Refried South

Southern rock, once stigmatized and left for the comedians, has entered a new era of appreciation

"It's always easier to categorize something, which is what we've always kind of avoided. But I do think the label would have preferred us to make a follow-up that was more like that last record . . . they probably wanted another Southern Rock Opera."

Even if it isn't bordering on a "Freebird" heart attack, Decoration Day does contain the layers and the moral ambiguity and guilt of early Allman recordings, and with songs about brother-sister incest, family feuds and drunken infidelity, it surely is Southern gothic. Hood says the band recorded the album on the fly, using seven first takes and coming in well under budget, which enabled it to buy the record back from Lost Highway, put it out on the independent New West and flourish anyway.

The tour bus, it turns out, is a brand-new luxury, the band's first after playing more than 800 shows traveling by van. Folks out there care enough these days to lift its down-home colloquial tide.

Dirty south: Southern rock has a resurgence that is worth noting.
Bruce Reade
Dirty south: Southern rock has a resurgence that is worth noting.

While the rest of the new dawn of Southern rock isn't quite as straightforward as the Drive-By Truckers' approach, the hues and shapes of other artists' work reveal the cultural influence at play about as well. Here's a sampling of recent albums:

Kings of Leon, Youth & Young Manhood (RCA): All in their teens and early 20s, blessed with the charming surname Followill, raised by a rock 'n' roll-loving Pentecostal minister, this Nashville quartet's got the pedigree to claim their home state's boogie-woogie tradition. Youth & Young Manhood is built on uncanny, down-and-dirty rhythm, an amalgam of country, R&B and garage rock. It sounds like it was made for about $50, with the three brothers and their cousin bashing through a series of what you'd think are first or second takes -- "Wasted Time" sounds so wonderfully rough, you wonder if one of 'em will throw a guitar across the room in disgust.

Youth & Young Manhood's major strength and most inviting throwback element, however, comes from the mouth of vocalist Caleb Followill. Like his facial-haired white-boy forebears, Followill sounds like he's too busy drinking or falling asleep. Or maybe he's just pissed and visceral, like Gregg Allman always seemed. Caleb's all understated mumbles and thick, extra-syllable-inducing drawl ("I done put a bullet to his hayyy-eed!"). On Kings of Leon's best songs, here including "Holy Roller Novocaine" and "Red Morning Light," his nonchalance seems nearly perfect.

Brooks & Dunn, Red Dirt Road (Arista Nashville): No one can doubt the rustic leanings of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. They've been country superstars for years, churning out smiling hits and inviting folks like the late stock-car hero Dale Earnhardt to appear in their videos.

But who knew, really, they could just plain rock? Okay, so they keep their twang and lofty country-radio vocals intact, but the songs on Red Dirt Road are tough, at times unrelenting. They've left Ruby Tuesday and rediscovered the neighborhood dive. The album even begins with a stuttering Stones riff, barroom piano, a searing guitar solo and a lyric about boys "doing what boys do" on "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl." It's one of the better songs of the year, a sure-fire volley for the new Pabst-sipping intelligentsia.

My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (RCA/ATO): Up to now, some with casual ears might have argued that Louisville upstarts My Morning Jacket, with their extreme use of reverb and predilection toward wondrous, far-out and lengthy folk-rock excursions, are about as Southern rock as Indian food. Didn't matter if bandleader Jim James crooned to banjo on "If It Smashes Down," from the band's 2001 At Dawn, while a fire burned and cars passed in the background. It was perceived as space-invading indie fodder.

But that was before My Morning Jacket figured out how to capture the power of their live shows, in which a barefoot, shaggy James (Hmmm . . . wonder who set that precedent?) leads the band through a thunderous guitar assault. With It Still Moves, the band continues its romance with the colossal echoes of the Kentucky barn it uses as a recording space, but it also captures the fury and the soul of James' trade-rock songwriting, as if the engineers installed the microphones on top of the players instead of in the doorway this time. Now propelled by bone-crunching guitars and a growing instrumental swagger, James' melodies resonate even more forcefully, and the country piano and horns on "Dancefloors" are pure Southern seasoning, an ideal catharsis from the lyric "So for the past I'm diggin' a grave so big/It will swallow up the sea."

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