Steve Trella fields requests for songs by Southern bands like the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band and the Outlaws every day. That shouldn't come as a surprise. Trella is an afternoon DJ for KSLX-FM, Phoenix's classic rock station. Lots of listeners grew up on the rebel-flag-waving attitude and black-music longings that emanated mostly from Florida and Alabama in the '70s.
Yet Trella notices something these days that is a surprise: Voices on the line sound like they should be gushing for 50 Cent or Dashboard Confessional instead, and the old fogies are finding themselves increasingly acquainted with the holding cue.
"The demographics with those requests are definitely getting younger," says Trella, who even finds his 20-year-old daughter dabbling in the bottleneck slide solos, honest lyricism and drunken bar brawl aesthetic that made the Southern rock canon so unique -- and such a joke to casual listeners, punk kids and anyone who looks down at white trash. Not that it comes from thin air, according to Trella.
"The younger audience will look to see who the influences on those bands of today they like are, so they'll start to look back and say, Well, the Allmans influenced this band I like . . .'"
And so they listen to the Allmans, and then they want to share their discovery.
Now, it seems, a new generation of musicians, music lovers and eager-to-please hipsters has caught on to the thrilling "don't give a shit" noise assault and soulful observation of Southern rock. Perhaps it started with Kid Rock using a mock James Gang riff to anchor "Cowboy" in the late '90s, or maybe it had something to do with that tongue-in-cheek two-CD made-for-TV compilation Goin' South that hit a couple years later. Whatever it is, the rock kids of today are embracing the raw production and big guitar approach that stigmatized and deflated the .38 Specials of the previous generation.
They're also sporting trucker hats, bell-bottom jeans, giant belt buckles, drugstore aviator shades and open cans of Pabst. It goes beyond irony; it suggests something of an awakening, much like what happened with surf-rock and rockabilly after Pulp Fiction hit a decade ago, or like how white radio DJs rediscovered doo-wop in the '70s.
There's soul in them there songs where there ain't none elsewhere!
Musicians who catch on are finding themselves with a soft, warm spotlight. For Patterson Hood, singer, guitarist and songwriter for Alabama expatriates the Drive-By Truckers, awakening is a fair word to describe his embrace of "the Southern thing."
"I never really set out to think of us as a Southern rock band," Hood says from the Truckers' tour bus, somewhere in Colorado.
Hood, as he describes in the lyrics to the band's brilliant 2001 record Southern Rock Opera, grew up rejecting Lynyrd Skynyrd and the other radio gods in his native Muscle Shoals area; he was "one of them pussy boys," after all.
It wasn't until Hood reached his early 30s that he rediscovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, and that's when he and his mates turned the corner from life as yet another college-rock troupe.
"I grew up more being into punk rock. I loved the Clash. I loved the Replacements. I was into songs with strong songwriting," Hood says. "As I've gotten older, I've been discovering all of that music that came out of the South, especially Skynyrd. I was really taken aback by what an amazing songwriter Ronnie Van Zant was. People were kind of turned off with what the band was associated with as opposed to what an amazing band they were."
So taken aback, in fact, that Hood and bandmate Mike Cooley spearheaded a six-year effort to record a strange, two-album tribute to Skynyrd, obsessing on the specific episodes, contemplating the politically and socially messed-up era Van Zant sang about and, most oddly, creating a fictional band based on Skynyrd that also meets doom in a plane crash somewhere in Louisiana. Among Southern Rock Opera's strongest songs is "Let There Be Rock," which includes the joking (and, well, ironic) line "I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd/But I sure saw Molly Hatchet." The band had never really dipped into a three-guitar sound before the recording, but they still managed to startlingly re-create it.
Hood describes how the band recorded that album on the second floor of a Birmingham warehouse with no air conditioning -- in the middle of a heat wave. It was self-imposed brutality for a bunch of guys who thought they'd get nowhere anyway.
"We never thought anyone would ever fucking hear it," Hood says. "It never really occurred to us."
"We happened to do that record, and it was about the rise and fall of arena rock," Hood says. "At the time we did it, it was considered a bit of a departure for us, but then it became the record everybody discovered. Then we got lumped in as a Southern rock band."
Not that it was such a terrible fate. The notoriety earned them a major-label deal with Lost Highway, which gave the Truckers the chance to make a crystal-clean record for the first time in their history. Yet that was about the only advantage. The follow-up, the much subtler and varied Decoration Day, a collection of songs written as marriages were crumbling, infighting was lingering and the combination of Southern Rock Opera recording and nonstop touring was driving the band members nuts, wasn't quite as trucker-hat-friendly as the Lost Highway folks had hoped.
"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.
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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