When people think of Southern Rock, they rightly (or wrongly) think only of Lynyrd Skynyrd and BBQs, but do you know the real roots of the genre?
Sweet Home is our recently released stock music album full of high-spirited and energetic sub-genre of Americana known as Southern Rock. It’s sure to get you in the mood of driving and dancing, or at least dreaming of how much fun bars were before the pandemic struck. It’s got the feel of juke boxes world-wide, capturing every movie scene where a couple is in a 70s looking diner with a shiny coin ready to pull up their favorite music selection.
Most people think of Southern Rock as Lynyrd Skynyrd (obviously our album title borrows from them) and BBQs, but do you know the real roots of the genre?
The history of Southern Rock
A history of Southern Rock cannot be done without starting with the journal called The Great Speckled Bird, named from an old Southern Hymn popularized by Roy Acuff. Part of a national network of underground ‘zines known as the Liberation News Service, the Bird was distributed locally throughout the Atlanta hippie and anti-war communities in the mid-20th century, covering things as concert reviews, protest news, police actions, and other things of interest for the counterculture.
It was in one issue of the Great Speckled Bird that Southern Rock got its name. For twenty years, Moe Slotin regularly wrote concert reviews for the Bird, gaining him backstage passes in shows across Atlanta, before leaving the hippie life and becoming Porsche mechanic. He introduced the term in his review for the Allman Brothers Band. So by any record, it was the convergence of Slotin writing for the Bird witnessing an Allman Brothers Band show in 1972 that got us the genre name.
Like British Invasion, Southern Rock was typified by its heavy blues influence. What made it different though were how elements of country, folk, and jazz would creep in. There are two pillars of Southern Rock, the one on the Allman Brothers Band side which professes long jams attributed to jazz improvisation, and the other short and sweet, CCR “Roots Rock” style.
Allman Brothers Band
The Allman Brothers Band released their first album in 1969 hitting the air waves with their single, “Rambling Man”. It was at a time of fundamental change in rock and roll music with earlier influences that were bringing “race music” to the mainstream. Those like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis (who were all from the American South) were supplanted by the British Invasion (itself powered by American touring acts that had gone to Britain a decade before).
The two Allman brothers for which the band is named, Duane and Gregg, got their start in music in Daytona Beach, Florida. They dropped out of school to play guitar, and tried to get various gigs going, but failed repeatedly. They split their ways and traveled around the US, Gregg going to Hollywood and Duane going to Alabama. It was in Alabama that Duane began to hit it big, first as a session musician and then finally being able to string about the right partners with his idea of having a band with two lead guitarists and two drummers – an idea borrowed from Curtis Mayfield, who envisioned a second lead guitar playing a kind of harmony to the first. When he moved the band to Jacksonville, Florida, he was able to convince his brother to come back and join them as vocalist and keyboardist. And thus, with the Allman brothers being reunited, the Allman Brothers Band was officially formed.
It was Duane’s blues-heavy influence mixed with guitarist Dickey Betts’s bluegrass influence that gave the band its unique (for the time) style. Betts had played mandolin, banjo, and ukulele before ever touching a guitar, and though came from a bluegrass and country background, preferred to go faster and harder, which fit nicely into Duane’s blues-rock infused music idea. Of course, Duane’s strange style also transformed the musical sound. Betts noted that “Duane played slide [guitar] more like a harmonica… He used to listen to all the harp players – Sonny Boy Williamson and all that – and he played a lot of harmonica licks on slide guitar.”
Duane was so impressive on guitar that when Eric Clapton saw the Allman Brothers perform, he invited Duane in to work as session guitarist on his Derek and the Dominoes album, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs. If guitar legend Eric Clapton is having another guy come in to do guitar licks, that means that other guy must be some sort of six-stringed god.
They managed to record one more album before Duane died in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Another founding member, Berry Oakley, died a year later in another motorcycle accident. But the band and the genre they helped forge carried on. The band would pick up two new players, Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams, and go on to make their most successful album, Brothers and Sisters, but only lasted four more years until dissolving into an amalgam of alcoholism, coke addiction, and all the other fun bits that typically ails rock bands. But what they started wasn’t finished, and the genre was soon picked up by such devout Southern Rock followers like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Undoubtedly making up the other tier of what’s considered Southern Rock, Creedence Clearwater Revival (or CCR for short) brought the Louisiana Cajun sound into the mix. Contemporaries of the Allman Brothers, they ironically formed in 1969 in San Francisco, California nowhere near the South. It surprises most people that they’re not even remotely from Louisiana at all, despite all their songs focusing on that region and carrying that vibe. I suppose “Born on the Bayou” just sounds better than “Born on the San Joaquin River”.
With their short, 2-minute average tracks, they grew up in direct opposition to the lengthy, jam bands of the psychedelic rock movement that was going on where the hippies lived across the Bay from El Cerrito.
John Fogerty and his brother Tom grew up with an idealization of the South and southern music, listening to Leadbelly (in fact, one of their hits is actually a Leadbelly cover, “Midnight Special”) and Bo Diddley on repeat. More importantly though, were the stream of Blacks that had arrived in California that were looking to escape Jim Crowe laws and discrimination (a movement known as “The Second Great Migration” , which led LA to boom from a Black population of 63,700 in 1940 to 763,000 in 1970). They brought up their Louisiana and other Southern sounds – Blues and Zydeco and all that vibrant energy – with them. One can imagine the young Fogerty brothers attending Al Rapone and Queen Ida concerts, getting a spell cast on them by the accordion-wielding siblings born on the bayou (Queen Ida would later regularly cover Fogerty’s “Bad Moon Rising”).
As a band, they first dubbed themselves as the Blue Velvets, playing standard classic rock style tracks at the time. Mike Burns joined on as the lead singer, and the manager changed their name to the Golliwogs, pushing them to sound and act like a British Invasion band. That didn’t really jibe well with Fogerty, who soon learned he could sing and decided to reform the band around his own ideas with Creedance Clearwater Revival.
He appealed to his not just Southern – but Cajun – sensibilities. He even took on an inexplicable Louisiana patois in much of his singing, along with his almost big easy way of playing guitar. This style of a roots feel and short tracks, perched on a memorable guitar lick, made for the second pillar of Southern Rock. It was based off a southern style, but CCR themselves were by no means from the South.
In order for pillars, there must first be a foundation. No man makes for a foundation to Southern Rock more than Bo Diddley, who served as a primary influence for both John Fogerty and Duane Allman (and Elvis before them).
Bo Diddley grew up in the South Side of Chicago listening to John Lee Hooker, thinking, “If that cat can play, I know I can learn.” Along with the Chicago Blues, Bo Diddley also loved country music, and taking those two elements – along with his sense of timing that many attribute to African traditional music but he attributes to an accident – he fused them together to make his own unique style.
He got his start playing on street corners while making money as a cleaner. One day working as a cleaner on the Ed Sullivan Show set, someone heard him singing “Sixteen Tons” and loved it. So they invited him to play on the show. The card said “Bo Diddley”, and he assumed that he was to play his own song, “Bo Diddley”. So he did that, Ed Sullivan got mad and kicked him out, saying he wouldn’t last six months as a musician.
Bo Diddley went home, more motivated than ever, and he literally made his own record. “I went back and I said I’m gonna make me a tape dub,” Bo Diddley recalled in an interview for the Freedom Forum. “Then the lady across the street sold me a Webco disc cutter… and I didn’t have no money. So I took another record that I had found in the alley and went and bought me some lacquer. Paint lacquer, you know. And I laid it down flat and I took the can and poured it on it and it dried. And I said, ‘Woah, I’m gonna see if I can cut a record on this stuff, it looked like the same stuff.’ So I hooked it up and sho ‘nuff, that needle cut in that lacquer, and I played it and I took it to Chess Records.” They heard he had something, signed him up, and made history.
If there had been no Bo Diddley, there definitely wouldn’t have been an Allman Brothers Band (and thus no Lynyrd Skynyrd), nor a CCR and all that came after them. He was, singly perhaps, the most important guy in rock and roll history, and the godfather of Southern Rock if there ever was one. Like CCR, he might not have been from the South, but he did more to define that sound than any other musician.
If you’re looking for some pure, Southern Rock inspired royalty free pieces for your production, then look no further than our Sweet Home album, the perfect collection to fill that niche.