The pleasures of Southern rock

I went shopping with my 17-year-old niece Joann, who’s a music fan with typical contemporary tastes. Except…. When we were shopping, she bought “Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Greatest Hits, “ a compilation of guitar-driven ‘70s rock that had been part of my generation’s high school and college years.

I asked her why she picked it out, and she said her dad (my brother Gary, who’s a year older) played the band so she knew the songs.

I told her I’d actually seen the band – the original band, before the late ‘70s plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie van Zandt and two other bandmembers. They played the Palladium in New York City, with a new Southern rock band, the Outlaws, opening. It was a guitarfest.

Skynyrd’s signature song, of course, was “Freebird,” with its over-the-top guitar solo closing. The band played all their songs with extended solos, but “Freebird” was drawn out to more than 20 minutes of screaming strings, with van Zandt all the while fanning the three guitar players and egging them on (and also finishing an entire bottle of Jack during the set).

To top it off, the members of the Outlaws, who had a pop hit with “There Goes Another Love Song” and their own long-winded guitar showcase, “Green Grass and High Tides,” came out for a couple of encores with Lynyrd Skynyrd, including a raggedy but fun version of “T for Texas, T for Tennessee” that went on forever, with no less than six guitar players trading off solos from the front of the stage.

Joann, who sees a lot of concerts, was pretty impressed that I’d seen Lynyrd Skynyrd, although she frowned slightly when I mentioned the Jack Daniels part.

That hard-living style was Skynyrd’s trademark, and they famously paid the price not long after I saw the band, and although incarnations have limped along well into the new millennium, they’re just rehashing the glory of the band’s early years and albums.

There was a time in the ‘70s when an entire genre of rock was defined by bands formed in the South who identified with the culture and myth of the South. It started with the Allman Brothers Band, but also included the Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, Elvin Bishop, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Outlaws, Wet Willie, and a host of lesser-known one-hit and hitless wonders (where is Grinderswitch today?).

There was even an anthem for the genre, the ominously-titled “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” by Charlie Daniels. It was a dumb commercial bid, and he took a right turn and became a flag-waving patriot country star in the ‘80s and ‘90s – I liked Daniel’s earlier folky song, “Uneasy Rider,” about a long-haired hippie who gets stranded at a deep-south redneck bar, much better.

Some of the rebel yell of these bands morphed into the corporate country music industry of today; the rest evolved into Southern bands who didn’t buy into the redneck rock regime: R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary, Let’s Active.

My co-worker Dallas recently burned a CD of “Classic Southern Rock,” spanning all the bands I’ve mentioned and adding the likes of Atlanta Rhythm Section (another group I saw back then, in the tiny, 175-capacity nightclub Ebbets Field in downtown Denver), Little Feat and Ozark Mountain Daredevils. He also includes the 1980s band the Georgia Satellites and their one hit song, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”

Thinking about it, there are still “Southern” bands around – Atlanta-based Widespread Panic comes to mind – and some of them, like Panic, share sonic similarities with those ‘70s Southern groups: lots of guitar, solid songwriting, lots of jamming.

The good stuff from the past has stood the test of time. I still think a lot of Skynyrd’s music is strong and honest. Most of the early Allman Brothers’ output still sets the standards for ensemble rock improvisation in ways that I like much better than the Grateful Dead’s less focused jamming. And even a few of the Outlaws’ songs still hold up.

Maybe I’ll burn some of southern fried favorites for Joann and let her absorb some other tunes besides “Freebird.”

Gil Asakawa used to call himself the “Teriyaki Cosmic Cowboy” on college radio in the 1970s.

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