Being of original Southern heritage sometimes leads one into misguided reactionary territory, especially when you're talking Southern Rock. There's not a punk fan alive from south of the Mason-Dixon line, for example, who didn't at one point disavow ever liking Lynyrd Skynyrd. Although I had a good excuse when, on my first day in a college dorm, some oaf in the next room played "Freebird" about 50 times in a row. Could Blackfoot, Allmans, Charlie Daniels Band, Outlaws, Marshall Tucker Band, Black Oak Arkansas, et al., be far behind in his modus d'torture?
Similarly, Jacksonville, Florida's Molly Hatchet has been the butt of many punch lines, not the least of which have involved the unfortunate moniker. And what was up with all those Frank Frazetta-styled sci-fi/fantasy album covers? Somebody call Ronnie James Dio, fast -- demons, dragons, warriors, oh my! I'll confess right now that during my late '80s watch as music editor for a Carolina weekly, I approved a concert preview blurb which rather floridly likened the Hatchet's music to "the sound of licking up stale beer from a dirty concrete floor." Well, call me Duane and slash my Harley tires: The afternoon of the gig a member of the band rang up the newspaper office and proceeded to enthuse to my editor that we'd "really nailed what the group's all about," thanking us for what he took to be sincere kudos and offering tickets to the show!
But with Legacy's recent remastered repackaging of Molly Hatchet's '85 best-of, maybe I'll eat that blurb and wash it down with the group's stale beer. When done right, hits packages conveniently distill things down to the essence, and there's not a misstep here among the 10 tunes from the original Epic LP or the five bonus cuts added to the new CD edition. The brace of '78-'79 material alone should be in the archive of any self-respecting musicologist, including Molly Hatchet's "Bounty Hunter" (almost proto-punk in its stuttery, jittery riffing) and "Dreams I'll Never See" (a Gregg Allman composition, a classic rock radio staple, and a complex, almost prog anthem in its own right), plus Flirtin' With Disaster's "It's All Over Now" (a hell-raising take on Bobby Womack) and "Whiskey Man" (an archetypal So-rawk swagger-anthem).
Molly Hatchet had the standard-issue twin- and triple-geetar front-line attack and the brawlin', gravel-tenored lead belter (Danny Joe Brown also had an abrasive tendency to emit a crisp two-count whistle at random moments). And the band wasn't averse to blustery, hirsute yahoo behavior, either. But these guys also had a remarkable blue-collar sincerity and roots pride that connected with their audiences. Not to mention the fact that they could rock like mofos in concert -- check the sleek, arpeggiated B.O.C.-style crunch in "Edge of Sundown" or the mutant "Johnny B. Goode"-isms of "Bloody Reunion" (both from the '85 stage set Double Trouble Live).
A story I like to tell is how when I was a kid my daddy and I watched a long procession of Confederate-flag-bedecked automobiles drive past our house one sunny afternoon and I asked him were we going to go join in the parade. He looked at me, thought a sec, then replied, "Son, that's not the kind of parade we want to join." Years later when I had a sense of what the Ku Klux Klan was all about, his words made sense in the larger context of what being from the South entailed: understanding one's heritage, even if part of it is shameful. That's also why nowadays I refuse to apologize for having an abiding respect for all the Southern rockers mentioned above. They, too, are part of my heritage. Thankfully, not the shameful part. And Molly Hatchet is still out there, still flirtin' with disaster every night, stale beer, concrete floors and all. In this son-of-a-peach-farmer's mind, that seems oddly reassuring.
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