10 Great Southern Rock Albums

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The South rose again… at its best to classic rock excellence

i-can-t-keep-calm-i-m-southernSouthern rock has come to mean a lot of things, but it’s pretty easy to pinpoint its defining moment: When the late Otis Redding’s manager Phil Walden started Capricorn Records in 1969. Before that, the South was mostly a place where country and R&B records were cut. Southern rock changed all that.

At its inception the style drew from, ironically, what numerous English groups had done with the blues, transplanting it back into its native Southern soil, where the country and R&B influences also seeped into the sound. And since rock’n’roll was a meld of those two styles to begin with, the genre simply reflected the circularity of rock music’s progressions. That combination of elements that birthed Southern rock has proved to be a Mississippi River of influence on American music ever since, spawning generations of Southern rock, country and jam bands who owe their sound to the magnificent consolidation.

As the style gained steam it developed its own cliches from what were once innovations. And the few Southern rock bands who could genuinely carve their own identities were truly great groups in their own right whether they were Southern or not. At least three of the bands here could provide great Southern rock album lists all their own. But in the interest of historical breadth I limited every group to a single release. I also avoided compilations and live albums. And it’s interesting to note how some of the genre’s greatest albums fall well outside Southern rock’s 1970s heyday. Counting down 10 great Southern rock albums…

10) .38 Special: Wild-Eyed Southern Boys (1980)

Donnie Van Zant, the younger brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant, rehearsed in the family living room with his band, which became closely associated with Skynyrd, especially after former Skynyrd bassist Larry Junstrom joined. After the 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie, Donnie’s young band had new purpose. But the group’s sound was different than Skynyrd’s, with vocalist Van Zant and guitarists Jeff Carlisi and Don Barnes writing AOR material that was closer to the studio sound of bands like Boston and Journey even though the themes stuck to the Southern rock verities of sex, partying and rock & roll. The band cut its best records at Studio One just outside Atlanta with producer Rodney Mills at the helm. Wild-Eyed Southern Boys was its commercial breakthrough, with strong material ranging from the title track to the hit “Hold On Loosely” and party favorites “Back Alley Sally,” “Hittin’ and Runnin’,” “Honky Tonk Dancer” and “Bring It On.”

9) Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera (2001)

Patterson Hood, the son of Muscle Shoals Studio rhythm section bassist David Hood, took the myth of Southern rock in all its fury and crazy excess and brought it to the next generation with this astonishing piece of shambolic, novelistic social commentary. Co-written with fellow guitarist/vocalist Mike Cooley, the two-disc set is the most ambitious piece of writing ever to come out of the genre, at once a commentary on the complexity of Ronnie Van Zant’s writing, a coming-of-age account of a young rocker facing the wasteland of MTV, and a recreation of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last moments in that airplane before it crashed. “And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I sure saw Molly Hatchet,” shouts Hood in “Let There Be Rock,” the album’s statement-of-purpose. “Days of Graduation” tells the grisly story of a deadly back country car crash. “Everyone said when the ambulance came/The paramedics could hear ‘Free Bird’ still playing…” Hood deals with Southern identity and the rivalry/friendship between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant on the terrific “Ronnie and Neil.” The album ends with a powerful synopsis of the Skynyrd legend – “Cassie’s Brother,” “Life In the Factory,” “Shut Up and Get On the Plane,” “Greenville to Baton Rouge” and “Angels and Fuselage.” It’s worth noting that the ubiquitous Rodney Mills mastered the album.

8) Kentucky Headhunters: Pickin’ On Nashville (1990)

This is the transitional album that turned Southern rock into mainstream “country” music, a transformation that really had more to do with radio programmers than anything else. But the Young brothers who led the Headhunters were nothing if not Southern rockers. Their previous band, the Itchy Brothers, was a flat out Southern rock band, steeped in Blodwyn Pig and Albert King. Richard Young on guitar and vocals and Fred Young on drums and vocals, with the great lead guitarist Greg Martin, applied the same sonic format to a mesh of country standards and self-descriptive Southern cameos like “Dumas Walker” and “Rag Top” and presto! Southern rock became country rock (the Headhunters rank much higher as Southern rock than country rock on the Amazon charts). The defining moment is the opening track on Pickin’, a fuzztone-drenched, hard-rocking version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic “Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine.”

7) The Georgia Satellites: Georgia Satellites (1986)

By the time The Georgia Satellites were dominating the MTV rotation with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” Southern rock was pretty much in a mothball stage. But this Atlanta band’s debut album is a great example of the genre and a real link to its future (for instance, the Black Crowes). Dan Baird was a cunning frontman who played big-voiced rhythm guitar to Rick Richards’ stinging leads and wrote terrific songs about sex, partying and rock’n’roll. “Battleship Chains” is another hit from this excellent record. The British blues influence is particularly strong here. Steve Marriott of the Small Faces and Humble Pie was a big influence on Baird – he lived in Atlanta at the time the group was developing, and the Fender Esquire that was Baird’s main axe he bought from Marriott – and the record also includes a great cover of Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.”

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6) The Radiators: Law of the Fish (1987)

At their inception the Radiators were a deep fried Louisiana sampler of influences from Jelly Roll Morton to The Meters. But when Epic Records signed them in the late 1980s, they were cast as a Southern rock band. And Law of the Fish, produced by the king of Southern rock producers, Rodney Mills, was a perfect illustration of the style: song-oriented for AOR radio with a healthy dose of blues, boogie and a signature two-guitar sound plied by frontman Dave Malone and the most idiosyncratic guitarist in the genre’s history, Camile Baudoin. Baudoin, the best slide player outside of Duane Allman before the days of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, plays more slide on this record than at any other point in his career. His solos on “Sparkplug” and “Boomerang” are two of the most exciting moments on Law of the Fish, which also includes the hard rocking “This Wagon’s Gonna Roll” and “Doctor Doctor” as well as the swamp rock classics “Suck the Head” and “Law of the Fish.”

5) Hampton Grease Band: Music To Eat (1970)

The Hampton Grease Band is the only group on this list that existed prior to Southern rock’s emergence as a trend. Under the leadership of singer/songwriter Bruce Hampton, a wildly eccentric figure who was compared to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart during the late 1960s, the group plied a southern-fried version of psychedelia with strong undercurrents of gospel songwriting and jazz arrangements and absurdist stagecraft that made it beyond category. But in reality this has to be considered Southern rock, perhaps in its John the Baptist stage. The two-disc Music to Eat is reputed to be the second-lowest selling album in Columbia Records history, and you can see why. This is a classic example of the No Commercial Potential school of avant-garde rock. Hampton yowls and screeches his way through a Dadaist mélange that includes at one point a recitation of the contents of a spray can. The jams are off-the-wall great, although they can get a bit abstract for some tastes. Guitarist Glenn Phillips is a legendary figure in his own right, playing blues scales, modal jazz and free improvisation as trumpets and trombones populate the eclectic aural landscape. Hampton went on to become a major influence on numerous Southern rock groups and jam bands like Widespread Panic.

4) Marshall Tucker Band: Marshall Tucker Band (1973)

Carolina rockers MTB lacked the sense of living on the edge of history that marked some of the other great Southern rock pioneers, but the Caldwell Brothers and their down home friends knew that things were changing and they were part of it. Frontman Toy Caldwell would be a mainstream country star if he came around today, but he was more hippie than Haggard back then, plying a proto-jam band sound that featured his own guitar soloing and an atypical co-lead instrument in Jerry Eubanks’ flute. Toy was a really good singer-songwriter with a series of hits stretched across several albums, but I chose their debut LP because the band’s sound was so unique it altered the landscape of what was considered possible in mid-Atlantic rock. “Take the Highway” and “Can’t You See” really define the sound and spirit of what would be called the New South.

3) Atlanta Rhythm Section: Third Annual Pipe Dream (1974)

Certainly the most creative and versatile of all the Southern rock bands, the ARS had a pedigree that dated back to the 1960s with members from Roy Orbison’s backing group the Candymen and the hit machine Classics IV. ARS was the house band for Studio One in Doraville, Georgia, where they would record anyone who walked through the door when they weren’t working on their own records. Tech whiz Rodney Mills ran the board as engineer and later producer for ARS and a bunch of other Southern rockers. ARS recorded more hit singles than any of their peers, but they were also one of the best live bands, with a lead guitarist in Barry Bailey who could hold his own with anyone, one of the greatest bassists in rock history, Paul Goddard, and a slide specialist in J.R. Cobb. ARS was a true album group, expanding songwriting ideas and arrangement strategies without overplaying. Third Annual Pipe Dream has it all – the statement of purpose “Doraville,” the gorgeous hit “Angel” with its dramatic strings-against-lead guitar exchange, the hard rocking revenge song “Help Yourself,” the beautiful ballad “Get Your Head Out of Your Heart,” and Bailey’s phenomenal take on a jazz guitar classic from Grant Green, “Blues in Maude’s Flat.”

2) Lynyrd Skynyrd: Second Helping (1974)

I left the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen festival in 1973 during the middle of an Allman Brothers Band set that, without Duane Allman, seemed like the end of an era. And went right to LaGuardia Airport and took a plane to Atlanta, where Al Kooper was showcasing his latest project, Sounds of the South Records, at a local club called Richards. Kooper kept referring to headliners Lynyrd Skynyrd as “the American Rolling Stones.” All I can say is they made me forget all about the Allman Brothers. With their intricate yet devastatingly in-your-face three guitar arrangements, a feral rhythm section and a menacing frontman, Skynyrd was among the greatest American rock bands I’d ever witnessed. Their debut record didn’t leave my turntable for a month. But the followup, Second Helping, was even better. By then Ronnie Van Zant was writing emotionally complex songs examining existential dead ends and questions of identity. The album opens with “Sweet Home Alabama,” which is, along with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the U.S.A.,” the most misinterpreted song in rock history, and for the same reason. Both are anthems with jingoistic tag lines that inspire pride of identity. Springsteen’s bitter look at the Vietnam war was misinterpreted by right wingers as an endorsement. “Sweet Home Alabama” has become the anthem for southern racists and Confederate flag lovers. But a careful look at Van Zant’s lyric here reveals a different meaning. Questions of identity are central to his writing and pronouns need to be watched carefully. His supposed “support” for segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace comes in the line “In Birmingham they love the guv’nah.” Right after this line, the background singers answer, gospel style “Boo, Boo, Boo!” The next line is “Now we all did what we could do.” He could only be referring to Lynyrd Skynyrd there. The song is about regional pride, and Van Zant pointedly does not identify with the segregationists. In the verse about Muscle Shoals, where Skynyrd made its first record, Van Zant makes his pronouns count – “Lord they get me off so much/They pick me up when I’m feeling blue.” How about you?

1) The Allman Brothers Band: The Allman Brothers Band (1969)

The coin of the realm, the absolute definition of the genre: R&B rhythm section with a hard blues Hammond B-3 overlay and two distinctive guitarists who could orchestrate harmony climb-ups on the fly and solo fiercely. The British blues process, which amplified and formalized American blues tropes, fed back on itself in the ABB’s Southern rock formula, which melded the technological dynamics of the Brits with the funk and soul of the original blues creators. Duane Allman’s slide playing is unparalleled, an Excalibur that has inspired such contemporary greats as Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (who both did time in a later iteration of the Allmans that came stunningly close to the original band. Dickey Betts brought strong country and jazz roots to the mix. The interplay of these two superb soloists with bassist Berry Oakley enabled the ABB to develop lengthy jams without relying on aimless noodling or boogie clichés. This is the debut album that changed everything, a shocking release in its time with its Dante-esque theme of flight through desperate territory expressed in the dark world evoked by such songs as “Black-Hearted Woman,” Whipping Post,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Dreams.” Duane’s slide solo on that last song is one of the most transcendent recorded moments in rock history. At a time when Southern rock has gotten caught up in the controversy over use of the Confederate battle flag, it’s worth noting that the ABB was an interracial group.

John Swenson
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  1. Pdawg
    #1 Pdawg 22 October, 2015, 19:56

    What about Blackfoot – Strikes? Or the first two albums by Molly Hatchet?
    C’mon Georgia Satellites? They were a over played one hit wonder at best.

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  2. Metalhead
    #2 Metalhead 4 April, 2017, 17:14

    seriously? how can have an article about the best southern rock bands/albums and not have Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot or the Outlaws on it? never heard of 3 of these and drive truckers are not what I would call southern rock.

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  3. Djdonn2k
    #3 Djdonn2k 3 July, 2017, 07:26

    You gotta put Molly Hatchet &Outlaws & Blackfoot Period! PDAWG YOU TELL UM!

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