Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, race, and New Beginnings in a New South
By Mark Kemp (Free Press, 320 pp., $26)
The author will read from and sign his book at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Sept. 27 at 6 p.m.
Despite stereotypes to the contrary, the South is a complex place. For those raised there, a host of well-worn, opposing ideaspopulism and racism, education and ignorance, glory and shame, to name a fewmust be somehow either internalized or ignored. In Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South, music journalist Mark Kemp maintains that Southern rock bands such as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and R.E.M helped reconcile these contradictions and provided an identity for Southern whites who came of age during the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
Kemp, who grew up near Charlotte, N.C., is personally acquainted with the South's intricacies. Though his immediate family was racially tolerant, many acquaintances and extended family members held racist views. As a teenager, Kemp worshipped the British rock of Mick Jagger and Marc Bolan but didn't get the connection between it and the music of Elvis Presley, whom he considered "a hayseed." This sense of self-loathing is familiar to many Southerners, who feel a deep connection to the land but are embarrassed by the small-mindedness that is, however wrongly at times, so often associated with it. When a friend introduced him to the music of the Allman Brothers Band, however, Kemp was hooked: "This was Southern music," he writes, "but it was like nothing that had been heard before." Finally it was possible to identify with Southern culture in a way that didn't also require an identification with its dark social legacy.
Equal parts autobiography, music history and social commentary, Dixie Lullaby knits the story of the South and its music with Kemp's own emotional journey. Interspersed throughout are extensive interviews with people who were central to his experience. Some are famous, such as Charlie Daniels and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe; others are Kemp's childhood friends.
Dixie Lullaby begins with the death of Martin Luther King Jr.an event that tore apart the South's small, integrated recording scene but facilitated the rise of formative Southern rock bands such as the Allman Brothers. Like Jesus Christ, Kemp argues, King "died so we could learn to live differently." For some white Southerners, King's death was a decisive moment, "a window of opportunity to begin expressing, through a new musical language, their own feelings of despair, gratitude, confusion, elation, guilt and rage."
Kemp admits that Southern rock soon became reactionary. Southerners, he maintains, "were tired of feeling guilty, tired of being told they were guilty by people in other parts of the country." Songs such as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" (which takes Canadian-born songwriter Neil Young to task for his sweeping anti-racist polemics in the songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama") and the Charlie Daniels Band's "The South's Gonna Do It Again" bristled with regional pride and were miles away from the "love is everywhere" ethic of the multiracial Allman Brothers Band. For Kemp, such songs provided an outlet for his frustration with being labeled a racist by people who knew little about the workings of the South. "Most Americans saw only images of vicious Southern lawmen and powerful politicians actively oppressing African Americans," he writes. "They didn't see the internal struggles that individual white Southerners were going through."
By the mid-'80s, the South's music had become more self-conscious due to the influence of punk rock. Though still distinctly Southern in imagery and subject matter, bands were either detached and esoteric, like R.E.M. of Athens, Ga., or kitschy and ironic, like the B-52's. In either case, both the Allmans' hippie aesthetic and Skynyrd's provincial aggression were out of style. The intellectual distance of bands such as R.E.M., Kemp maintains, allowed him to step back from the pain and anger of his Southern background.
Even after Kemp went to New York and landed his dream jobseditorial positions with Rolling Stone magazine and MTV Networksthe emotional baggage of his Southern heritage followed him. Feeling increasingly insecure and conflicted, Kemp took solace in drinking and drugs while immersing himself in New York's burgeoning hip-hop and alternative music cultures. He eventually returned to the South during the '90s and came to peace with his past. "I began to understand where my own liberal guilt and insecurities came from," Kemp writes; "they came from right here.... I started to forgive both Charlotte and myself."
Thematically, Dixie Lullaby addresses the struggle to reconcile the love of Southern rock with an increasingly hip, politically correct popular culture. According to Kemp, who's now the entertainment editor at The Charlotte Observer, the key lies in the integrity of Southern rock music and its willingness to accept the South's complexity (including its less palatable images of thuggery, misanthropy and the denial of civil rights). To make his point, Kemp borrows lyrics from Southern Rock Opera, a concept album released in 2001 by the Southern band Drive-By Truckers: "Proud of the glory, stare down at the shame / It's the duality of the Southern thing."
The characters in Dixie Lullaby are also complex and contradictory. Kemp rejects revisionist music historians whodue to songs like "Saturday Night Special," which warns of the danger of small-caliber handgunsattempt to paint Skynyrd vocalist and principle songwriter Ronnie Van Zant as a progressive. "Those of us who have characterized the singer as a misunderstood liberal have done so only to placate our own irrational feelings of shame for responding to the passion in his music," Kemp writes. "Ronnie Van Zant wasn't anti handgun; he owned handguns."
At times, however, Dixie Lullaby's complexity seems to stem not from native Southern contradictions, but its subjects' incoherence. For example, Kemp quotes Charlie Daniels, whose homophobic views are well known, as saying, "I don't hate anybody. I've sat down with [gays] and we've found common ground, you know." Coming from Daniels, who regularly makes references to "towel-heads" and who bashes gays during his shows, this isn't complexity; it's hypocrisy.
Still, Kemp's overarching point is well taken. Music, Southern or otherwise, shouldn't have to be liberal or politically coherent to be considered good. Like German composer Richard Wagner, whose radical understandings of drama and harmony are overshadowed by his ambivalence toward Jews, and America's first popular songwriter, Stephen Foster, whose best-known work was composed for blackface minstrel shows, Southern artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd need to be understood within their own unique historical circumstances. That may not always make for a pretty picture, or a logical argument, but it can lead to catharsis. "If rock & roll had initially provided refuge from the South's legacy of violence and bigotry," Kemp writes, "the music of the Southern rock family treefrom the Allmans to Skynyrd, R.E.M. to Drive-By Truckersoffered an emotional process by which my generation could leave behind the burdens of guilt and disgrace and go home again."
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