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Rising from the ashes?

“Play “Free Bird!””

The call comes from young and old, rich and poor, and is the bane of many musicians around the globe. This one phrase, referencing the 1973 Lynyrd Skynyrd southern rock anthem, “Free Bird,” has been shouted inappropriately at concerts of every style and in venues small and large; usually as a way to get a cheap laugh. But not always. Many of these live music patrons actually do want the band to play “Free Bird.” Music reviewers and critics have called “Free Bird” the most requested song of all time,” with “Sweet Home Alabama,” a not too distant second.

Though to many it almost feels as if “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” have just always been a part of pop music culture and fabric, ready to incite rebel yells, “Hell yeahs!,” and good southern party vibes, that’s not the case. So from where and when did southern rock come? Is it still commercially viable as its own format? Or has it been blended into today’s country music play lists? No one claims authorship of coining the genre’s name, or knowledge of when exactly “southern rock” first entered the lexicon, but virtually everyone agrees it started in the early 1970s in Dixie, and it’s from Dixie that it will likely find its new blood.

One such act, and no stranger to the Grand Strand, may be representative of that new blood needed to rejuvenate the once-proud, decidedly southern-fried brand of rock ‘n’ roll.

First forming in 2003, Blackberry Smoke, from Atlanta, proudly carries the southern rock torch, and will perform Saturday at the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach, along with southern-inspired opener A Thousand Horses, whose founding members are from Newberry. Some 40 years after the southern rock genre first came to be, bands, such as Blackberry Smoke, A Thousand Horses, and local boys the Superswamp Heroes, unashamedly fly the southern rock banner. But how did the genre first enter pop culture and from where can it trace its roots?

The sound and the fury

While the 1960s gave birth to hard rock, bubble gum, Motown’s R&B, the West Coast’s surf music, and the British invasion, among other formats, the peace and love generation’s southern cousins were up to something altogether different. Their music was loud, sometimes complex, other times stripped down and simple, and always came with a southern drawl, alligator boots and tall hats – but it wasn’t country. It was raw and gritty, and shunned by Nashville’s more conservative music machine. Like other formats with a noted geographical origin, it spoke of home. In this case - the South.

By the early 1970s country music had already been well established and had its handful of bad boys (Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings), but from the late 1960s into the early 1970s something innovative and curious was stirring in the Southland. It wasn’t Elvis’, Carl Perkins’ or Buddy Holly’s rockabilly, though it may have gained inspiration from those early forefathers. It wasn’t the blues, though like most rock ’n’ roll it was blues-based, and it certainly wasn’t country, though it shared many of country music’s themes and some of its instrumentation. This was music born of a post-psychedelic flower-child generation that espoused hard drinking, hell-raising, guns, and southern heritage, while using modern electric guitar techniques to craft a new vision of American rock ‘n’ roll.

The music was a perfect source of content for a brand new form of (originally) less corporate and commercial radio; FM. And for a while, by the mid-1970s, southern rock shared the bill with metal, British-dominated progressive rock and everything else FM radio could think to play. Unlike today, early FM formats mixed a huge variety of contemporary music styles together in one big, beautiful pot, often allowing the DJ to stir in whatever he or she wanted. Throughout the 1970s it was not uncommon to have heard Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or Peter Gabriel-era Genesis (all British progressive rock bands), mixed in with Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Charlie Daniels Band and The Marshall Tucker Band, all in the same 30-minute commercial-free time block.

By 1975 southern rock was huge, but it never completely subjugated rock music, as was the case with grunge in the 1990s, but it sure gave it hell. Redneck rockers from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, all the way to The Ozarks, mixed the blues with harder rock and blue-collar themes. The sound and message related to the common man, teens and young adults especially; and like most rebel rockers, the songwriters weren’t afraid to tackle social issues in their lyrical content. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” for example, contains a direct rebuttal to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” a song born out of 1960s racially motivated cross burnings and lynching in the South. Young also suggests restitution for slavery. “Sweet Home Alabama” names Neil Young saying “I heard Neil Young sing about her. I heard ol’ Neil put her down. I hope Neil Young will remember; southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.” The song also references Watergate (President Richard Nixon’s folly) and openly racist Alabama Governor, George Wallace.

While some of the messages and Confederate flag imagery of southern rock tunes are viewed as racist, serious criticism or protest is rare, and the most popular acts of the genre vehemently deny any racial component of their songs and lament the use of their music by white supremacists groups. The sound and musical style of southern rock is equally important to its identity.

The guitars, often as many as three in a single act, dominated the sound, which was glued together by bass, drums, organ (almost always a Hammond B-3), and piano. While the imagery and style may have included Rebel flag-waving southern bad-ass attitude, the music transcended borders. It didn’t matter if you were from New York or New Hampshire, Alabama or Tennessee; southern rock was pervasive and had universal appeal. The fan base was made up of Yankees and Southerners, Midwesterners, and Texans, all who happily shared Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers and The Marshall Tucker Band with one another; bands that sold out arenas wherever they went. The music, and its often-rebellious message, resonated with a rock ‘n’ roll generation who seemed happy to embrace multiple styles. In 1975 a kid from Syracuse, New York, for example, was just as likely to buy a Lynyrd Skynyrd album as he was a Led Zeppelin album. This I know first hand.

And this bird you cannot change

Those men behind the guitars wore their hair and beards long, and their southern heritage proudly on their backs, often in the form of the Confederate stars-and-bars battle flag. In 1973, after several incarnations, the version of Lynyrd Skynyrd that would soon rise to superstar status, released the nine-minute rock anthem “Free Bird” on its debut album, “pronounced leh-‘nerd ‘skin-‘nerd.” With “Free Bird’s” five-minute triple guitar solo, the band defined a sound all its own. In 1973 Skynyrd’s U.S. tour, opening for The Who, further introduced southern style and the Skynyrd set list to a legion of fans, happy to embrace divergent forms of rock ‘n’ roll at the same show. In 1974, Skynyrd’s follow-up, single “Sweet Home Alabama,” became the band’s second southern rock anthem, and by then the genre, bolstered by Skynyrd’s and others hit songs from the Southland, was fully recognized as a legit phenomenon. The format was accepted and embraced by fans, critics, music publishers and radio stations.

In one eight-month period (August 1973 - April 1974) America and the world got a taste of “Free Bird,” Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps,” Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man,” and the “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” After this feat Lynyrd Skynyrd, arguably, became the gold standard by which all southern rock, past, present and future, is ultimately judged.

The Allman Brothers, formed by brothers Duane and Gregg Allman who grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., scored even bigger hits with 1972’s “Eat a Peach,” and 1973’s “Brothers and Sisters.” But the Allman Brothers, though from the South, is often seen more as a jam band than a hardcore southern rock band, as defined by the genre’s supergroup, Lynyrd Skynyrd. In fact, Gregg Allman has deemed the subgenre as ridiculous. It’s like” rock-rock,” he famously quipped.

Skynyrd’s final studio album of this era, “Street Survivors,” was released in October, 1977. The album featured the hits “What’s Your Name,” “That Smell,” “I Know a Little,” and “You Got That Right.” “Street Survivors” was released just three days before a tragic plane crash would kill lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, back-up vocalist Cassie Gaines, and members of the crew and the band’s entourage. The surviving members of the band, also on board, were severely injured and it would take Lynyrd Skynyrd a decade before performing again with Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, taking lead vocal duties.

But even before tragedy befell Lynyrd Skynyrd, the South’s rising stars had made their indelible mark on rock n’ roll. The world-wide embracing of this all-American genre (“Sweet Home Alabama” was a hit around the globe) put southern rock on the map and in the history books.

Can’t you see?

Though nothing like at its peak of popularity in the mid-1970s, southern rock still has its old soldiers still soldering on, even visiting the Grand Strand, including multiple regular visits by The Marshall Tucker Band, Gregg Allman, and others - especially during the area’s motorcycle rallies.

While older acts still tour on occasion, they also produce new studio efforts.

In May, Lynyrd Skynyrd released a new studio album, “Last of a Dying Breed,” which not-so-subtly may imply that though the genre (and Skynyrd’s band members) may be dying off, the band, and the genre will not go out with a whimper, but rather, swinging; its legacy firmly in place. Gary Rossington is the only remaining original core Skynyrd member from the band’s peak in the mid 1970s, though Johnny Van Zant still holds position as the front man; a position he accepted some 25 years ago, carrying on for his legendary, deceased brother.

The Outlaws, another Florida-based contemporary of Skynyrd’s, enjoyed a period of moderate fame mixing country rock and southern rock with the 10-minute-long guitar anthem “Green Grass and High Tides,” the radio-friendly “There Goes Another Love Song,” and its biggest hit, 1980’s “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” The band has released its first new studio recording in 18 years; “It’s About Pride.”

While southern rock enjoyed its heyday from the early 1970s to the end of the decade, and then faded from its former glory, it never completely lost its foothold on the nation, or for that matter, the world. In the 1970s other bands would join Skynyrd on the southern rock train, but all with their own take on the music. The Marshall Tucker Band had its jazz, country, and blues influenced Spartanburg sound, making the Palmetto State an important birthing ground for the genre.

The Marshall Tucker Band’s lead vocalist, 64-year-old Doug Gray, proves the staying power and brand of not only the band but of its appeal to audiences throughout the U.S., including the Northeast. “We’re in Saratoga Springs, New York,” said Gray by phone last week. “I’ve been coming up here to play for around 40 years.”

The Marshall Tucker Band formed in 1972 and is the act behind radio hits “Can’t You See,” “Searchin’ for a Rainbow,” “Fire on the Mountain” (written by former Conway resident George McCorkle), “Heard it in a Love Song,” and other widely appreciated ballads, rock, blues, country and jazz/rock tunes. The band is widely considered a mainstay of southern rock, but Gray, and others, are not so sure the tag fits.

“We were not like any other southern rock band [of the era], other than that we were from the South,” said Gray. “The music back then crossed all those North/South borders. I have so many friends in the North. A lot of our early fans are retired, but here I am still out on the road. We still play jazz festivals, and we did way back then, too. I find it strange that people look at us a jazz band, but the band, then and now, can play it all. But we never had a heavy guitar [presence] like the other [southern bands] that had three guitarists and played long solos. Toy [Caldwell] in our band never really did that. Oh, we could jam – but it was different.”

The varied influences from band members puts The Marshall Tucker Band in a category of its own. “Toy and Tommy [Caldwell] were the country side of The Marshall Tucker Band,” said Gray. “I was rhythm and blues, Jerry [Eubanks] and Paul [Riddle] were jazz oriented.” Eubanks played flute and tenor saxophone, something rarely heard in southern rock. “There was many a time when Paul would take me to see Buddy Miles,” continued Gray. “We had all those elements, and I have tried to keep those elements with [the newer members]. We were southern, though, that’s for sure.”

BJ Craven of local funk/rock band Ten Toes Up, is also a Spartanburg native and a fan of the southern rock genre.

“My first recollections of southern rock growing up in Spartanburg were the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker,” said Craven. “I had trouble thinking of Marshall Tucker as [true] “southern rock,” though. They had a lot of country in their style, but would do jazz as well. It was very different from the music Skynyrd had done.”

“Genre naming is so difficult,” continued Craven, who struggles with it for his own band, which will release a new studio album in 2013. “It sucks to have to do it, but we get asked these questions all the time so it’s important to get it right. Whether it’s ReverbNation or iTunes, or Pandora - they all ask ‘what genre?’ and your answer will link you with all these different bands, which may or may not make sense. We try to hit the right listeners.”

While The Marshall Tucker Band along with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers were certainly among the best known southern bands of the 1970s, they weren’t alone. Grinderswitch (formed by some of the Allman Brothers’ roadies), along with .38 Special and Molly Hatchet were Skynyrd-esque, but had their own well-crafted tunes, and mega-hits. “Hold on Loosely,” “Rockin’ Into The Night,” and “Caught Up in You” were three .38 Special hits that helped keep the band, and southern rock, kickin’ ass into the early 80s.

Molly Hatchet, another Florida-born southern rock act, formed in 1975 and is best known for its Gregg Allman cover “Dreams I’ll Never See,” and 1979’s “Flirtin’ With Disaster,” which peaked at No. 42 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. These hits and others remain staples on classic rock radio and provide cover bands and their audiences plenty of material that seems to have real staying power. Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” beyond the tired joke of hearing it at every concert, large or small, regardless of the performer’s style, has been called “the most requested song in the history of rock music,” by music critic Lorry Flemming.

Fast forward to 2012 (on the cusp of 2013), and you’ll still find proof that southern rock exists beyond tribute and cover bands.

New Blood

Atlanta-based Blackberry Smoke (named by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes) has been performing its brand of southern rock around the world since 2003, and is out on tour in support of the album “The Whippoorwill” released earlier this year. The project is the band’s third full-length album and first on Zac Brown’s label, Southern Ground Artists. Brown’s label focuses on Georgia-based acts, with the Atlanta area as the epicenter. Brown, a multi-platinum selling new-country singer/songwriter in his own right, is promoting his label as a regional concern in what he called a “movement coming out of Atlanta that’s like [the Memphis-based soul label] Stax,” he told the Nashville Tennessean, in May.

While Blackberry Smoke and others are carrying on what is a traditional southern rock sound, defining musical genres is a contentious and tricky business, and sometimes a matter of opinion. It’s almost easier to note that which is not southern rock, in order to better understand what is southern rock.

While Skynyrd and a few others were making their mark, another genre co-existed and shared radio, a fan base, and myriad attributes; acoustic and electric guitars, traditional country music themes, and a Western/Southern appearance by those in its ranks. The Eagles, Poco, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, The Band, Pure Prairie League, the Charlie Daniels Band, and others enjoyed mega hits along with their southern rock cousins, but these acts were better categorized as “country rock,” though Charlie Daniels, especially, straddled both genres.

The Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop, ZZ Top, and later, the Black Crowes, were (and still are) essentially blues acts. Few would consider these aforementioned acts true southern rock bands, though they’re often lumped in together. The proof came from this unscientific, but telling, poll. We asked 10 random people, young and old, to name the quintessential southern rock act of all time, and all 10 responded: “Lynyrd Skynyrd.” None of them mentioned other southern rock acts of the 70s, though that’s not to suggest there weren’t any. The question is similar to “Name the most influential British band of all time,” with the most obvious choice: The Beatles. Favorites or not, Lynyrd Skynyrd is the band most associated with southern rock.

With Skynyrd and the handful of other legendary southern rock acts of the 1970s as the standard bearers, are there new acts vying for Best in Show, or has southern rock lost its hell-raising power to move the masses?

Complicating matters is the rise of genre known as Americana and its cousin, alt-country - labels that have been slapped on bands and acts as diverse as Drive-By Truckers to Steve Earle to Sun Volt to Jason Isbell (who recently rocked the Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet).

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em

“In our first 12 years we spent a lot of time on the road,” said Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke front man and primary songwriter. “You’re driving around in a van, five or six of you, eating baloney sandwiches and playing for beer money. You’re trying to muster up enough cash to record an album to sell out of the trunk. Zac [Brown] knows that life well – he did it too.”

As part of the Brown’s new Georgia-based record label, Blackberry Smoke has been enjoying greater exposure than ever before in its career. The band tours extensively with Brown, and has does its own tours as well, which have included several North Myrtle Beach House of Blues’ visits, a headlining March 2012 appearance at the Boathouse Waterway Bar & Grill, and the headlining House of Blues show on Saturday.

The band is generally considered a southern rock act, though “The Whippoorwill” debuted on the iTunes Country chart at No. 1, and topped Billboard’s Country Album chart at No. 8. The record has done well on all the sales charts, including Billboard’s rock and top 40, with little to no radio airplay or video support. Like other Americana music, Blackberry Smoke is too country for some, too rock for others, and falls into a no-man’s land. So where does the band best fit?

“I wouldn’t know where to begin in terms of [defining] us,” said Starr. “We share a similarity with a lot of southern bands, in that we incorporate a variety of influences, and we’re from the South. I grew up playing bluegrass, gospel and hillbilly music - that’s what my father loved and all he wanted to hear. My mother liked rock ‘n’ roll and the radio, so I got both of those influences from either side. In that regard we’re not a southern rock tribute band – we’ve never sat down and said we want to sound like Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet. We love that music, it’s very dear to us, and we’re influenced by it. It was the soundtrack to our young lives, and because of where we’re from it’s something special. But we had to find our niche, and I think we have.”

The band has earned critical acclaim, and a substantial Myrtle Beach fan base, including one local fan who rarely misses a show.

A human resources manager in Myrtle Beach, Tami Ashley calls herself a southern girl, though she hails from West Virginia. She’s lived in the Myrtle Beach area for 20 years and is a Blackberry Smoke superfan traveling across the southeast to see her “favorite band,” with more than a dozen shows under her belt.

“I’ve lost count,” she said, but I’ve been to North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, all over to see them. I’ve seen every show in Myrtle Beach.” While she is also a fan of traditional first-generation southern rock (Skynyrd, et al.) she said “Southern rock seems to have lost its way, but Blackberry Smoke is carrying on the tradition. They’re are just so awesome.”

For Ashley it’s as much about the band’s attitude as it is its music. “Blackberry Smoke makes you happy when you go to see them. They have a good time on stage and that comes out to the audience. We all have a good time.”

Alex Austin of the Myrtle Beach-based cover act Backfire, and new country act, Austin-Mowery, agrees.

“I think Blackberry Smoke is awesome,” said Austin, whose country band opened for Blackberry Smoke at The Boathouse. “I’ve listened to their new album, and it’s fantastic.” While Austin-Mowery is primarily a new/contemporary country band, rarely entering the southern rock milieu, Backfire has more flexibility and can play from a variety of genres. “We do a bunch of Skynyrd songs in Backfire,” said Austin; ““Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Gimmie Back My Bullets.”

While Skynyrd covers are not hard to find at the beach, one band is working original southern rock music into a viable presentation, and sees Blackberry Smoke as the genre’s best hope. Rollin Carver, lead vocalist with homegrown original southern rock act Superswamp Heroes is another fan. “I think Blackberry Smoke is the best thing to hit southern rock since Skynyrd,” said Carver. “They’re so tremendous live. They paid their dues on the road, there’s great talent in the band, the songwriting is strong. They’re the new millennium’s Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

Carver, formerly of hard rock act Confliction, joined Superswamp Heroes earlier this year and says SSH is in a bit of “holding pattern,” since last month’s departure of guitarist Jeff Mosby, who left because of “creative differences,” according to Mosby.

“Jeff has stepped aside and is pursuing his own thing,” said Carver, “but we still plan to record with Mike Rogers (Craig Morgan, Doyle Lawson) in Nashville sometime next year. We’re taking our time. It’s southern rock – it’s not going anywhere.”

Mosby is well known to live music fans of the Grand Strand for his prowess on the slide guitar and his stints with many area acts. His own introduction to southern rock came to him not as a teen, but later in life.

“People think of me as a southern rock aficionado because I play slide guitar, but I’m from California and southern rock didn’t hit big out there like it did on the East Coast and in the South. I studied classical guitar at USC-Santa Barbara, but I heard Albert Lee and Emmylou Harris and was drawn to that type of music. When I moved here in 1989, I finally got to hear what southern rock was all about. When I listen to Skynyrd, as a listener, I like the music, but from a musician’s standpoint it gets tired, and I get burned out on people requesting the same dirty dozen songs.”

Mosby is working on a new unnamed project with a few area musicians and hopes to perform southern rock, blues, and classic rock in the area sometime next year.

Another guitarist and former Californian now living in Myrtle Beach, Jeff Zona, had a similar experience with southern rock, suggesting, anecdotally, that the West Coast never quite felt the same love for the genre as did the eastern half of the U.S.

A fine guitarist and singer/songwriter, Zona most recently spent a decade at The Alabama Theatre in the house band and as a featured cast member and soloist. He says he has a great appreciation for southern rock, even more so than when he was a young guitar player living on the West Coast. “ My earliest recollections [of southern rock] were of Lynyrd Skynyrd,” said Zona, “but it wasn’t as popular there as it was in the East or Southeast. When I moved to the East Coast, I noticed that southern rock was much more popular in bars and on the radio, and that’s when I started really paying attention. I am a bigger fan today than ever. I developed a respect and appreciation for the [guitar] riffs, the songs, even the lyrical content. Skynyrd’s lyrics are easily digested, but they’re not trite or cheesy.”

Blackberry Smoke’s Starr has always been surrounded by the rock of the South.

“It’s funny,” said Starr, “those bands; The Allman Brothers, Tucker, Skynyrd – all were very different from one another. But they were doing what we we’re doing, and had a wide variety of influences. Marshall Tucker could be electrifying live, and yet also play so sweet and do the country thing. That kind of thing inspires us, especially me as a songwriter.”

“Zac Brown is all over the board musically, too,” continued Starr. “Some bands have one sound, and that’s it, goodnight: but we like [diversity]. We’re not about to go record a hip-hop album, but we can be a hell of a country band. We covered a Willie Nelson song with George Jones on our second record called “Yesterday’s Wine.” And we play it like a traditional country song – not the Nashville guitar pop – it sounds like it’s supposed to. I played it for a friend and he said, “Wow, that’s old school.” And I said “Yeah it’s old school because that’s the good school. That kind of shit never gets old; it’s never going to die. There will always be people who want to hear that.”

As far as carrying on the torch lit by Skynyrd, that’s fine with Starr.

“It’s a great compliment to be compared to Skynyrd circa 1975. If people want to call a band like ours a ‘torch bearer for southern rock,’ that’s fine, but really when it just comes down to it, we’re just making music that makes us feel right.”