Torch of Southern rock burns bright at CBF street party

March 15, 2013 

Show me a concho belt, short brim cowboy hat, snakeskin or a rawhide headband, and I’m immediately transported back to a childhood growing up in the shadows of Southern rock. By then, some of its greatest legends had left us far too soon. But what became clear to me, even as a young ’un, is that the fans of Southern rock -- the real deal, authentic, tried and true fans -- never left their post.

In fact, they dug in their heels, held up their lighters, and didn’t just cry out “Freebird” -- they made it a game-changer.

Southern rock wasn’t a flame in the history of American music. It was a bonfire fueled by gasoline and lit up by a blackjack firecracker. Among the fuses was Ronnie Van Zant. Ronnie was a hardscrabble artist from the wrong side of a Jacksonville shanty who kicked down the door to the global mainstream as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s singer, songwriter and barefoot front man. He died before his 30th birthday in the plane crash of ’77.

Even before Ronnie’s passing, a fuse was lit with his baby brother Donnie. He formed .38 Special with Don Barnes in 1974 and followed a similar Southern rock blaze as his brother. But when the ’80s arrived and that sound began to struggle, .38 Special took it another direction.

They didn’t rebel against the mainstream, they went with it -- and took the South with them all the way to MTV. From that, hit after hit came from a band that once shared the same neighborhood with Skynyrd -- “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught up in You” and “Rockin’ Into the Night,” are still among the essential ’80s anthems.

Like many great things, the original Southern rock sound re-surfaced in early 2000 with bands like the Drive-by Truckers and their album “Southern Rock Opera,” which gave homage to Skynyrd and a shout out to their influences like .38 Special (check out “Let There Be Rock”).

The torch had in fact been passed. So much so that even today, the “ones to watch” are bona fide Southern bands like the Dirty Guv’nahs, who are opening the show for .38 Special at the Cherry Blossom Festival’s Street Party on March 23.

With the Guv’nahs gaining rapid success in today’s music world, their familiar sound is called everything from alt-country to roots rock. But don’t let labels fool you. That’s the sound of music that rose up from the ashes of plane and motorcycle crashes. It came from little brothers making their big brothers before them proud. It came from the Georgia woods, the Florida swamps, the Tennessee rivers and the Alabama skies so blue.

And rightfully so, it’s come back home to Macon, where the fans never left in the first place. I’ll see you at the street party with .38 Special, the Dirty Guv’nahs, Wild Feathers and the Atlanta Funk Society.

Jessica Walden is director of communications for the College Hill Alliance and the co-owner of Rock Candy Tours, a Macon music history tour company. Contact her at 955-5997 or rockcandytours@gmail.com.

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