Growing Roots in Rocky Soil: An Environmental History of Southern Rock
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Growing Roots in Rocky Soil
An Environmental History of Southern Rock
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Two bands emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s who would define southern rock: the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Through their music, these bands could escape the disorienting commercialized landscape of the post-Civil Rights South. Duane Allman, 1971, photographed by Ed Berman, courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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It was early summer, and we were in the Cohutta Wilderness of North Georgia—a couple of Atlanta high school kids off for a weekend backpacking trip. We drove into the woods ready to conquer the wild—off to get our hands dirty, to get our feet wet just a few counties over from where Burt Reynolds and director John Boorman filmed James Dickey’s Deliverance. We skidded along old fire roads as we entered the wilderness, piping the Allman Brothers through the rattling speakers of the 4×4. As we crested a small ridge, the song “Dreams” commenced, and Gregg Allman belted out the soulful line, “I went up on the mountain / To see what I could see / The whole world was falling right down in front of me.” Perfect. As a young adventurer in the South, somehow I felt that the music of the Allman Brothers provided an ideal soundtrack for our excursion into the woods. Why? This was the question that sparked this study.

There is as yet no agreed-upon definition of southern rock, and some of the biggest names in the genre have questioned the suitability of the label. Gregg Allman once laughed at the term, arguing that rock ’n’ roll originated in the South as a fusion of various musical genres: “Saying southern rock,” Gregg argued, “is like saying rock rock.” Phil Walden, owner of Capricorn Records—a label that signed numerous southern rock acts from the Allman Brothers to the Marshall Tucker Band—said of southern rock, “It’s not a term I am particularly crazy about.” Despite Walden’s reservations, the term caught on and has been used since the 1970s to describe a diverse array of rock ’n’ roll groups from the South that blend country and blues musical forms with a jam-band performance style.1

Recently, historians have joined the debate, deconstructing southern rock to uncover its basic elements—what music journalist Mark Kemp calls “an otherworldly musical stew” of country, blues, jazz, and gospel—and explain its implications for southern (if not American) culture. Historian Paul Wells, for example, described southern rock as “essentially reactionary,” suggesting that southern rock offered disenchanted youth an escape from (not an engagement in) contemporary debates about race and democracy. Rather than deal with the conflicts of the Civil Rights era, Wells argued, southern rockers “clung to rural roots,” committing themselves to “unquestioning traditionalism” in the face of national anti-South criticism.2

Southern historian Ted Ownby offered a corrective to Well’s analysis, portraying southern rockers as rebels fighting both established regional norms and national critics. Ownby recognized southern rockers’ attempts to honor a tradition of southern masculinity that valued heavy drinking, heated brawling, and reckless philandering, but he also acknowledged the young musicians’ rebellion against regional mores, arguing that “the tension was between being a rebel against southern traditions in the late 1960s and being a Rebel as part of the tradition of white southerners, and the challenge was to find ways to be rebels of both kinds.” According [End Page 103] to Ownby, southern rockers’ rejected “the security and morality” of the nineteenth-century southern homestead, even as they praised aspects of the patriarchal culture that pervaded it.3

Barbara Ching expanded Ownby’s thesis in her comparative study of the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, positing that southern rockers engaged in a “struggle over the role and meaning of white southern manhood.” Ching observed that southern rock served as a musical anesthetic for the “defeat and anger” felt by the “marginalized southern male,” allowing rebellious youth to vent their frustrations about a national culture that viewed them as unsophisticated dullards and backward bigots. But while southern rock had a...