"Stay out the way, it's a Southern Thing," sings Patterson Hood of The Drive-By Truckers. Of course, Hood's is not the only voice warning that outsiders won't ever "get" this "Southern thing." Plenty of insiders like me don't get it either.
I love the Truckers, have all their records. I first learned of them through reading Dixie Lullaby, critic Mark Kemp's Southern cultural confessional. Patterson Hood is the son of the famous Muscle Shoals, Alabama, session musician David Hood, and clearly, both music and the South run deeply in his blood. I took Kemp's advice and listened intently to the Truckers' most famous and complex recording, A Southern Rock Opera. I heard them sing of "the duality of the Southern Thing": Of George Wallace and Bear Bryant; of Lynyrd Skynyrd's lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zandt and his sworn enemy Neil Young-a native Canadian who just happens to be my rock and roll God.
The Truckers sing about my South-the South where to be a good ol' white boy who does not love stock car racing, Stonewall Jackson, sweet tea, segregationist academies, bourbon and coke, or deer hunting is both "a blessing and a curse." Hood puts into words my feelings about our land: I can appreciate Bear Bryant and SEC football and homemade corn bread. I can be inspired by William Faulkner novels and pecan trees. I can take pride in the fact that both my Southern Christian mother and my Southern Jewish father detested George Wallace and Bull Connor, that they insisted I attend public schools in the midst of integration, and never utter the epithet "Nigger."
My parents did not stand in my schoolhouse door when, as a young man, I decided to pursue a major in English and go on for graduate study, even though they had never read a word of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or Flannery O'Connor.
Nor did they tell me I was making a mistake when I married a woman from Iran.
But they were extremely proud of my Ph.D., and my post-grad school professorship at a liberal arts college.
And they were outraged when someone else referred to my wife as a "Sand-Nigger."
They raised me to be secure enough to tell anyone who asked that I was born and raised in/near Birmingham, Alabama. In Bessemer, to be exact. That I am a Democrat. And that, more than anything else, the truth is always more complex than we think it is.
Over my life, I've learned that to get at this truth, I must bring with my pride at least a modest dose of shame.
While I haven't always known that I was seeking my authentic Southern voice, the Truckers demonstrated to me that I would know that voice when it spoke to me, even if it were only a whisper.
Or a set of signs.
Just because I love the Truckers' Southern voice, however, doesn't mean I love all Southern rockers. I'll keep The Allman Brothers, Government Mule, the first Marshall Tucker record, Elvis, and virtually any Delta Blues guitarist. But I reject 38 Special, Mother's Finest, Molly Hatchet, and Charlie Daniels.
I saw The Charlie Daniels Band once when they opened for Marshall Tucker. Charlie can fiddle, I'll grant him that, and even though I find "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" to be hokey in the extreme, the fiddling is contagious. But then came Daniels' trademark song, "The South's Gonna Do It Again," which "chronicles" modern Southern rock bands, adding this awe-inspiring refrain:
"So gather round, gather round chillun'
Get down, well just get down chillun'
Get loud, well you can be loud and be proud
Well you can be proud, hear now
Be proud you're a rebel
'Cause the South's gonna do it again and again."
I never understood exactly what the South was "gonna do again." Re-institute slavery? Re-Secede? Were people like me voluntarily going to worship a cross, carried by figures in white vestments with or without hoods?
I felt that Charlie was pointing his finger at me. As a boy, I did have an enormous rebel flag nailed to my bedroom wall, but by the time I was twelve, my mother redecorated. I don't remember what happened to the flag, but I do remember that a Beatles in Liverpool poster replaced it.
Still, however threatening Charlie was, I didn't hate him like I did Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I didn't always feel that way. The first four times I heard "Free Bird," I didn't retune the FM station. By the tenth, I was bored and so got re-acquainted with AM. By the fiftieth, I began asking my Dad to play some more Benny Goodman. And I'm pretty sure that those fifty times all occurred the day that the record was released. It played everywhere in my hometown, including I'm sure, a few department store elevators.
Then there's "A Simple Kind of Man." Writers are often advised to conjure words from what they know. When I listened to this piece, I certainly did know the people Skynyrd referenced.
They were the people who scared me.
Not that they threatened me directly, though every now and then I'd hear rumors of someone wanting to beat me up for "looking at his girl." Or later, for looking like a girl. Maybe my car did get egged on occasion, but nothing more. No, I was scared because I understood if I stayed too close to my Southern home, I might not ever get away. I might become just the kind of man that Ronnie Van Zandt and Skynyrd were singing of. I'm trying desperately to quote an appropriate line from the song to get to the heart of what scared me. But it finally boils down to this:
"And be a simple kind of man. And maybe some day you'll love and understand."
The mother singing the song wants her son to be "satisfied," but the passivity here, the simple and easy formula-find a woman, trust God, don't "lust" after "gold"-doesn't inspire me. It's a generic cliche, and one thing I know about myself is that I'm not a cliche.
I'm a free-thinking Southern Man.
So "Free Bird" annoyed me, and "A Simple Kind of Man" scared me. But the true nadir of Skynyrd for me came when they released "Sweet Home Alabama." My hatred did not stem from the fact that in this heyday of George Wallace they were celebrating my state as if it were truly the home of the brave, though I did wonder at the delusion. No, my hatred of this new Southern anthem was predicated on the song's avowal that Neil Young had distorted the reality of the state and, indeed, the entire South when he sang,
"Southern Man, better keep your head.
Don't forget what your good book said.
Southern change gonna come at last.
Now your crosses are burnin' fast, Southern Man."
Is this reflection inaccurate?
Why is it so hard to admit our own past sins, and why, when we're called down for them, can't we "Man-Up," as they say, and admit the truth? We have treated Black people inhumanely for centuries. For too long, we didn't consider them as people. Many still feel that way because in today's South, I'd bet that the greatest number of Obama-haters are those who can't tolerate, much less accept, that a Black Man is President. Isn't that the white elephant in our collective front living room? Yet, how many would say this openly as opposed to behind closed doors?
Young keeps asking "How long?" at the end of his controversial "Southern Man." He first asked in 1970. I asked the same question to my American Literature classes, after a student complained that it "isn't right" for black people to vote for someone just because he or she is black. I was too quiet back in '70. I'd ask Skynyrd that question too, if I could.
Back then Neil Young's music couldn't begin to compete with Skynyrd's-or that of any Southern rock band-even on Birmingham's "progressive rock" FM station. Occasionally, some passionate DJ would spin "Cinnamon Girl or "Old Man." And once, when I was riding with a co-worker, Young's "Alabama" came piping through the tinny speakers of her Toyota Corolla.
We're on lunch break, and after scarfing down some Burger King, we go riding the downtown streets of Birmingham, recklessly getting stoned. We're looking for a vacant field so we can spend the last of this summer noon tossing my old black imperial frisbee. My co-workers-an attractive but married eighteen-year old woman named Shelia, and a very tall and married African-American man named Sylvester-and I had bonded that summer, a kind of Mod Squad with no one to inform on or bust. On this particular day, high and carefree, we soak in Young's anti-anthem about our state. If I'd been alone, I would have sung with Neil, my voice surely breaking as I tried to reach his tenor heights:
"Oh, oh, Alabama. Banjos playing through the broken glass."
But I am not a bold guy, especially regarding my singing. When the song ends, Shelia breaks our rapture:
"Boy, Butch (her husband) hates that song. What does Neil Young know about Alabama anyway?"
"Oh, I don't know. It's just a good song, I think."
Sylvester remains stonedly quiet.
"Well, Butch says Neil Young's a fag. What real man has a voice like that?"
Shelia is driving, and since I'm non-confrontational by nature, especially with a stoned woman whom I'm slightly or even moderately attracted to, I keep still.
"So, what sort of music does Butch like?"
"Oh, you know, Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, ZZ Top.the usual."
"I like Teena Marie," Sylvester chimes in from the back seat, and neither Shelia nor I have a response to that.
The following weekend was a three-day holiday for our office due to Rosh Hashanah. Our company was owned by the Roseman family, my father's cousins. On that Friday before we left, Shelia waived this benediction:
"Butch is sure glad I'm off this Monday-he says that's at least something good the Jews did for us."
I wondered long after this time about Shelia's life, her marriage to this guy named Butch. I could see him getting angry enough to beat someone up-maybe me, maybe even Shelia-and I was pretty sure that he didn't know about our lunch hours.
For I had known plenty of guys like Butch. They threatened me, figuratively speaking, and every now and then, literally, too. When I quit the junior high football team, certain guys wouldn't speak to me and even blackballed me a few years later from high school social clubs. Because I grew my hair out starting in eighth grade, and by the tenth, let it hang to my shoulders, I, too, was called a fag and even whistled at by other guys.
Once, in the presence of my father, a boy I barely knew wolf-whistled at me across the high school baseball diamond as my Dad and I left the game. My usually self-effacing Dad yelled back at this sixteen-year old kid:
"Why don't you go look in the mirror? You're as dumb as you are ugly!"
I don't believe I was ever prouder of my Dad, and out of his sight, I freely shot that kid a mighty bird. My pride in my father, however, marched hand-in-hand with my anxiety about myself. Who was I? What did I want to be?
At the very least, I must not have wanted to hide.
Not even in this South: a place where a boy who loved college football, JD Salinger, and Harper Lee, and who was beginning to suspect that he was Jewish after all, felt more comfortable spending Friday nights shopping at K-Mart with his family, buying the latest Neil Young record, and then going home, turning off his bedroom light, and singing along with the tunes he played on his detachable stereo component set, than he did wreaking havoc with his teenage friends.
Still, listening to Neil's lyrics, soaking in his loner image, made me wonder.
Would anyone ever want me, a confused boy who never felt comfortable in this place where he was born?
Would a girl ever look at me with absolute longing and love?
Would I ever marry her and have children with her?
Of course I wondered, for in my South, I refused to own a gun.
I never strummed a guitar.
I chickened out of playing football.
And I never drank more than four beers at any one sitting.
At times, all I had was Neil:
"See the lonely boy, out on the weekend, trying to make it pay.
Can't be late to join, he tries to speak and, can't begin to say."
Despite my happy marriage of twenty-eight years and my two loving daughters, these thoughts and times came hurtling back to me when I read Dixie Lullaby. Kemp interviewed various members of many Southern rock bands, including the remnants of Skynyrd. I was struck particularly by the memories of Ed King, original member of Skynyrd, whose comments on Ronnie Van Zandt left me believing that I had been in the room when such scenes were playing out:
'The way [the band] talked about women behind their backs, the
way they treated them to their faces-where I grew up [King was raised in
California], that behavior was just.unacceptable.I was appalled man. I just
thought it was the weirdest thing I'd ever encountered. And to them, it was like nothing.' One night.during a Lynyrd Skynyrd tour, Ronnie Van Zandt walked
into the hotel room he and King were sharing. The singer, King said,
had dragged a young girl into the room with him and was beating her
mercilessly. 'He threw her head into a nightstand three or four times.
I mean, he really fucked her up.I said, "Ronnie, what the hell did she
do, man?" He said, "She swallowed my yellow jacket [a speed pill]."'
Once, a college friend confessed to me that he was a part of a "train" that a coed pulled for his fraternity. He was the second link, he said, and the dyslexic freshman boy I tutored in composition each week, my "friend" added, was the fifth.
Another time, I discovered that a guy I had gone to junior high and high school with-a guy who spent the night at my house many times and who was a member of our church-spent a night trying to force a mutual friend of ours to have sex. They were in the bedroom of her college apartment. Her roommates were in the living room watching TV. No one heard her because she refused to cry out, preferring to silently fight him off the entire night, which she did.
These are just two stories out of many, but I thought of them while reading about Ronnie, and then I thought of Shelia. I'm trying to remember after some thirty-five years whether one morning when she came to work, she really did have a black eye or if I'm just imagining it now.
I guess I'll never know for sure, but in my mind, I'll always see it.
Fortunately, I did have some comrades-in-Neil Young-arms: friends who aspired to other worlds and who would never consider abusing a girl. Friends like Freddy and Jimbo. When Neil, in some hallucinatory state, decided to play a show at The University of Alabama's Coleman Coliseum in the fall of 1972, we bought our tickets the day they went on sale. At the ripe age of sixteen, Freddy drove Jimbo and me (we were only fifteen at the time) the ninety-mile round trip for one of the greatest events of my life.
I wore my complete Neil Young attire too: brown-checked flannel shirt over a Mr. Natural tee, faded-ragged-patched jeans with cuffs let out at least three times, and scuffed blue-suede hiking boots. My hair was a shoulder-length, strawberry red, and I had long red sideburns to match. I was truly in my element as Neil played both "Southern Man" and "Alabama." Jimbo, Freddy, and I, along with the 16,000 Neil Young freaks in attendance adored every second of the two-hour show.
After the concert, another friend we met up with told us that he could get us into Bear Bryant Hall, dorm of the Alabama football team. He knew Butch Hobson, backup Tide quarterback, personally, as Butch was also from Bessemer and had starred on our high school team. Butch never became a first-stringer at Bama, though he did score on a forty-yard option keeper against Ole Miss on national TV during those magic early-wishbone years. Later, he went on to a fairly successful career as the third baseman for the Boston Red Sox. But on this night, as he welcomed us into his dorm room, he went down forever in the pantheon of my Southern gods because of what lay on his turntable: Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, side A, with "Southern Man" facing up.
An Alabama football player who loved Neil Young. And from my hometown! I felt vindicated, authenticated. I really wasn't so alone, and for the first time I saw the possibility of loving seemingly contradictory gods.
That I loved Alabama football had been a given ever since my Dad sat me on his knee when I was three in front of the Bear Bryant Show on a fall Sunday afternoon. But what would Neil Young say about the Tide or football in general?
I know what the Truckers say; in "The Three Great Alabama Icons," from A Southern Rock Opera, Patterson Hood proclaims that "I was one of them pussy boys cause I hated football, so I got a guitar, but a guitar was a poor substitute for a football with the girls in my high school. So my band hit the road.."
But my Daddy, my Jewish daddy who graduated from the University of Alabama after serving in Patton's army at the age of eighteen, raised me to be a Bama boy. Like most boys in Alabama, our civil war meant that we chose from birth a life-long allegiance to either Alabama or Auburn. I think fans of both teams, even today-especially today-understand pulling for their sworn enemy before they can grasp those who dismiss football entirely.
The year after the Neil Young concert, I got to attend my first, and only, Alabama-Auburn game. I might have been the only fan on either side dressed in Neil Young garb. This was 1973, and most fans then did not sport long hair or wear flannel shirts. Nor was Lynyrd Skynyrd piped through a massive sound system as is done today. Then, rock and roll was confined to marching band renditions of pop hits like "25 or 6 to Four" or "Get It On." Nothing anyone my age would consider "cool."
In those "Iron Bowl" days, Birmingham's Legion Field was split fifty-fifty between Tiders and War Eaglers. How do I explain hating your neighbor just because he wears the wrong colors (orange and blue in my case)? This love/hate is reminiscent of Cain and Abel, and I do believe there have been murders committed in the name of Roll Tide and War Eagle. At the very least, people like me have cried openly when Alabama lost to Auburn in the infamous "Punt Bama Punt" game of 1972. I was only fifteen, as if that is an excuse.
Other than Bama winning my first live Iron Bowl 17-13, the most riveting event of the afternoon for me was watching two elderly gentlemen squaring off in the fourth quarter. One, closely resembling Col. Harlan Sanders and who was most likely a judge or small-town lawyer, had apparently had enough of the other. This other appeared as if he had come straight to the game from his own hog farm. Though Alabama has a fine law school, and Auburn is well known for its agricultural college, in this case the judge was the War Eagler, and the farmer was the Roll Tider. The farmer had been riding the judge all game, and the judge, turning a deep shade of crimson, finally lashed out. I swear, each in his eighties, and while their sons eventually pulled them apart, each got in a few semi-vicious blows. It was a sight.
When the fight ended, I looked over at my Dad. But nothing of the melee had registered for him; nothing ever did as long as his beloved Tide was on the field. Still, though I loved our victory that day, when I thought of the spectacle of two old men willing to punch each other over a game, I couldn't help but think of Neil:
"Alabama, you've got the rest of the union to help you along. What's going wrong?"
"If I leave you tomorrow, will you still remember me?" ("Free Bird")
I did leave home for college in 1974, though I didn't go far away-just thirty miles down a two-lane road to a college at the "Geographic Center" of Alabama. Still, I was far enough away to think that I had left my redneck acquaintances behind. I thought I'd left Skynyrd behind, too, especially in a world of English professors teaching me the works of Mann, Kafka, and Fitzgerald. I should have known better. But then I read Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger," and my Southern world reappeared in full focus and force. "So," I thought, "they make literature out of the ironies of my life!" And then, other influences found me, bringing in their own contradictions and ironies.
My college mentor, Ron, was the editor of our campus newspaper. His pastel-orange hair and beard, his piercing blue eyes framed by John Lennon glasses, his support for SDS, Sen. McGovern, and Bob Dylan all marked him as my first college radical. He pushed every ounce of conservatism that I possessed out of me on the day he roundly trashed my father's ideological touchstone: The Birmingham News , especially its editorial page and its political cartoonist, a man named Charles Brooks.
"Brooks is a fascist fool," Ron declared.
"Oh, I thought he was kind of funny."
"Funny? Ask the NAACP! Ask someone who has to ride a bus to work or who lives in the slums of Elyton Village. Anyone who likes that "rag" doesn't know how bad a shape this country is in!"
Ron was a Birmingham native, so, like me, he knew its culture and history.
"I was a Southern Baptist. Used to hand out Jesus tracts every Saturday."
"What happened to you?"
"I listened to Dylan's 'The Times They Are A Changin.' I watched the convention in Chicago in '68. And then came Kent State. I guess you could say that Kent State happened to me. I didn't see Jesus lying there with those murdered students, but living in Birmingham, all the talk would have you believe that the guardsmen were right to shoot."
At that moment I believed that I had found the man who would lead me out of my Southern displacement. His editorials acidly condemned our complacent administration which refused to allow co-ed dorm visitation, imposed an 11:00 PM curfew for women, and was benignly neglecting our academic standards. This administration was our Watergate.
A Southern boy who not only wasn't a redneck, but who was a muckraking, crusading radical socialist and only three years my senior! My path was clear.
And then came the day I walked into his office on the ground floor of The Tower, a cylindrical beacon some eighty feet tall with bell chimes at its apex.
"For I'm as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot cha-a-ange. Lord, no, I won't change!"
Ron was singing along with his namesake, eyes closed, nearly in tears. The song ended, and we both stood there.
"You like Skynyrd?"
"That's my soul crying up there," he said.
Much later he told me that his given name was actually "Ronnie," not Ronald or even just plain ol' Ron. He was embarrassed by its good ol' boy quality, he said. But I wondered if, when he thought of Ronnie Van Zandt, he didn't have a moment's doubt about both his name, and himself.
And of course, in seeing all that he was, I also had doubts about my own insides, and what I was escaping from.
By then, however, my escape into the world of Southern Literature embodied by Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Robert Penn Warren was irrevocable. I became an English major solely on the power of Professor William Cobb's Southern Literary Renaissance course-an area that delved deeply into the awakening of 1930s-50s novels, drama, and poetry reflecting the complexity of the grudgingly-changing Southern-American landscape.
And then came grad school at The University of Tennessee, where I also discovered that the South was "doin' it again," at least musically. Bands like REM, The B-52's, Pylon, and so many others emerged from Athens, Georgia, to conquer the world as I knew it.
Southern became cool.
I attended these shows but still held Neil to my heart. I saw him again in the mid-80's in Atlanta on his rockabilly tour. It was OK but not revelatory as it had been in Tuscaloosa. Something had changed, and it took a while to realize that the change was in me.
And to believe that one body can contain conflicting, contradictory stances.
I never left the South, moving from Tennessee straight to a Professorship in South Carolina where I teach Modern Novel (Faulkner always included), and a course in Southern Jewish Literature.
I am still passionate about music, Alabama football, and the culture of my home.
I've even made peace with Skynyrd.
How could I not when at every Alabama game, the number of times "Sweet Home Alabama" is played comes in second only to the Alabama fight song?
How could I not when my own daughters know all the words to both?
And I'll confess that on my I-Pod, in its proper, orderly place, I've downloaded that formerly hated song. I can't say that I listen to it often, but having it there does give me a strange comfort, like I've settled some score.
Like I've finally come home.
My record collection does not contain Skynyrd, though. Can't go that far. I still buy Neil, REM, and anything the Truckers release. In my home of Greenville, South Carolina, I've seen the Truckers twice at our tiny club, The Handlebar. Three hours of raucous rock by a band that has no limits.
The funny thing is that a couple of years ago, Neil Young played in a nearby town, at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. Tickets were $100 each.
And I didn't go.
Maybe it's because the Truckers charge $25.00. Maybe it's because one of us, Neil or I, has left the other behind. I will admit that the last record of his that I truly adored was Freedom , released sometime in the late 80's. And some of those songs I recorded on the tape we listened to as my wife gave birth to our first daughter.
I've left other things too-left things to my daughters. Like me, they love music: old Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Kings of Leon. Good Southern music. Sadly, they also like New Country, and I refuse here to list some of their favorites. I can follow them through The Dixie Chicks, and I appreciate Keith Urban, but then, he's British, right?
They have to do what they must, and both of them, now in graduate school and college, truly have their own minds and speak these minds too. I think of them constantly, worry about them, because we do live in an area where Redneck Shops, the League of the South, and other such outposts of past "thinking" still radiate intolerance and hate.
I can't live their life for them. I certainly can't make their decisions about what to think, whom to vote for or date. Which is a scary thing when I think about the people I knew growing up. And the girls who found their way into the lives of guys named Ronnie and Butch.
No, life isn't simple, never has been. Men, women.
Somehow, I think that if we're willing to truly hear the music embracing us, we'll have a chance to "keep our heads," to free ourselves from simple thinking.
For if I can embrace "Sweet Home Alabama" after all these years, won't you give Freedom a chance? Or even "Alabama?"
"Big wheels keep on turnin'
Carry me home to see my kin..."