Blackberry Smoke, Black Stone Cherry and Southern Rock’s new generation

Blackberry Smoke standing in the woods, frontman Charlie Starr kneeling at the front of the group and looking at the camera.
Blackberry Smoke.

You know why I love southern rock, man?” inquires Chris Robertson of Kentucky rockers Black Stone Cherry. “Because those bands walk on stage and blow the fucking roof off! It’s kick-ass music that is real, and that you can connect with. There’s a truth about it that you just don’t get with other genres of music.”

Go and see Robertson’s band, or Blackberry Smoke, or Alabama Shakes, or any of the new wave of southern bands that have been impacting on this side of the pond for the last decade or so, and we defy you to disagree. This is music with power, but with heart, too: a core of emotion that lends authentic richness to the intense musicality.

And make no mistake: this is no flash in the pan. Mainstream audiences and media are sitting up and taking notice of the new southern bands, not least because there are some big names involved. As the Nashville-based singer-songwriter JD Simo says: “There’s a huge movement of bands and artists coming out of the south. I’ve lived in Nashville for 10 years now, and I’ve seen the town change from a fairly closed community to a music factory, almost like Austin, Texas has. It’s really grown, and with that growth has come different musical trends that are now as much a part of the town’s infrastructure as country music always used to be.

“Jack White lives here, for example,” he adds. “I worked with him recently and he’s a good fellow. Then obviously there’s Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys, who we have some connections to, and the Kings Of Leon have recorded albums here, along with several other major rock bands. But if we’re talking about southern rock as a genre, we’re really close friends with Blackberry Smoke: they’re the most definitive southern rock band out there making music at the moment.”

That very band’s singer Charlie Starr pitches in, telling us: “What the new southern bands all have in common is that they’re making a statement about being from the southern parts of the United States. That covers all genres of music. Where I come from in Atlanta, we have hip-hop artists like Cee-Lo and Outkast as well as rock bands like Drivin’ N Cryin’, The Black Crowes, the Georgia Satellites – even REM, from Athens, Georgia. All those bands have always been about independence.”

Don’t try and put these new bands in a box any tighter than our general ‘southern rock’ category. They’re too different for that to work, and you’ll probably just piss them off. It turns out that the genre tag itself wasn’t looked upon too fondly by The Allman Brothers themselves, the pioneers of the southern sound. As Warren Haynes, Gov’t Mule bandleader and Allmans guitarist since 1989, tells us: “The Allman Brothers were never comfortable with the term, because they preferred not to be categorised. I completely understand that, but I also understand the reasoning behind the categorisation. I remember Gregg Allman once told me the term was redundant: all rock came from the south anyway, so calling it ‘southern rock’ was a bit like calling it ‘rock rock’!”

“I’m good friends with Ed King, one of the original guitarists in Lynyrd Skynyrd, and some of the Allmans are my friends too,” says Simo, “and depending on which of them you talk to, southern rock can be a touchy subject! Back then, they were all just playing music, and any time you try and put a brand on something and lump people together, some people are gonna be cool with it and some aren’t.”

Hollywood likes to portray us as backward, hillbilly Neanderthals.

All that said, there’s one thing that the older southerners would definitely agree with – the claim that they all admire the music of the British blues invasion from the 1960s, courtesy of a range of Anglo musos from John Mayall to Free and The Rolling Stones and beyond.

“The first time I heard The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women, I realised that it was a country song with loud guitars and big drums!” laughs Charlie Starr. “It’s funny, if you read interviews with the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd, when they’re talking about which bands influenced them from the era, they were mostly British bands like Cream and Free and obviously The Rolling Stones. It’s weird: a strange, recycled thing. The British bands had been influenced by American blues and R&B musicians, and they gave the world their take on that in the 60s, and then these young American guys offered their take in turn.”

Jon Harvey of Monster Truck adds: “Britain did the blues differently! There was no youthful blues coming out of America at the time, because the influences on the Stones were Howlin’ Wolf and guys who were 60 or 70 years old. The British thing made the blues young again.”

Lance Lopez of Supersonic Blues Machine explains: “We have two elements of music that originated in the American south – blues and country and western – which were later mixed together by geniuses like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. But in southern rock, a lot of the main influences came from England, and specifically from musicians like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Think about the famous Gibson Les Paul-meets-Marshall amp sound: that’s where it all comes from. It was a merging of the roots music which we had in the south and the rock music which came from England. The Allmans, Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, ZZ Top and most of the later bands had a heavy British influence.”

Of course, you only have to take a peek at our cover celebration of The Allman Brothers’ unparalleled 1971 album At Fillmore East for the full picture of the roots of southern rock. The new breed of southern rockers are united in their respect for that pivotal LP, says Zakk Wylde, the legendary Black Label Society frontman, sometime guitarist with Ozzy Osbourne and occasional venturer into southern rock territory with his 1994 Pride And Glory project.

“That is the iconic record by the most iconic band from that scene,” asserts Wylde. “There’s so much improvisation going on at that show. The Allmans didn’t play songs like they were on the record: they stretched out and traded solos. It was a jam band, which really influenced that scene as well. Everybody who loves southern rock also loves the Grateful Dead and Phish, right?

“Obviously the Allmans influenced me,” continues Wylde, “along with the Eagles and Skynyrd. Molly Hatchet too: they had great songs and pretty much did a hard rock version of southern rock. When I was doing Pride And Glory back in ’94, I also drew inspiration from Bad Company, who were Skynyrd’s favourite band along with Free. The constant between all my records is my love for that style of music, whether it’s the Stones doing Wild Horses, or the Band, or Bad Company, or Creedence Clearwater Revival, or even Elton John. All that comes out in the southern style.”

United in their admiration for At Fillmore East, the new breed point to the musicality of the band on that far-off night as the key to its enduring appeal. “I listened to that album yesterday! It’s such a free-form record,” says Jon Harvey. “You listen to it and it feels like you’re there, because there’s no separation between the crowd and the band. That’s really hard to do with a live recording, and I think that’s one reason why it’s so popular.”

“The thing that’s amazing to me about At Fillmore East is how little awareness there was of The Allman Brothers Band before that album,” says JD Simo. “The majority of Duane Allman’s tenure with them was spent playing to 50 people at college gigs, with the exception of when they would play the Fillmore venues on either coast, which were very well promoted and which had established, built-in audiences. With the exception of those shows, it was just small club gigs and random shows in gymnasiums and so on.

“Around the time that Duane passed away, though, audiences were starting to get bigger. After they played the Fillmore East at the end of June 1971, their very next gig was playing on the pier at Atlantic City to a couple of dozen people. They weren’t quite over the crest of the mountain yet, so there were still these weird gigs sometimes. Duane never really got to experience the full results of all the efforts he put in.”

Chris Robertson explains: “The guitar playing on At Fillmore East is unbelievable. It’s like the handbook of how to play southern rock guitar. That album is definitely Duane Allman’s greatest legacy. It captures all their energy and their beautiful melodies – and it captures Duane himself perfectly. There’s one thing which is true for pretty much every southern rock band in history, in my opinion: you’ve got what they do in studio recordings, and you’ve got what they do live. For the Allmans and Skynyrd – even up to the present day – it’s all about the live shows. Bringing different interpretations of the music is what it’s all about.”

Lance Lopez adds: “That record shaped my guitar playing. Duane and Gregg Allman, plus Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley, really made up a magical chemistry when they were together. That record happened to catch that great line-up on one of the best nights of their career. The Fillmore had a magical energy in the room that night. The tone of the guitars is so big and round and full, but also so smooth, and the interplay was so musical. When Duane and Dickey are trading licks, some of that doesn’t even sound like a guitar! Duane’s guitar sounds like a violin, which I think
is one of the hallmarks of a great guitar player.

“Want to know something?” he confides. “That album was heavily influential on Stevie Ray Vaughan. A lot of people don’t know that, but people who knew Stevie well have told me that he lived and breathed that album – and played it note for note every single day.”

Gov't Mule: Allmans offshoot.

Gov't Mule: Allmans offshoot.

Here’s a question for our posse of rockers. If you had to explain the sound of southern rock to someone new to the genre, how would you do it? “It’s a tricky question, actually!” muses Starr. “The term means different things to different people. All of those bands sound completely different, but what that term means to those bands is musical freedom. None of those bands were doing music that was the flavour of the week at the time.”

Zakk Wylde explains that there is no single ‘southern’ sound – that’s the point. “If all the bands played the exact same music, but they all came from Seattle, would it still have been called southern rock? Of course not, so the location had a lot to do with it. It’s all rooted in blues and the slide guitar, though. Skynyrd brought elements of country music to it, and the Allmans gave it a touch of gospel as well. There were no rules.”

Jon Harvey muses: “There’s something about it that’s attractive, no matter what culture you’re from, because who doesn’t want to sit on the porch and have fun? It’s relaxing, with a lot of emphasis on family and enjoyment and coasting along. The southern states usually have such a relaxed atmosphere that when tensions rise occasionally you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?’, because typically everyone’s so chilled. Maybe it just comes from being so hot down there, and playing hard, heavy music isn’t exactly relaxing!”

Starr adds: “People talk about twin lead guitars and so on in southern rock, but I think it’s just about having the freedom to explore a lot of different types of music and incorporate them into your songs. Sometimes there’s a country flavour, like with Dickey Betts, who brought that to the Allmans. Of course, the Marshall Tucker Band were completely doing that, too: revving up country music with a little jazz thrown in. Skynyrd took on the Stones’ country influence as well.”

Ultimately it’s about diversity, with the original pioneers connected to music that came from the southern states’ large African-American population. “Southern music has always maintained a connection to rhythm and blues: it’s closely connected with gospel music and black music, and the genre never sways too far away from those genres,” says JD Simo.

Sounds like a good time to ask a tough question, and risk annoying people. From our perspective over here, residents of the American south are often thought to be shotgun-toting, Bible-quoting rednecks with dubious views on race and a fondness for trailer parks. Is there any truth to this, or should we revise our opinions somewhat?

“There are a lot of misconceptions about people from our part of America,” explains Georgia resident Starr. “Particularly from Hollywood, which likes to portray us as backward, hillbilly Neanderthals. There are some of those people here, but there are those people everywhere, not just in the southeast of the United States. I love the way people carry themselves here: we’re slow and deliberate in our speech patterns and our daily activities, and it’s home. And obviously the best music in the world comes from here!”

So southern rock musicians and fans aren’t necessarily Republican voters? “I hate it when people say that,” replies Starr. “These people just have staunch, conservative values. I think, ‘What the fuck is wrong with that?’ I want wholesome things for my children, but at the same time, I’m not close-minded about things. Most people of my generation are somewhere in the middle, politically: we agree with certain views on both sides.”

One of the new bands that isn’t exactly new, having amassed two decades and counting on the road, is Gov’t Mule, highly relevant here since Warren Haynes is a touring member of the Allmans and knows a thing or two about matters southern. Asked for a cool reminiscence from his time with the band, he recalls: “Well, I must say that playing Woodstock ‘94 was great: it was such a highlight for me, being there with the Allmans who were my all-time favourite band. I was nine years old when the original Woodstock festival happened, so I had to experience it through my two older brothers and the recordings and the movie.

“A good story that goes with the 1994 event is that we had a sold-out show in Boston at a venue called Great Woods, booked and sold out months and months in advance, when they asked us if we could do Woodstock. We said that the only way we could do it would be if we played Woodstock really early in the day and then go directly to Boston to play the second show. So we played at 12.30 in the afternoon, and then immediately got on a private plane which took us to Boston. We had joked that the Boston show might suffer because we could be tired, but it wound up being one of the best shows of the tour, because once the Woodstock set was behind us, plus the pressure of making it to the plane, we could just relax and play music!”

Asked to define the role of Gov’t Mule, Haynes explains: “We all look at Gov’t Mule as our laboratory to do whatever we feel like doing, as long as it makes sense within our collective realm. When we started the band in ’94, we had no idea that we’d stay together for 20 years and counting: we were just having fun and taking it one step at a time. Every day we were re-imagining the direction of the band, so it built its own path organically.”

An early tragedy came close to derailing Haynes’s band when bassist Allen Woody died unexpectedly in 2000: he was discovered one morning, seated upright in a chair, with no cause of death detectable by the authorities. Shaken, Gov’t Mule elected to continue. “The band was on the verge of its first major success when Allen passed away,” recalls Haynes. “The momentum was strong enough to carry us through that hard time, but the next couple of years were extremely tough. We only survived it due to all the support we got from our friends in the music community who helped us get through it.

“In some ways,” he continues, “it reminds me of what happened with The Allman Brothers after they lost Duane. A lot of people predicted that his death would be the end of the band, but the momentum that they had built up with him carried them through.”

All rock came from the south anyway, so calling it ‘southern rock’ was a bit like calling it ‘rock rock’!

Interestingly for the new wave of southern rock bands, a precedent was established by later incarnations of Gov’t Mule, who have become entrenched in the popular American consciousness to the extent that musicians from bands such as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have played with them. Haynes is confident that the genre isn’t going anywhere soon, telling us: “Blues gave way to rock, and any rock which bears a resemblance to its origin will be somewhat timeless.”

But why is this particular music enjoying such a noticeable comeback right now? “Southern rock comes in waves,” he tells us. “There are times when what I consider to be blues-influenced rock’n’roll is popular, and times when it’s not popular in a mainstream way. It comes in waves, and it always will.”

JD Simo agrees with this view, saying: “Music goes around in commercial circles, and right around the new millennium was when The White Stripes and rootsier-based acts like that were becoming popular again. It was the opposite of the music which was commercially popular right before it, which was a very different thing: Creed and Nickelback and Limp Bizkit. The late 90s was a very different time in that sense.

“In a similar way to what Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had done to hair metal, Jack White swooped in with rootsier, earthier, more primal music and took its place, and in a certain way I think we’ve been riding that wave ever since. I think there are 10- to-15-year cycles where music gets very primal and emotional and basic, if you will, before less emotional, more overproduced music comes back in. Every now and then we need to hit the reset button!”

Lance Lopez takes a similar view: “In the early 1970s the music peaked with the Allmans and ZZ Top, and again at the end of the 70s after the tragedy that befell Skynyrd [the plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines, back-up singer Cassie Gains, alongside assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot]. That really shifted the music towards pop music in the 80s, although bands like Molly Hatchet and .38 Special held true to it. Apart from those bands, it was transformed into more commercial territory in that decade. Between the 80s and the 90s it was dormant for a while, before Skynyrd re-formed. But now it’s back on the upswing. It’s on the rise again.”

Is it over-thinking things to suggest that the public regained an appetite for southern rock – reassuring, patriotic music that it is – as a result of the 911 attacks? The musicians ponder this one carefully, as well they might.

Jon Harvey suggests: “Lots of patriotic things were popular in America after that tragedy, because it takes a tragedy to make people band together. Not just in rock music, though: take bands like The Lumineers, who basically play Americana folk – it’s not only rock that went back to a ‘born in the USA’ mentality.”

Warren Haynes replies: “I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense that after something like that, people would be looking for music that’s not so shallow. That applies not just to music, but life in general: people take things more seriously after something that major, myself included. Historically and statistically, most of the great music was written during or shortly after wartime. It carries on the weightiness of the times: those are no times for pretty, shallow art.”

Whatever the reason for its resurgence, southern rock is here to stay – unless fashions change again, and it goes underground for a while. But that seems unlikely: the bands are just too talented, and the public too keen to go and see them play, for a reversal of fortunes to occur any time soon. The original spirit is still there, says Haynes, but watch out for lesser imitators…

“The uniqueness of southern rock is the combination of country, blues, folk, rhythm and blues, soul, jazz and psychedelic music, all together in a unique mixture – but a lot of what has followed that has been less improvisational and less organic,” says the great man. “There’s still a lot of great music coming from those channels, but as with any musical movement, it’s started to become a parody of itself and some bands have started to sound a bit like caricatures of southern rock. I think it’s inevitable: the same thing happened with Jimi Hendrix, for example. When everyone started copying him, that style of guitar playing became diluted because of the lesser versions of what he was doing. Any time something cool comes along, it becomes diluted. But if the music is strong enough, it comes back.”

Jon Harvey says: “The funny thing about southern rock in America is that it never really goes away. We’re a Canadian band playing southern rock, so people always say to us, ‘Really? You’re not American?’ But that’s what we grew up on. Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Captain Beyond… all of that stuff was so influential on us that it was natural that we wrote songs that way. Now, Black Stone Cherry and the rest of the new bands, they’re probably saying the same things as we are!” They are indeed, fella.

Asked to recommend a cool new southern rock band, JD Simo comes back with two. “There’s a band from Texas called Stonerider,” he says. “And our favourite band at the moment is the Alabama Shakes, who are more tied to the music that came out of Muscle Shoals or Memphis. We love them. There’s definitely a crop of artists from the south that are influenced by southern music and rhythm and blues and black American music that came from the region.”

Lopez goes further still, recommending a whole new music scene for us to investigate: “Down in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas we have a form of music that we call ‘Red Dirt’ after the colour of the clay in the soil here, in the same manner as the Black Country in the Midlands of England. It’s a new form of rock that’s been really well received in the country music world, and to me it sounds really southern. You have groups like Shooter Jennings and The Cadillac Three and musicians of that nature. Go check it out!”

Black Stone Cherry: making sweet music.

Black Stone Cherry: making sweet music.

The lessons that the Allmans and their southern brethren have passed down to the younger generation are clear. Robertson sums it up: “Do whatever you do, but do it better than everybody else. Those guys did their thing to a level that nobody could ever reproduce.” And there’s more new music on the way, says JD Simo: “There’s a whole bunch of other bands who are percolating, as it were, and haven’t really broken through yet and who are influenced by all those bands from the 70s – as well as by The Black Crowes and other southern-influenced bands from the last 20 or 30 years. They’re coming!”

Perhaps there’s more to this new southern rock thing than simply a bunch of young bands who are into cool old music. According to Charlie Starr, the new music isn’t all going to be pretty: “I have a prediction. With the state of affairs in our country right now, especially with this circus of an election that’s going on, I predict an angry music comeback. If America had a Clash right now, they’d be popular. People are angry here and I’ve never seen the likes of it before.”

You read it here first. Keep your powder dry…

The Allman Brothers Band: The triumph and the tragedy behind At Fillmore East

Duane Allman: The life and legacy of a southern man

Joel McIver

Joel McIver is a British author. The best-known of his 25 books to date is the bestselling Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica, first published in 2004 and appearing in nine languages since then. McIver's other works include biographies of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Ice Cube and Queens Of The Stone Age. His writing also appears in newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian, Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Rolling Stone, and he is a regular guest on music-related BBC and commercial radio.