Perhaps it started with Kid Rock using a mock-James Gang riff to anchor "Cowboy" in the late '90s. Or maybe it had something to do with Goin' South, that tongue-in-cheek, two-CD, made-for-TV compilation that hit a couple of years later. Whatever it is, a new generation of musicians, music lovers, and eager-to-please hipsters has caught on to the thrilling "don't-give-a-shit" noise assault and soulful observation of southern rock. The rock kids of today are embracing the raw production and big-guitar approach that stigmatized and deflated the .38 Specials of the previous generation.
They're also sporting trucker hats, bell-bottom jeans, giant belt buckles, drugstore aviator shades, and open cans of Pabst. It goes beyond irony; it suggests something of an awakening, similar to what happened with surf-rock and rockabilly after Pulp Fiction hit a decade ago, or the way white radio DJs rediscovered doo-wop in the '70s.
Musicians who catch on are finding themselves in a soft, warm spotlight. For Patterson Hood, singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Alabama expatriates the Drive-By Truckers, awakening is a fair word to describe his embrace of "the Southern thing."
"I never really set out to think of us as a southern-rock band," Hood says from the Truckers' tour bus, somewhere in Colorado. Hood, as he describes in the lyrics to the band's brilliant 2001 record, Southern Rock Opera, grew up rejecting Lynyrd Skynyrd and the other radio gods in his native Muscle Shoals area; he was "one of them pussy boys," after all.
It wasn't until Hood reached his early 30s that he rediscovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, and that's when he and his mates turned the corner from life as yet another college-rock troupe.
"I grew up more being into punk rock. I loved the Clash. I loved the Replacements. I was into songs with strong songwriting," Hood says. "As I've gotten older, I've been discovering all of that music that came out of the South, especially Skynyrd. I was really taken aback by what an amazing songwriter Ronnie Van Zant was. People were kind of turned off with what the band was associated with, as opposed to what an amazing band they were."
So taken aback, in fact, that Hood and bandmate Mike Cooley spearheaded a six-year effort to record a strange, two-album tribute to Skynyrd, obsessing on specific episodes, contemplating the politically and socially turbulent era Van Zant sang about, and most oddly, creating a fictional band based on Skynyrd that also meets its doom in a plane crash somewhere in Louisiana. Among Southern Rock Opera's strongest songs is "Let There Be Rock," which includes the joking (and, well, ironic) line, "I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd/But I sure saw Molly Hatchet." The band had never really dipped into a three-guitar sound before the recording, but it still managed to re-create it startlingly.
"We happened to do that record, and it was about the rise and fall of arena rock," Hood says. "At the time we did it, it was considered a bit of a departure for us, but then it became the record everybody discovered. Then we got lumped in as a southern-rock band."
Not that it was such a terrible fate. The notoriety earned them a major-label deal with Lost Highway, which gave the Truckers the chance to make a crystal-clean record for the first time in their history. Yet that was about the only advantage. The follow-up, the much subtler and more varied Decoration Day -- a collection of songs written as marriages were crumbling, infighting was lingering, and the combination of recording Southern Rock Opera and touring nonstop was driving the band members nuts -- wasn't quite as trucker-hat-friendly as the Lost Highway folks had hoped.
Hood says the band recorded the album on the fly, using seven first takes and coming in well under budget, which enabled it to buy the record back from Lost Highway, put it out on the independent New West, and flourish anyway.
While the rest of the new dawn of southern rock isn't quite as straightforward as the Drive-By Truckers' approach, the hues and shapes of other artists' work also reveal the cultural influence at play. Here's a sampling of recent albums:
Kings of Leon, Youth & Young Manhood (RCA) -- All in their teens and early 20s, blessed with the charming surname Followill, and raised by a rock-and-roll-loving Pentecostal minister, this Nashville quartet's got the pedigree to claim its home state's boogie-woogie tradition. Youth & Young Manhood is built on uncanny, down-and-dirty rhythm, an amalgam of country, R&B, and garage rock. It sounds as if it were made for about $50, with the three brothers and their cousin bashing through a series of what you'd think are first or second takes -- "Wasted Time" sounds so wonderfully rough, you wonder whether one of 'em will throw a guitar across the room in disgust.
Youth & Young Manhood's major strength and most inviting throwback element, however, comes from the mouth of vocalist Caleb Followill, who sounds like he's either busy drinking or falling asleep. Or maybe he's just pissed and visceral, the way Gregg Allman always seemed. Caleb is all understated mumbles and thick, extra-syllable-inducing drawl ("I done put a bullet to his hayyy-eed!"). On Kings of Leon's best songs, here including "Holy Roller Novocaine" and "Red Morning Light," his nonchalance seems nearly perfect.
Brooks & Dunn, Red Dirt Road (Arista Nashville) -- No one can doubt the rustic leanings of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. They've been country superstars for years, churning out smiling hits and inviting folks like the late stock-car hero Dale Earnhardt to appear in their videos.
But who knew, really, that they could just plain rock? Okay, so they keep their twang and lofty country-radio vocals intact, but the songs on Red Dirt Road are tough and at times unrelenting. The album even begins with a stuttering Stones riff, barroom piano, a searing guitar solo, and a lyric about boys "doing what boys do" on "You Can't Take the Honky-Tonk out of the Girl." It's one of the better songs of the year, a sure-fire volley for the new Pabst-sipping intelligentsia.
My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (RCA/ATO) -- Up to now, some casual listeners might have argued that Louisville upstarts My Morning Jacket, with their extreme use of reverb and predilection for far-out and lengthy folk-rock excursions, are about as southern-rock as Indian food is. Didn't matter if bandleader Jim James crooned to banjo on "If It Smashes Down," from the band's 2001 At Dawn, while a fire burned and cars passed in the background. It was perceived as space-invading indie fodder.
But that was before My Morning Jacket figured out how to capture the power of its live shows, in which a barefoot, shaggy James (hmmm . . . wonder who set that precedent?) leads the band through a thunderous guitar assault. With It Still Moves, the band continues its romance with the colossal echoes of the Kentucky barn it uses as a recording space, but it also captures the fury and the soul of James's trade-rock songwriting, as if the engineers installed the microphones on top of the players instead of in the doorway this time. Now propelled by bone-crunching guitars and a growing instrumental swagger, James's melodies resonate even more forcefully, and the country piano and horns on "Dancefloors" are pure southern seasoning -- an ideal catharsis from the lyric "So for the past I'm diggin' a grave so big/It will swallow up the sea."