (1973)

The track that, more than any other, defined the southern rock genre. The beginning of the song is almost a power ballad, as Ronnie Van Zant asks the immortal question ‘If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?’ – a line that, after the plane crash that took the lives of Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines and roadie Dean Kilpatrick, took on so much irony and pathos that for years after the reunion of 1987 Johnny Van Zant refused to sing it. The second part of the song is the glorious, almost apocalyptic guitar crescendo, extended from the song’s first recording in 1973 to become the triumphant response to the song’s downbeat beginning. Do we remember him? Hell yeah.

Allman Brothers Band – Ramblin’ Man (1973)

One of the pioneering southern rock bands, it was the Allman Brothers’ mix of blues, country and jazz that forged their overall sound. By the time they released Brothers And Sisters in 1973 they’d already lost lead guitarist Duane Allman in a motorbike accident, and had established themselves as the premier jam band with 1971’s epic Live At Filmore East. Brothers… contained two of the band’s best known shorter tunes in Jessica, (aka The Theme To Top Gear), and the effusive Ramblin’ Man, whose chiming twin guitar harmonies and country-esque vocals sent it to No.2 in the US chart and made it the most recognisable of all the band’s songs.

Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (1973)

Little Feat’s landmark third album saw Lowell George writing some of the best songs of his career and the band developing an oozy, denser sound that suited them perfectly. The rolling title track is a hard luck tale of a wayward southern Belle working the patrons in a Memphis hotel and reads like a native’s guide to the south.

Gregg Allman – Midnight Rider (1973)

Released at the same time the Allman Brothers’ Brothers And Sisters, Gregg Allman’s solo debut is an absolute delight of an album. Softer than his main band, it finds him delving into southern fried soul, his mournful cover of his own Midnight Rider, originally included on Idlewild South, is hauntingly evocative.

ZZ Top – Le Grange (1973)

There’s a one-chord blues trick to this 1973 ZZ classic, which is musically inspired by a John Lee Hooker number, Boogie Chillen. But the vibe of the track is all ZZ. The storyline itself was inspired by a notorious brothel which was just outside the town of La Grange in Texas. Commonly known as the Chicken Ranch, this place of, erm, entertainment was immortalised still further in the movie The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas – and closed when the authorities got wind. Everything about this song screams Texas.

Black Oak Arkansas – Jim Dandy (1973)

Easily Black Oak Arkansas’ best known tune, even if a lot of people don’t realise it’s Black Oak, Jim Dandy is a cover of the LaVern Baker R&B classic that fits perfectly with frontman Jim ‘Dandy’ Mangrum’s wild onstage persona. Always a bit more varied than a straightforward southern band, the wild-eyed ethos is still writ large all over the ebullient cover’s grooves.

Wet Willie – Keep On Smilin’ (1974)

Featuring the belting vocals of Jimmy Hall (who featured on Jeff Beck’s Grammy nominated Gets Us All In The End from 1985’s Flash), Wet Willie managed to rock as hard as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, but also infused their southern sound with healthy doses of soul and funk to boot. Keep On Smilin’ was the band’s breakthrough album, and the title track manages the seemingly unworkable feat of adding reggae into the southern rock mix. It does work, honest.

Grinderswitch – Pickin’ The Blues (1975)

At the bluesier end of the southern scale and woefully under valued, Grinderswitch were signed to legendary southern label Capricorn, for whom they recorded 1975’s Macon Tracks. Pickin’ The Blues is a stomping instrumental boogie and was used by the influential British DJ John Peel as theme music for his radio show.

Pure Prairie League – Two Lane Highway (1975)

With their Norman Rockwell cover art featuring the forlorn looking cowboy character, Sad Luke, it comes as something of a surprise to hear the openly breezy Two Lane Highway start up the album of the same name. Not a million miles from the Eagles in lightness of touch or tone, this minor hit from 1975 was from the band who would go on to recruit one Vince Gill and then launch him as one of country’s biggest superstars.

Ram Jam – Black Betty (1977)

Ram Jam’s clever and dense sounding reworking of Leadbelly’s Black Betty (originally only 59 seconds long) went on to be a massive international hit, although it was met with criticism over its lyrical content. Still a favourite on sports arena PAs America-wide.

Stillwater – Mindbender (1977)

The band Cameron Crowe had to ask permission from before he could use their name for his fictional band in Almost Famous. The original Stillwater were formed in Georgia in the early 70s and Mindbender, the story of a talking guitar (no, really), was their biggest hit. Guitar heavy, understandably, with vocals and a talk box interplaying over a rolling, southern back beat.

The Outlaws – Hurry Sundown (1977)

One could dip in anywhere in The Outlaws impressive and lengthy back catalogue and come up with a gem worthy of inclusion in any selection of great southern rock songs. They were the very first band Clive Davis signed to the Arista label after he saw them open for Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974 after Ronnie Van Zant said from the stage, “If you don’t sign the Outlaws you’re the dumbest person I ever met”. Such patronage was well deserved too, the band’s self-titled debut proving the first of may successful albums blending hard driving southern rock with countrified vocals. The title track from 1977’s Hurry Sundown, produced by Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk, is an absolute corker, blending the late Hughie Thomasson’s gritty guitars with sweet vocal harmonies.

Atlanta Rhythm Section – Large Time (1978)

Actually from Doraville in Georgia (which is near Atlanta rather than in it), ARS were another fine southern band who rarely troubled the UK. Large Time, the opening track from seventh album Champagne Jam, shied away from their usual radio friendly sheen to pack a serious southern punch, referencing their credentials in its lyrics ‘We played Macon, GA with Lynyrd Skynyrd, it was a rock’n’roll hoedown/Van Zant let that Free Bird fly, don’t you know he wasn’t foolin’ around’.

Blackfoot – Highway Song (1979)

Contemporaries of Lynyrd Skynyrd, with whom Blackfoot frontman Rickie Medlocke had drummed with in the very early days (and would later rejoin in the 90s) Blackfoot always walked a tougher line than most southern rock bands and benefited from the early 80s metal explosion to make inroads in the UK. 1979’s Strikes is probably the band’s finest ever album, from which the likes of Train, Train, featuring Medlocke’s grandfather Shorty on harmonica, and the lengthy epic Highway Song stand out. The latter rates as the band’s finest ever song; Blackfoot’s Free Bird moment, if you will, with its lyrics telling the tale of a hard rockin’ band on the road: ‘Well, another day, another dollar, after I’ve sang and hollered/Oh, it’s my way of living, and I can’t change a thing/Another town is drawing near. Oh, baby, I wish you were here.’

Charlie Daniels Band – The Devil Went Down To Georgia (1979)

Although something of a novelty hit, reaching No.3 in the States and No.14 in Britain (something of a rarity for most southern bands, it must be said), the Charlie Daniels Band’s southern rock credentials are without question. Given a slightly more country sound thanks to Daniels’ vibrant fiddle playing, The Devil Went Down To Georgia remains a great rousing anthem and fine beer drinking song to boot. Daniels’ hard-driven right wing politics may not sit easy with UK listeners, but his music still gets the feet tapping.

Alabama – My Home’s In Alabama (1980)

The signature tune for this quartet from – appropriately enough –Alabama, was written during their time when they were gigging under the name ‘Wildcountry’ and working Myrtle Beach’s Bowery venue in South Carolina. “One fan said ‘That’s the finest southern rock song I’ve ever heard in my life and I’m from Tennessee,’” recalled singer Randy Owen of My Home’s In Alabama. The track gave them their name, and the band – who never really meant much in the UK – their biggest hit. It was also the strongest example of their southern rock side.

Rossington-Collins Band – Don’t Misunderstand Me (1980)

Formed by Allen Collins and Gary Rossington after the horrific air crash that ended the original Lynyrd Skynyrd line-up, the Rossington-Collins Band debut album, 1980’s Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere was an almost instant success thanks to the hit single, Don’t Misunderstand Me. Dale Krantz’s (who would later marry Rossington) hypnotic vocal and the familiar southern twin guitars made for an irresistible combination and a radio smash.

.38 Special – Wild Eyed Southern Boys (1981)

Fronted by the late Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Donnie, by the time .38 Special got round to releasing Wild Eyed Southern Boys they’d already shifted their sound away from the hard driving country rock of early albums, adding a radio-friendly sheen to their sound. The title track (written by Survivor’s Jim Peterik), captured the rowdy essence of their original sound.

Molly Hatchet – Fall Of The Peacemakers (1983)

Almost every southern rock band has gone looking for its Free Bird in an attempt to emulate Lynyrd Skynyrd’s genre-defining masterpiece: Blackfoot’s Highway Song or Doc Holliday’s Song For The Outlaw. Molly Hatchet had Fall Of The Peacemakers – a triple guitar assault that builds from a gentle, melodic intro before building into a rip roaring guitar-centric finale.

Georgia Satellites – Keep Your Hands To Yourself (1986)

With their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, the Georgia Satellites biggest hit was one of many highlights on their self-titled debut album released in 1986. A phenomenal live band if a little frayed at the edges (it was no surprise to find the band covering a Rod Stewart song on the album too), the Satellites’ paean to commitment and relationships is still an untarnished gem.

The Kentucky Headhunters – Dumas Walker (1989)

Featuring both the father and uncle to Black Stone Cherry drummer John Fred Young within their ranks (indeed Black Stone Cherry rehearse in the Kentucky Headhunters’ old rehearsal room), this Kentucky-based act found favour in America with their jaunty southern, country rock, typified by this bouncy opener from their 1989 debut.

The Black Crowes – Remedy (1992)

Having appeared in 1990 with the southern soul of Shake Your Money Maker – which boasted their rousing cover of Otis Redding’s Hard To Handle – the band spread their wings on 1992’s follow-up The Southern Harmony And Muscial Companion, adding southern rock and Faces-style boogie to their repertoire. Remedy, complete with its gospel backing vocals, must rate as one of the finest songs the band ever produced. A perfect example of updating an old tradition for a modern day audience.

Raging Slab – Pearly (1993)

The band that Beavis and Butt-head once described as “like Skynyrd, but cool”, Raging Slab’s defiantly heavy take on southern rock has never been bettered or more typified than here. From the 1993 album with the misleading title, Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert (it’s a studio album), this is a thundering romp that is as good an indicator as any of what might happen if Metallica went country.

Drive By Truckers – Ronnie And Neil (2001)

A southern rock opera? Indeed, that’s what Athens, Georgia band Drive-By Truckers were aiming for on their third album, not uncoincidentally titled Southern Rock Opera. This standout track uses the rise and demise of Lynyrd Skynyrd as a metaphor for the boom and bust of America’s south during the 70s. Ronnie And Neil – Southern Rock Opera’s stand out track – highlights the supposed feud between Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young over the latter’s Southern Man and the former’s riposte, Sweet Home Alabama.

Shooter Jennings – Electric Rodeo (2006)

The son of country outlaw Waylon Jennings (whom he portrayed in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line), Shooter’s original band Stargunn enjoyed a reputation as a mix of southern rock and Gun N’ Roses type fare. Going solo, he employed a sound more akin to a blend of southern rock and his father’s outlaw country, best typified by this rowdy southern rocker, the title track of his second album.

Van Zant – My Kind Of Country (2007)

Johnny Cash, AC/DC, Skynyrd and .38 Special all get name-checked on the title track of the Van Zant brothers’ fourth album. Although .38’s Donnie and Skynyrd’s Johnny have found favour with Stateside country music television in recent years, their sound is pure modern day southern rock, as you’d expect from two members of the genre’s first dynasty.

Clutch – Electric Worry (2007)

Clutch’s take on Mississippi Fred McDowell song Fred’s Worried Life Blues is transformed into something denser than molasses, thundering along and buoyed up by shrill bursts of harmonica (courtesy of Five Horse Johnson’s Eric Oblander) and vocalist Neil Fallon’s animated yelps of, ‘Bang, bang, bang/Vamanos, vamanos’. It’s thrilling, fast paced and over too soon. Find it on Clutch’s From Beale Street To Oblivion album.

Kid Rock – All Summer Long (2007)

Robert James Ritchie certainly polarises opinion and his early, belligerent blend of rap, country and metal rubbed more than a few rock fans up the wrong way. But 2077’s Rock’N’Roll Jesus entered the US chart at No. 1, showing he’d certainly stemmed his recent career downturn. This cunning mash up of Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama and Warren Zevon’s Werewolves Of London highlight’s his unique vision and is typical of his more recent southern rock sound.

Blackberry Smoke – Ain’t Much Left Of Me (2012)

If anyone embodies the traditional Southern Rock approach today, then it’s Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke. From the country-fried guitars to frontman Charlie Starr’s undiluted Georgia twang, they invoke the spirit of classic Skynyrd and give it a modern spin. After spending a decade building up an impressive audience, Ain’t Much Left Of Me is the song that broke them through to a wider rock audience. Its mix of low-slung guitars and barroom piano ticks the right boxes, but like Skynyrd there’s heart to go with the muscle. Southern Rock is safe in their hands.

Have we missed your favourite Southern Rock song? Let us know in the comments below…

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