The American South is home to more than country music, as popular as that type of music is to the region. In the relatively short history of rock music, there have been a number of excellent bands with their roots in the south.
Actually, there are not as many as I thought there would be. I started to consider a few bands that could have made the list, such as Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, The Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band or Country Joe and the Fish, if only they had been from the south, but they weren’t. Also, I thought I might be able to list any of several black artists from the Motown and doo-wop eras, but, though many of the musicians may have been born in the south, they formed elsewhere, mainly Detroit.
Even so, I do not consider that I have been left with slim pickings (nor with Slim Pickens, who, as a rule, did not sing much). There are plenty of excellent rock bands from the south, especially if you include (as I do) the genre known as “rockabilly.” In the end, I decided (with the exception of #6) to pick from Wikipedia’s list of “Southern Rock Bands.”
Although I have been somewhat liberal about what I would consider to be rock and roll, in the end, I excluded two bands I like, but feel they were more of a novelty act than a rock band. They are Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, as well as Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys. Exclusions aside, they are both entertaining groups and well-worth a listen, if you are not already familiar with them.
Now, let me proceed to the actual best southern rock bands of all time, at least in my dishumble opinion. I will, as I often do, rank them in reverse order of perceived quality.
10. Pure Prairie League
Okay, I’m not crazy about every last note of their stuff, but none of it is bad. Their worst material is mediocre, but they have a number of outstanding songs to their credit. The hit song they are best known for, I would guess, is Amie, which the band had originally recorded on their Bustin’ Out album in 1972, but which did not become a hit until three years later, when it was re-issued as a single. Following that, the entire album underwent a reissue.
A couple other songs I have always enjoyed are “Let Me Love You Tonight,” from their Firin’ Up album, and “White Line,” from their Concert Classics, Vol. 1.
I would not put this band ahead of the ones I mentioned above, nor above the many Motown groups I looked into, even though it is a nectarines-and-tangelos comparison. Still, you could listen to worse music with very little effort on your part.
9. Atlanta Rhythm Section
This band started in 1970 and stayed popular for about ten years. It was toward the end of their peak decade that they came out with their biggest hit, Spooky, from their 1979 Underdog album. The song itself was a remake of an earlier version, put out by Classics IV.
Other songs of the band I like are “Imaginary Lover” and the title song from the 1978 album, Champagne Jam. As with the previous entry, this band is not bad, but, had I been able to include the groups I mentioned earlier, this one probably would have had to settle for an imaginary “second ten” list.
8. Z.Z. Top
All right, now we are getting somewhere. These guys are never boring, and, at their best, can rock the house with the best of them. Perhaps their biggest number-and deservedly so-is Sharp Dressed Man, from their 1983 album, Eliminator. Also from that same album, which may represent their best work, are the exciting numbers, “Give Me All Your Lovin'” and “Legs.”
Their very next album, Afterburner, was also excellent. It featured two numbers-“Rough Boy” and “Sleeping Bag”-which were good enough to start with, but were made into fascinating videos.
The two up-front guys, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, are noted for their ever-present sunglasses and beards that go on to infinity. Oddly enough, the drummer, Frank Beard, did not typically sport one. The shades were a memento from their 1979 song, “Cheap Sunglasses.” As for the facial hair, so wedded were Gibbons and Hill to their image that they refused an offer from Gillette of $1,000,000 each to shave their beards off for a commercial.
7. Lynard Skynard
Their biggest hit may have a country theme, but it is hard-core rock, all the way. Of course, I am talking about Sweet Home Alabama. The band may not have realized they had a huge hit on their hands when they produced this song as a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek jab at Neil Young for his song, “Southern Man,” which catalogued the many instances of white racism in the south during the struggle for civil rights. That song was far from being Young’s best work, and, now in his more mature years, he probably wishes he had never put it out. Even so, and given that I like Lynard Skynard and was sorry to hear about the group’s 1977 plane crash, let me just go on record here. Good as they were, not a one of them could carry Neil Young’s guitar.
If I may return to ac-cent-u-ating the positive, as another talented southerner might say, the band started off with bang, the first time out of the box (Remind me someday to provide my recipe for mixed metaphor.) with the 1973 album, pronounced lĕh-nérd ‘skin-‘nérd. Yes, that is the name of the album. It features some of the bands best stuff, including, “Gimmie Three Steps,” “Tuesday’s Gone” and the stirring “Free Bird.”
By the way, the group took its name as a way to rag on their sadistic high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who used to make life miserable for students whose hair he did not think was short enough (which, based on my experience with a number of southern sergeants in the army, probably meant that, if you could even begin to comb it at all, you were a damn hippie).
The original group’s last album, Street Survivors, came out in 1977 and featured such top-notch numbers as “What’s Your Name?” and “That Smell.” This is not to gainsay the three albums Lynard Skynard put out between those two. They went gold, platinum and double-platinum, so there must have been something to them.
6. Eddie from Ohio
Despite the band’s seemingly-buckeyed name, they hail from Virginia. I believe I mentioned that and a whole lot of other useful stuff in an earlier essay, My Top Ten Eddie from Ohio Songs. Let me keep us both out of dutch with the Department of Redundancy Department by asking you to check that article out in lieu of more yak, here and now. For those of you who find this to be a Herculean labor, then here’s a taste.
5. Marshall Tucker Band
I am referring to the original band, which performed and recorded from the early 1970s to 1980. They put their first album out, The Marshall Tucker Band, in 1973.
As was the case with the Skynards, they had a hit record, right from the get-go. The album featured such outstanding numbers as “Take the Highway” and the one they are probably best known for: Can’t You See. As you may be able to guess, if you checked out the link to the concert video, this band is even more spectacular in concert than on an album, due to the intense improvised riffs they lend to most of the songs they perform live.
Other songs I particularly like are “Fire on the Mountain,” from their 1975 album, Searchin’ for a Rainbow, and the title song from the 1979 album, Running Like the Wind. That is not to say you will not find a lot of excellent material on any of the original group’s records.
One thing I think sets the Marshall Tucker Band a notch above its contemporaries is the work of Jerry Eubanks, who may be the best rock flautist this side of Ian Anderson. Of course, the remaining band members are fine musicians in their own right.
4. The Everly Brothers
If you will but pause for a moment and compare this band to the previous one, you can see how drastically what we call rock music has changed in a little less than a generation. I am not saying it has been a change for the better or the worse-not when you consider the vast panorama of music that came out in the two eras. Still, it is almost a whole different breed, isn’t it?
Don and Phil Everly were one of the first successful rockabilly bands. They played on for about thirty years, but their biggest successes came at the beginning, between 1957 and 1964. In fact, 1957 was a spectacular year for them. Not only did they put out the major hits, “Bye Bye Love” and “All I have to Do is Dream,” they produced my favorite song: Wake Up Little Suzie. That, in spite of the fact I have lived in terror of my friends saying “ooh, la-la” on those rare occasions I have spent the night with a young lady.
The brothers did not rest on their laurels after that spectacular year, though. Later would come such wonderful songs as “Bird Dog,” “Take a Message to Mary” (Excellent, but I slightly prefer Bob Dylan’s cover of it), “(‘Til) I Kissed You,” “Let it be Me,” “Cathy’s Clown” and “When Will I be Loved?” Whew!
This is, hands down, the best rockabilly band around today. In an earlier essay about My Top 25 Country Music Songs, I gave a well-deserved nod to this group and two of their fun songs, “Betty Betty” and Little Ramona.
My favorite BR5-49 album is the the 1998 release, Big Backyard Beat Show, which is chock full of quality stuff, including, “”There Goes My Love,” “Out of Habit,” “18 Wheels and a Crowbar,” “Goodbye, Maria,” “Seven Nights to Rock” and “My Name is Mudd.” Yet, for all those good tunes, I think my favorite is from their 2001 album, This is BR5-49. It is the opening number, “Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal.”
After that 2001 album, the band began to change personnel, and not altogether for the better. They’re still good, but you will want their albums from 1993 to 2001, if you are interested, as well you should be.
2. The Allman Brothers Band
As I have with many of these bands, I am referring to the original group, which played between 1969 and 1972. Fatal road accidents to lead guitarist and co-founder, Duane Allman and then bassist Berry Oakley, forced personnel changes on the band, whether they wanted them or not.
Duane Allman may have been one of the most spectacular rock and roll guitarists ever, so his loss was no small deal. While he was around and playing, the Allman Bothers Band was a very big deal indeed.
Of the four albums the original band did put out, all are excellent, but the one you really want-and this may be one of the best rock albums of all time, regardless of region-is their third one, At Fillmore East. It is a double album that features top numbers from the first two albums, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and Whipping Post.
On side two of the four sides, you have the absolute apogee of the fusion between rock and blues: the band’s recording of the Willie Cobbs song, “You Don’t Love Me.” At over nineteen minutes, it is too long to display the complete number, so your best bet may be to buy the album, if you do not already own it. I am hard-pressed to think of a wiser investment.
1. Creedence Clearwater Revival
The band’s best-known and most-often-covered number is probably “Proud Mary,” and it is a good song with some fine guitar work, but I can think of several songs I like better, all of them top-quality, singable, danceable hits. Among them are “Suzie Q” and “I Put a Spell on You,” from Creedence Clearwater Revival; “Bad Moon Rising” (Sometimes known as “There’s a Bathroom on the Right”) from Green River; “Travelin’ Band” and “Up Around the Bend” from Cosmo’s Factory; “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” from Pendulum and my favorite (also from Cosmo’s Factory): Lookin’ Out My Backdoor.
As the drug culture became more and more popular, around the time CCR was starting to attract attention, a number of people who had anointed themselves Rock and Roll Purists looked down on the group for not going along with the times, notwithstanding that the song I selected as my favorite is an amusing tribute to that culture. The test of time has proven these pharmaceutically-enhanced snobs to be all wet. The best hits of Creedence Clearwater Revival still bring listeners enjoyment today.
That wraps up my admittedly eclectic list of the best southern rock bands of all time. I hope you have enjoyed listening to them over the years as much as I have and plan to continue in the years to come.