Rock & roll has transformed American culture more profoundly than any other art form. During the 1960s, it defined a generation of young people as political and social idealists, helped end the Vietnam War, and ushered in the sexual revolution. In Dixie Lullaby, veteran music journalist Mark Kemp shows that rock also renewed the identity of a generation of white southerners who came of age in the decade after segregation -- the heyday of disco, Jimmy Carter, and Saturday Night Live.
Growing up in North Carolina in the 1970s, Kemp experienced pain, confusion, and shame as a result of the South's residual civil rights battles. His elementary school was integrated in 1968, the year Kemp reached third grade; his aunts, uncles, and grandparents held outdated racist views that were typical of the time; his parents, however, believed blacks should be extended the same treatment as whites, but also counseled their children to respect their elder relatives. "I loved the land that surrounded me but hated the history that haunted that land," Kemp writes. When rock music, specifically southern rock, entered his life, he began to see a new way to identify himself, beyond the legacy of racism and stereotypes of southern small-mindedness that had marked his early childhood. Well into adulthood Kemp struggled with the self-loathing familiar to many white southerners. But the seeds of forgiveness were planted in adolescence when he first heard Duane Allman and Ronnie Van Zant pour their feelings into their songs.
In the tradition of music historians such as Nick Tosches and Peter Guralnick, Kemp masterfully blends into his narrative the stories of southern rock bands --from heavy hitters such as the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and R.E.M. to influential but less-known groups such as Drive-By Truckers -- as well as the personal experiences of their fans. In dozens of interviews, he charts the course of southern rock & roll. Before civil rights, the popular music of the South was a small, often racially integrated world, but after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, black musicians struck out on their own. Their white counterparts were left to their own devices, and thus southern rock was born: a mix of popular southern styles that arose when predominantly white rockers combined rural folk, country, and rockabilly with the blues and jazz of African-American culture. This down-home, flannel-wearing, ass-kicking brand of rock took the nation by storm in the 1970s. The music gave southern kids who emulated these musicians a newfound voice. Kemp and his peers now had something they could be proud of: southern rock united them and gave them a new identity that went beyond outside perceptions of the South as one big racist backwater.
Kemp offers a lyrical, thought-provoking, searingly intimate, and utterly original journey through the South of the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, viewed through the prism of rock & roll. With brilliant insight, he reveals the curative and unifying impact of rock on southerners who came of age under its influence in the chaotic years following desegregation. Dixie Lullaby fairly resonates with redemption.
Part memoir, part music history and part social history, Kemp's book cannot decide quite what it wants to be. On the one hand, Kemp tells the story of his own experience of racism in the South and the ways that Southern rock bands helped him move beyond Southern racial attitudes. On the other hand, he regales the reader with sparkling tales of the evolution of Southern rock from 1968 to 1992. Born in Asheboro, N.C., Kemp, a white Southerner, struggled to understand the mysterious ways of segregation. After Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, he observes, a number of Southern rock bands emerged among them the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd that challenged the racial views of the South. Drawing on interviews with several musicians and producers, including Phil Walden, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), Warren Haynes and Jimmy Johnson, Kemp expertly examines the early years of Southern rock (1968 1973), the evolution of redneck rock (1974 1981) and the reconstruction of Southern rock (1982 1992) in bands like R.E.M., Jason and the Scorchers, Gov't Mule and Steve Earle. Kemp's anecdotal and affectionate remembrance of Southern rock provides a solid panoramic view of an important chapter in the history of rock and roll.