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Southern Stories
Jan 27/17

Top 10 Southern Rock Bands Born Below the Mason-Dixon Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments

So this is our Top 10 list of Southern rock bands, and we should explain that this is a list of rock n’ roll bands based in the South, not strictly a gathering of bands that play what may be considered Southern rock — that basic rock ‘n’ roll formula of guitar, bass and drums sung with a bit of a twang and whose songs reflect subjects that are mostly relatable to residents below the Mason-Dixon Line.

That’s not to say our list doesn’t include bands of this ilk, but there’s more to Southern rock than souped-up country tunes sung by long-haired, Hank Jr. wannabes.

Now, hold my beer and stand back:

10. The Black Crowes.
Southern birthplace: Georgia
Back in the early ’90s it looked like the Robinson brothers — lanky, loudmouth singer Chris and quiet, guitarist brother Rich — would be a Georgia version of The Faces. There was no denying the band’s commitment and Chris Robinson looked and sounded like Rod Stewart’s long-lost son. But the momentum from their first two albums, the breakthrough debut “Shake Your Moneymaker” and “Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” was overwhelmed by brotherly scraps, rock excess and a changing lineup. The brothers have regrouped over the years, and are touring now even as we speak, which is a good thing. (Black Crowes pictured up top.)

9. Big Star.
Southern birthplace: Tennessee
This Memphis band, led by ex-Box Tops singer Alex Chilton, probably sold fewer records than anyone on this list, but its influence remains vast. For three albums — 1972’s “#1 Record,” 1974’s “Radio City” and 1978’s “Third/Sister Lovers,” Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel, or some version of the four, were making jaw-droppingly gorgeous Southern-tinged British pop that went mostly unheard at the time but would, over the years, influence bands like R.E.M., the Posies, Teenage Fanclub and The Replacements whose song “Alex Chilton” is one of the greatest musical shout-outs ever.

8. The Meters.
Southern birthplace: Louisiana
You can’t have rock without funk, and New Orleans’ The Meters, led by Art Neville, had the market cornered on slinky, greasy Southern funk. Recording since the late ’60s, The Meters, who have gone through several incarnations, remain a highly influential unit. Check out the smooth glide of “Sissy Strut” or the scratchy riffing of “Look-Ka Py Py,” to get a sense of The Meters’ sweet groove. You can also hear them sampled on tracks as diverse as Two Live Crew’s “P-A-N,” Public Enemy’s “Timebomb” and Cypress Hill’s “The Phunky Feel One.”

7. R.E.M.
Southern birthplace: Georgia
“We’re the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff.” That’s what guitarist Peter Buck said about his band, R.E.M., at around the time the Athens-based group was breaking out of the college radio ghetto in the late ’80s with the album “Document.” Already critics’ darlings on the strength of strange and enchanting records like “Reckoning,” “Fables of The Reconstruction” and the startling debut, “Murmur,” R.E.M., lead by the charismatic and mysterious Michael Stipe, began a slow and steady climb to mainstream domination by the early ’90s. Signing a massive deal with Warner Bros., the band crossed over from indieville without losing much of its integrity on albums like “Green,” “Automatic for The People” and “Time Out of Mind,” laying a template for other alternative-minded groups, like Nirvana and Radiohead. They were the sound, especially on the early albums, of the strange, eccentric Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and artists like Howard Finster (who showed up in the band’s “Radio Free Europe” video).

6. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Southern birthplace: Florida
Hailing from Gainesville, the first incarnation of The Heartbreakers was called Mudcrutch and featured Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Randall Marsh and Tom Leadon. After a failed record deal, Petty, Campbell and Tench regrouped, added Stan Lynch and Ron Blair (later replaced by Howie Epstein) and became The Heartbreakers. Perhaps you’ve heard their hits — “American Girl?” “Refugee?” “Breakdown?” “Don’t Do Me Like That?” “Don’t Come Around Here No More?” Yeah. They’ve been on the radio a bit. Credit the sly combination of Petty’s obsession with The Byrds and Bob Dylan and the band’s undeniable melodic sense for their commerical appeal. And Petty’s stubborn, Southern side was in full view when he battled record label MCA over raising the price of the 1981 album “Hard Promises” to $9.98 instead of the customary $8.98. Petty won.

5. Drive-By Truckers.
Southern birthplace: Alabama
The band that made it cool for indie rock kids to start listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. With a pair of powerful songwriting forces — Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood — the Truckers would be on this list if only for the landmark “Southern Rock Opera,” which explored the nature of Southern rock, the legacy of Skynyrd and what it means to be a white boy playing rock ‘n’ roll in the South, but when Jason Isbell joined right after the release of “Southern Rock Opera,” the band burgeoned into a songwriting machine, melding country, rock and even a bit of R&B into tales of meth addicts, drunks, murderers, race-car drivers, Buford Puser, and heartbroken losers on albums like “The Dirty South” and the chilling “Decoration Day.” Isbell split back in 2007, but the Truckers are still rolling strong.

4. Booker T. And The MGs.
Southern birthplace: Tennessee
Another Memphis band, this one is more like an institution. The house band at the revered Stax studios, Booker T. and The MGs — Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg, Al Jackson, Jr. and, later, Steinberg’s replacement Donald “Duck” Dunn — played on some of the most influential soul and R&B recordings of the ’60s by artists like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Bill Whiters and dozens of others. The group also had its own hits, most notably with 1962’s instrumental “Green Onions” and would record and tour with Neil Young.

3. ZZ Top.
Southern birthplace: Texas
That little ol’ band from Texas fired up the blues with a wicked venom and a genuine reverence for its source. On classic early albums like “Tres Hombres” “Rio Grande Mud” and “Fandango,” the trio — Frank Beard, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons (they’re the only band on this list that has maintained its original lineup) — reworked traditional blues into an electrified thump that was awe-inspiring. Yes, they fell into that strange phase in the mid-to-late-80s where they discovered synthesizers and were all over the charts and MTV, but at heart they were still just a hard-charging blues band. And if you’ve ever wondered what a rocked-out Elvis would sound like, just check the Top’s brief but scalding cover of “Jailhouse Rock” on “Fandango.” It’s savagely good.

2. The Allman Brothers Band.
Southern birthplace: Florida
These fellas oozed bluesy and boozy musicality. With Greg Allman anchoring proceedings on keyboards and vocals, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts playing heavenly guitar riffs and a pair of drummers — Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson — teaming with bassist Berry Oakley, the band was a jamming machine, reaching new heights on the classic 1971 album “At Fillmore East.” Tragedy would later hit with Duane Allman’s 1971 death after a motorcycle crash, followed by Oakley’s death, also on a motorcycle, a year later. There were drug problems, legal problems, personal problems and money problems, but the music, well that was rarely a problem. On classic albums like “Idlewild South,” “Eat A Peach” and the aforementioned “At Fillmore East,” the Allmans laid the groundwork for numerous jam bands. And even now, songs like “Melissa” and “Tied To The Whipping Post” bring chills.

1. Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Southern birthplace: Florida
Was there ever any doubt? Of course not. Say Southern rock and the image of Ronnie Van Zant, mic stand in hand complete with cowboy hat, long hair and slight paunch, comes to mind, along with the opening notes of “Sweet Home Alabama.” For five albums from 1973 to 1977, this Jacksonville-based group got famous making working-class rock ‘n’ roll about regular folks that connected with an audience craving something straight ahead and honest. Van Zant’s anthems — “… Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “That Smell,” “Give Me Back My Bullets” “What’s Your Name,” “Freebird” among others — resonated among a demographic that was just as likely to be listening to George Jones along with, say, the second Skynyrd album. The 1977 plane crash that killed Van Zant and members Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and seriously injured the other members of the band remains a massive rock tragedy. By the late ’80s, surviving members regrouped, with Van Zant’s brother Johnny on vocals, to tour and record, but this band can’t — and probably shouldn’t — compare to what it was in its mid-’70s heyday, when it unwittingly set into motion a new genre called Southern rock.

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