For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. His second stop: Roswell, Ga. (You can check out part one, on Bristol, Va., here)
On Wednesday I ate a late lunch at Spiced Right Ribs in Roswell, Georgia, just north of Atlanta. The restaurant was a refuge of Southern funk in the middle-of-anywhere suburbia. The ribs were fat, moist and tender with a brown hot sauce that provided a welcome kick; the slaw was tart and tangy. The walls were covered with shiny, dented hubcaps, and a handwritten sign on the beer cooler said, “Still accepting hubcaps for food. Ask manager for details.”
Jeff Calder (left) and Jeff Talmadge
I was in a window booth with two of my favorite Southern songwriters: Jeff Calder and Jeff Talmadge. I mentioned that I had just interviewed another Southern songwriter, Patterson Hood, for Paste’s cover story on the Drive-By Truckers last week, and Patterson had complained about the band being described as Southern rock. Sure, he admitted, the Truckers had written and released a two-CD concept album called Southern Rock Opera in 2001 and had consciously imitated the Southern-rock sound of the ‘70s for that project. The subsequent albums, however, were very different, he insisted. If you can call R.E.M. Southern rock, he argued, then you can call us Southern rock. Otherwise, no way.
Calder’s band the Swimming Pool Qs had emerged at the same time as R.E.M., the B-52s, the dBs and Let’s Active in the early ‘80s, “the skinny-tie bands,” as Calder called them. He threw up his hands and shook them in mock horror, imitating the protestations of those bands that they had nothing to do with “Southern rock.” They were all trying so hard to be “British” that they went screaming from their own backyard. The great irony, Calder chuckled, was you could hear their Southernness bleeding through every album.
Talmadge suggested that politics lay behind all these denials. Musicians are eager to prove to non-Southern audiences that they don’t share the views of the region’s politicians who wrap themselves in the Confederate flag as they pass anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-worker and anti-voter laws. After all, some of the first-generation Southern rockers, most notably Charlie Daniels, have embraced those views. By rejecting the label, however, these liberal bands are reinforcing the stereotype that “Southern” and “right-wing” are synonymous.
A greater irony, Calder added, is how much the Allman Brothers Band, the uber-Southern-rock act, hated the term “Southern rock.” Calder had just reviewed Alan Paul’s oral history of the Allman Brothers, One Way Out, for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and he said the band saw themselves as improvisatory jazz-rockers quite different from Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band. And yet all their lyrics and improvisations were built on quintessentially Southern blues and hillbilly themes.
Regional identity, I suggested, is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, if you reflect your local roots, you stand out in the crowd more; you sound a little different from every other rock band in the world. To the extent that songwriting is strengthened by specifics, local detail makes for better songs. On the other hand, if your goal is to sell as many records as possible, you want to seem as universal and unspecific as you can, so there are no barriers between the song and any potential listener. That, of course, can also lead to forgettable blandness. Balancing specifics and universality is one of the great challenges in any art-making.
For me, it’s all Southern rock, from Carl Perkins to the Allman Brothers, from R.E.M. to the Drive-By Truckers, from Mother’s Finest to OutKast, all representatives of a Southern iconoclasm, a resistance to the region’s dominant feudalism, a celebration of the region’s great virtues: naked desire, sensual ritual, elaborate storytelling and creative self-invention.
We wiped the barbecue sauce off our mouths and returned to Talmadge’s house, where the two Jeffs played impressive new songs from their forthcoming albums, songs about hurricanes coming off the Gulf of Mexico and returning to the small Southern town you thought you’d left behind.