An Alabama Boy's Reflections on Southern Music

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An Alabama Boy's Reflections on Southern Music

Post#1 » Tue Jul 26, 2005 10:27 pm

An Alabama Boy's Reflections on Southern Music ... 72505.html
Source: Chronicles Magazine
Published: July 25, 2005 Author: Michael Hill
For Education and Discussion Only. Not for Commercial Use.

The Middle Georgia Raceway, near the little hamlet of Byron, became the second largest city in Georgia on the weekend of July 3-5, 1970. The 2nd annual Atlanta International Pop Festival was in town.

For an aspiring 18-year-old guitar player, Byron, Georgia, was the place to be on that particular weekend. Without an automobile myself, I persuaded a high-school buddy to give me a ride. As we set out from northwest Alabama on Thursday, July 2, I knew this was going to be a special trip.

The first day of music was truly an inspiration—Hendrix, B.B. King, Ten Years After, Mountain, Procol Harem, Spirit, Bob Segar, and a local group from nearby Macon, the Allman Brothers Band. Looking forward to another dose of Rock 'n' Roll and blues on Saturday, I had no idea of what was in store. My buddy and I made our way in the general direction of the performance area. On the north edge of the huge pecan grove that bordered the raceway, we stopped to check out the wares displayed on the numerous vendor tables. Suddenly, and to my great astonishment, there before my eyes were the six members of the Allman Brothers Band. They had put on a tremendous show the previous afternoon and were not scheduled to play again until Sunday evening.

Gregg, Dickie, Butch, and Jaimoe were browsing at the vendor booths as Duane and Berry sat beneath a large pecan tree chugging Ripple. Since hearing the opening notes of "Don't Want You No More/It Ain't My Cross To Bear" from their first album on an underground FM station out of Tuscaloosa, I had become an instant Duane Allman fan. I had already heard his guitar work with various artists in Muscle Shoals, where he had been a session player at Rick Hall's Fame Studios in late-1968/early 1969.

Muscle Shoals was the music Mecca for north Alabama in the late 1960's, and every aspiring player from the area was drawn there if for no other reason than to breath the very air and perhaps run into one of their musical heroes. Some of my band mates and I had seen Duane in the Shoals in his pre-ABB days. His presence there was not hard to detect because he was virtually the only longhaired musician in town, and his "hippie" looks in rural northwest Alabama made him stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. But again, this was before his role as founder and leader of the Allman Brothers Band catapulted him to the forefront of the contemporary Southern music scene.

My encounter with the man I considered to be rock's premier guitarist in the summer of 1970 struck me simultaneously with delight and trepidation. I surely was not going to miss the chance to say hello, shake his hand, and tell him how much I admired his craft. The hundreds of other folks milling around in our immediate area either did not recognize Duane & Company or simply were not awed by their presence. Gathering my nerve, I approached him and Berry. Truth be known, I don't remember exactly what words came out of my mouth as I introduced myself. But I do recall as if it were yesterday Duane's reply: "Hey, have a seat, man, and have some of this wine." The Ripple soon soothed my nerves, and for the next couple of hours I talked "shop" with a young man who saw himself as anything but a star.

The things I took away from my conversation with Duane Allman spurred me to an appreciation and enjoyment of popular music that has not waned over past 30 odd years. Three distinct points come to mind: First, don't be afraid to take chances with your music. Improvisation, working off a skeletal framework, is how you learn to "hit the note." Second, there is something to learn from every guitar player with whom you play. Jam whenever you have the opportunity. Never miss the chance to learn from another player, and, when possible, play with those who are better than you. And third, no matter how good you get, there is always somebody out there who is better than you. Some of the best musicians will labor in relative obscurity for their entire careers. Playing music is not a competition; rather, it is about reaching your own potential and giving pleasure to your audience. Duane's final words to me on that occasion were "Keep on playin' everyday, man, and you'll find those sweet notes that'll make it all worthwhile."

Though Duane Allman was born in Tennessee, raised in Florida, and spent his most creative and productive years in Georgia, his legacy to the musical heritage of my home State of Alabama is undeniable. David Hood, legendary bass player for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (the famed "Swampers"), once told me that he and the other session men in the Shoals area knew at once that Duane was a special man and guitar player. His short but influential tenure at Fame Studios brought critical acclaim—Eric Clapton sat up and took notice of his lead work on Wilson Pickett's cover of The Beatles' "Hey Jude—and launched his career. Shortly after he left Muscle Shoals (with drummer Jai Johnny Johnson at his side), he formed the original Allman Brothers Band.

But perhaps more significantly than all the tracks he laid down in Alabama during his short career, Duane's attitude toward music and life has been a touchstone for Alabama (and Southern) musicians during the past four decades. Firmly rooted in the folk culture of the South, these men and women who make this beautiful and soulful music have kept in touch with those permanent things—family, friends, faith, place, and the poetry that is everyday life down here in Dixie. Upon his first visit to the South, Robbie Robertson of The Band (a native Canadian) noted that everything he heard, from the flowing waters, to the wind, to the vocal inflections of the people, was musical.

Perhaps we Southerners have taken this blessing for granted. When you live amidst something special, it sometimes tends to become commonplace. From time to time we need to be reminded of just what a rich musical—and overall cultural—heritage we possess in Alabama and the South. When life gets heavy and begins to weigh us down, all we have to do is open our ears and listen. There is much joy and familiarity there. This wonderful music, and those who continue to make it, is readily accessible. These folks who sing and play it are not the unreachables of rock royalty. They are our family members, friends, and neighbors who came up just like the rest of us. That makes our Southern musical heritage, be it Rock 'n' Roll, R&B and Soul, Blues, or Country and Bluegrass, a real close and personal thing. And that's how it ought to be.

Michael Hill is the president of the League of the South.

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