American Culture

Toward a geography of rock: part 3, the South – looking backward to go forward…

Joke told around Harvard Yard: “Q: How many Southerners does it take to change a light bulb? A: Five – one to change the bulb and four more to talk about how great the old bulb was.”

The Allman Brothers Band (image courtesy

Southerners are, if anything, preservers of tradition. This is, as any intelligent, educated person knows, both curse and blessing. Much of the curse part we will ignore since it’s a topic for a very different sort of discussion than one about Southern rock. The blessing part will, one hopes, be explained as this essay unfolds.

The South has been a wellspring for and remains the home of a number of important American musical genres – blues, rhythm and blues, country, traditional (sometimes misidentified by the name of its sub-genre bluegrass), jazz – even early rock itself. It should not be surprising, then, that when rock exploded into the huge commercial and cultural phenomenon that it became that the later rock developed by Southern bands looked backward to earlier genres for inspiration.

A brief look at two of the South’s most successful bands will not explain the myriad variations and complexities of the Southern popular music scene (and the scene’s attendant history), but it will serve to show that this idea of looking backward to go forward is an overarching idea for Southern rock artists. In one case, The Allman Brothers Band, the looking backward to go forward is obvious; in the other case, R.E.M., the looking backward to go forward seems subtle at first glance, but closer examination demonstrates the looking backward to go forward of the later band to be as obvious as that of their predecessors.

The Allmans’ power, appeal, and artistry stem from two main sources, country music and the blues. This is illustrated by two selections, one representing each genre. First country music, as presented in Dickie Betts’ “Blue Sky”:

Then the blues. There is an abundance of Allman blues to choose from, of course, but this one, the one either Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh (I forget which) proclaimed would supplant Cream’s “Crossroads” as the ultimate garage band challenge, should suffice nicely. Here’s “Whipping Post”:

Not only critically (and eventually commercially) successful, the Allmans inspired many, many other bands to follow in their blues and country influenced footsteps. There were some superb followers, (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band) and lots of others who enjoyed success large or small with some variation on the Allmans’ formula, but the boys from Macon were the band who showed that looking backward to blues and country to move forward in rock was artistically and commercially fertile ground.

* * *

R.E.M. (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

R.E.M. is an example of using the same method (looking backward to go forward). What made R.E.M. interesting is its variation of the Allmans’ formula. Instead of looking back to the blues or country, R.E.M. looked back a much shorter distance – to British Invasion bands such as the Beatles and folk rock of the 60’s such as the Byrds for inspiration – crossed that with traditional music instrumentation such as the mandolin and literate, moody lyrics reflecting their “college rock” roots, and became one of the two most important bands of the 80’s. Here’s an example of the sort of chiming guitar work one might expect from Roger McGuinn, “South Central Rain”:

Later, as they matured as artists, they turned to traditional music sounds to enrich their musical palette and reached what was likely the peak of their powers in “Losing My Religion”:

R.E.M.’s influence has been even more wide reaching than the Allmans. Many of those in the national indie rock scene have cited R.E.M. as inspiration.

A couple of final thoughts. The Allman Brothers Band soldiered on for over four decades, for better or worse, constant and true to their formula of blues and country based rock – and enjoyed steady success and esteem with audiences and critics. R.E.M. continued to experiment with their sound – often changing it radically – through the rest of their thirty plus years long career – and saw their audience and critical appreciation ebb and flow as a result. Southerners would allow that the Allmans’ “stay the course” history was the more admirable.