Southern rock is difficult to explain, but you know it when you hear it… or rather when you feel it.
It’s a scorching riff that radiates with the intensity of a summer sun. It’s a blistering note that sizzles through a song like hot lightning across a violent sky. It’s a twanging lyric that warbles out with the same warm ring of a “yonder” and a “y’all”.
The style was born in the 1960s and informed by the American South, evolving into a hell-raising gospel of rock, country and blues. Southern rock is all at once swampy, funky and soulful, a delicate balance that has been shaped over decades.
Join us on a journey through the Southern rock songs of yesterday, today and tomorrow with these 20 Holler-picked hits.
A band of few words, Dixie Dregs didn’t need lyrics to craft some of Southern rock’s greatest sounds. The Georgia-formed ensemble’s 1977 country funk suite ‘Refried Funky Chicken’ is proof of this. The song’s impressive boogie licks and head-spinning fiddle runs say more than words ever could.
Black Oak Arkansas was one of the more obscure pillars of early Southern rock. Irresistibly over-the-top, they were hellbent on showing off how gritty the genre could be. Their hard-rocking opus ‘Jim Dandy’ was pure power, a runaway train of growling vocals, screaming riffs and rowdy rhythms.
Whiskey Myers has carried the Southern rock torch since the 2000s; and while they’ve been known to put a sullen spin on the high-energy style, they’ve long been the purveyors of a fading genre. Their 2019 gothic hit, ‘Bury My Bones’, especially, whispers with the ghosts of Southern rock.
Don’t underestimate the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. The oft-overlooked Southern rock stalwarts spun some pretty enduring gold. With its muscular grooves and infectious lyrics, the band’s 1973 classic, ‘If You Wanna Get to Heaven’, is among the genre’s most essential listens.
Having reinvented themselves time and again, the Texas trio ZZ Top are not immediately pinpointed as Southern rock greats, but they are more than deserving of a place among them. The boogie rock bluesmen built their early career on the quintessential Southern rock sound and their Tres Hombres masterpiece, ‘La Grange’, became an important addition to the burgeoning genre.
When The Georgia Satellites came onto the scene in the 1980s, Southern rock had all but sputtered out of the mainstream. With their brazen debut single ‘Keep Your Hands to Yourself’, the roots rockers sent the genre up the charts once again, reminding listeners of what made it so lovable in the first place.
Alongside Whiskey Myers, Blackberry Smoke has long championed Southern rock, bearing the flag since 2000. The Georgia-formed outfit has followed in the footsteps of their statesmen, crafting songs with the same attitude, power and pride as those who came before. Their sturdy hit, ‘Sleeping Dogs’, is the perfect example of this.
Blues rocker Marcus King has been the most recent addition to the Southern rock canon. Blessed with the swamp rock swagger of old, King has brought a welcomed nostalgia to the style. His soon-to-be classic, ‘The Well’, stokes the genre’s trademark fire while also kindling something new and exciting.
California’s Creedence Clearwater Revival had no ties to the American South, but during the Southern rock heyday, they gave many homegrown bands a run for their money. Having perfected the genre’s muddied blues and backwoods boogie sounds, the band’s biggest hits, like ‘Born on the Bayou’, ‘Green River’ and ‘Proud Mary’, became essential.
The legendary countryman Charlie Daniels, and eventually his group The Charlie Daniels Band, would be a pioneering force early on in Southern rock. With his music, which included rollicking hits like ‘Long Haired Country Boy’, ‘Trudy’, and the classic ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, Daniels and his band laid an intricate foundation where country, rock and blues could coexist.
It would be difficult to talk about Southern rock today without mentioning Drive-By Truckers. Over the years, their musical style has spanned everything from country to punk, but these Deep South rockers have always stuck to their roots, their Southern rock sensibilities shining through in prideful, attitude-fueled anthems, like 2004’s ‘Daddy’s Cup’.
Another name that should never go unsung in a conversation about the genre is Leon Russell. Few musical styles went uninfluenced by the prolific piano man, but Russell’s contribution to Southern rock is immeasurable. His inventive mix of deep swampy blues, glimmering country rock and heady gospel funk – as found in his classic ‘Delta Lady’ – showcased early on all that the genre could be.
While too often overshadowed by the genre’s heavy hitters, Atlanta Rhythm Section was Southern rock through and through. Dependable and skilled beyond measure, the group delivered some of the genre’s most durable tunes, like the roaring opus ‘Homesick’ and their driving anthem ‘Champagne Jam’.
Wet Willie put a soulful spin on Southern rock, crafting songs that seemed to be plucked straight from the heart. Their 1974 hit, ‘Keep On Smilin’’, in particular, is all feeling, pure passion tangled up in uplifting lyrics, gorgeous choral flourishes and a sturdy country funk throughline.
Blackfoot’s approach to Southern rock was fast, loud and unrelenting. Their energetic ‘Train, Train’ would be their most successful song and would turn the genre’s signature style up a notch with its raucous guitar riffs and chugging rhythm.
Like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Little Feat was another outside act, but the California-forged outfit crafted a rock so Southern, you would have thought them native sons. For a tune like ‘Oh, Atlanta’, they fused together the best of the Deep South – the thrilling boogie, the delicious blues, the intoxicating soul – and married it with their breezy West Coast style.
Molly Hatchet was one of the trailblazing bands of early Southern rock, helping to finesse its quintessential sound. With songs like their gritty epic, ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster’, they flexed their ear-worming rock chops – all flash and fury – and cemented themselves as one of the genre’s formative acts.
Few have tackled Southern rock quite like The Marshall Tucker Band. Undeniably smooth and skillfully controlled, their style may be more bridled than that of their contemporaries, but it has no less informed the genre. Their masterful country-rock-jazz creation, ‘Fire on the Mountain’, stands today as a paragon of Southern rock.
The Allman Brothers Band would be a blueprint for Southern rock, and even today, the two are synonymous. Having woven together a stunning patchwork of bewitching rock, smoldering gospel and guttural blues, the band’s electrifying jams – like their striking ‘Whipping Post’ – will forever be inseparable from the genre.
From their inception, Lynyrd Skynyrd would be one of the handful of acts to define Southern rock, molding the genre with their untamed songcraft and downright Southerness. Decades later, they have continued to redefine the style. Their entire catalogue seems essential to the genre, but especially their 1973 tour de force, the soaring ‘Free Bird’.
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