Rebel yells

New book examines classic rock songs of the South

Could it be that the rebel ride from Carter to Clinton (between the tag ends of Tricky Dick and Dubya) are told in the hymnals of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, R.E.M. and the Drive-By Truckers? Did the South sing away George Wallace and Lester Maddox with "The South's Gonna Do It" and "Free Bird"? Was the New South born to the lullaby of "Sweet Home Alabama"?

"For white Southerners like me, who began grade school in the wake of desegregation and came to embrace the rock counterculture as an alternative lifestyle, any declaration of ancestral pride carries a subtext of tremendous emotional weight," writes Mark Kemp in his Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South. It's an often-revealing tale of rock's strange history with its motherland.

Though rock 'n' roll was born in the South in the '50s, the music's association with liberal politics and hippie culture in the late '60s and '70s made for a troubled relationship with its birthplace during the Civil Rights era. The conflict was only exacerbated by Yankee and British rockers and rock fans who loved the South's music, but rightly loathed the history of slavery and discrimination.

Author Kemp grew up in Asheboro, N.C., during those years, the child of a Quaker father and a somewhat progressive (for the time) mother from Carrollton, Ga. His elementary school was integrated early on. To the extent that he thought about it at the time, Kemp supported integration and the Civil Rights Movement and was befuddled by the racism he saw around him. (He was hardly the vision of the cross-burning, whip-cracking, defiant redneck rebel Neil Young sang of in "Southern Man.")?Musically, Kemp and many young Southerners like him had been asked to choose between two unacceptable alternatives: Embrace the countercultural ideals of rock 'n' roll and renounce any allegiance to their homeland, or join in unholy alliance with the ax handle-wielding ditto-heads of Lester Maddox and his like.

Southern rock to the rescue. Kemp sees the history of Southern rock as, in part, a program of recovery for young white Southerners forced to confront their ancestral guilt: the ashamed melancholy of the Macon-based Allman Brothers Band, the anger of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the intellectual distance of Athens band R.E.M., and the acceptance and final transcendence of the Drive-By Truckers as they sang, "Proud of the glory, stare down the shame/Duality of the Southern thing."

Kemp examines Southern rock's role in the building of the New South. The Allmans played benefits and campaigned for Jimmy Carter during his presidential run, and even the right-wing Christian conservative musician Charlie Daniels supported Carter and continues to defend his legacy. (Carter is reportedly a huge Southern rock fan.) Sixteen years later, Bill Clinton secured the Democratic nomination in part through his saxophone rendition of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" on "The Arsenio Hall Show."?The questions Kemp poses, in this blending of memoir and musical history, are important, honest and well asked, and with his encyclopedic knowledge of music history, he has laid out the raw materials for an excellent and worthwhile analysis. The stories Kemp tells are interesting and often revelatory. A visit to the home of Richard Young of the Kentucky Headhunters is a near-perfect allegory for the book, complete with neglected land, a run-down farmhouse used for rehearsal space, a restored antebellum mansion, stories of a beloved black man from Young's youth, and big country boys in long hair and denim.

Unfortunately, Kemp seems to write from the implicit assumption that forgiveness for slavery, Jim Crow and all the other racial crimes of the nation is more important than examining the enduring conflicts. He writes of the racism that came before him — the uncle who speaks casually of "niggers" and the aunt who treats her black servants like children — but says nearly nothing of his own generation's subtler sins. This prevents his analysis from going as deep as it could.?To his credit, Kemp rejects romantic revisions that try, for example, to recast Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant as a misunderstood progressive who didn't really mean it when he defended George Wallace in "Sweet Home Alabama." And he takes Charlie Daniels to task for the violent homophobia of some of his songs.?Still, questions remain. How can someone believe in rock 'n' roll racial reconciliation and also have defiant pride in the Confederate flag? Why are so many fans of this once-countercultural music now loyal to conservative politicians? By invoking the mystical duality of the Southern soul, Kemp excuses himself from even attempting to explain these many contradictions.

Kemp writes that Southern rock eventually freed him to feel "love and forgiveness for myself and my culture." And that's a fine blessing, no doubt. But the book leaves you with a sense that this acceptance has come too soon.

Mark Kemp will take part in the Southeast Booksellers Association's Moveable Feast of Authors on Sat., Sept. 11, 7 p.m., at the
?Renaissance Waverly Hotel, ?
?2450 Galleria Parkway. $30. ?

He will also sign at the Norcross Chapter 11 bookstore, Mon., Sept. 13, at 6:30 p.m.?
?3975 Holcomb Bridge Road.?
?Book: Dixie Lullaby. $26. ?
?Free Press. 320 pages.?Thomas.Bell@creativeloafing.com