Was the passing of Gregg Allman the death rattle of a genre nearing its end?
Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘Southern rock’. Perhaps you’ve never heard of the Allman Brothers Band or ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). But thanks to Hollywood, gamer-makers and TV show producers, you’ve probably heard many of their songs.
So, perhaps, when Gregg Allman died last week and the world of music said farewell to an innovator, the moment was lost on you.
For about 40 years, Allman was frontman for the band he co-founded with his brother Duane, a band responsible for Jessica, a seven-and-a-half minute instrumental that was featured on Guitar Hero II, served as the theme for longstanding BBC show Top Gear, and also featured in an episode of long-running animated show The Simpsons.
Contemporaries of the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd have had their songs covered by innumerable artists worldwide and included in numerous films as well. Freebird is the most popular of these; the song appears in films as diverse as Forrest Gump, Elizabethtown and Kingsman: The Secret Service. Another Lynyrd Skynyrd staple, Sweet Home Alabama, has not only been included on various soundtracks, but even lent its name to a film (based in—where else?—the American South), in addition to being featured on games such as Guitar Hero II and Grand Theft Auto.
While the names of these Southern rock bands might not ring a bell, their songs might well do so.
Putting it together
It’s no coincidence that the Allman Brothers Band appears in most Top 10 listings of the greatest Southern rock bands of all time. After all, this was the band that inspired the term ‘Southern rock.’
If Southern rock were a jigsaw puzzle comprising various genres that the American South has produced, then the Allman Brothers Band was among the first to put it together. The band built on work of artists like Lonnie Mack, Canned Heat and Paul Butterfield, by fusing elements of blues, soul and country music—the musical influences of its founding members—with rock, and combining it with a jazz -flavoured improvisational approach. Gregg Allman’s older-than-his years-voice, his brother Duane’s virtuoso guitar work, and their use of two full drum sets largely drove the band’s sound, distinguishing it to that of Blues Rock musicians and bands like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
The resultant grooves, long drawn-out solos—usually with twin lead guitars and a keyboard—and narrative lyrics about the life of a young working-class adult eventually became the hallmarks of the genre.
First came a series of untimely deaths: Duane Allman died in a fatal motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, at the age of 24—a mere three years after the band was formed. The next November, the band lost bassist Berry Oakley to another motorcycle crash, just three blocks away from where Duane had died. Five years later, rebel-flag bearers Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines died when the plane carrying them ran out of fuel and crashed. While the Allman Brothers Band returned to the studio after a short break, it took Lynyrd Skynyrd a decade to get over their loss.
Some, like CCR, fell prey to ugly break-ups. John Fogerty, the band’s lead singer, lead guitarist and principal songwriter, went on to have a solo career which—despite its success—could not compete with his artistic output with CCR.
Moreover, as a subgenre of rock and a genre of Americana, Southern rock is a self-limiting genre. For any piece of music to be considered Southern rock, it has to have influences from blues, jazz, rock and roll and country music, and necessarily has to originate from the southern parts of the US. Today, while contemporary bands such as Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires and Sons of Bill are popular within the US, their global reach has been relatively limited.
Another reason for the ‘fall’ in the global appeal of Southern rock was the explosion of disco in the 1980s, at a time when bands the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and CCR were reeling from the death of band members, as well as other problems including drug abuse. The jazz-inspired syncopation and long jams inherent to Southern rock did not sit well with the listening public, who had gotten a taste of electronically sampled repetitive music. The proliferation of pop music and subsequent arrival of the Internet in recent decades further pushed the niche genre towards obsoleteness.
Southern rock has continued to influence artists in other genres. Most recently, the music of the Kings of Leon, self-identified as an alternative rock outfit, clearly displays a bluesy, southern-rock influence. Black Stone Cherry, My Morning Jacket and the Zac Brown Band have also claimed descent from Southern rock.
Kid Rock used the genre as a vehicle to transition from hip-hop and rock-rap to the more country-based music he now produces. Allen Poe sampled the Allman Brothers Band’s Whipping Post (released in 1970) in their hip-hop track Still Eatin’. Lynyrd Skynrd has been covered and sampled by 3 Doors Down, the Drive-by Truckers, Kid Rock, the Deftones and Metallica, as well as Southern rock contemporaries Alabama. CCR’s short but artistically prolific career has spawned covers by everyone from Willie Nelson and Joe Cocker to Ike and Tina Turner, U2, Wyclef Jean, the Foo Fighters and Queen Bey herself, Beyoncé. Samples of their music can be found in the work of Moby, the Beastie Boys, Ice Cube and the Backstreet Boys.
However, most bands—ZZ Top, most notably—continue to perform live gigs to sold-out audiences. The Allman Brothers Band performed an annual series of shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre until 2009, and its members—including Gregg Allman—continued to perform as solo artists.
That seems to be the legacy of Southern rock: bands from the genre’s heyday still perform today, in many cases with new and newer members to replace departing and departed ones, with no one to truly carry on their music.
In such a scenario, what happens to Southern rock? What was anyway a niche genre is even more cloistered today. Are films and games and TV shows and bands ‘influenced’ by these groups enough? Is Gregg Allman’s death a reminder that Southern rock is still alive and embraced, or is it the death rattle of a genre nearing its end?
To quote Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”