Capricorn Records and the Rise of Southern Rock
In 1974, the Charlie Daniels Band released “The South Gonna Do It,” which quickly became an anthem celebrating the rise and then-growing popularity of a style of music that became known as Southern rock. That phrase most often referred to a loose confederation of bands and singers hailing from Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, and Florida — the Allman Brothers Band, Wet Willie, Grinderswitch, the Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, Molly Hatchet, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section, among others. “Southern rock” also became associated with a specific era, roughly 1970-1974, when these bands were at the height of their popularity in the South as well as on national radio. Although Gregg Allman once said that calling music Southern rock was like calling music “rock rock,” the phrase caught on following various outdoor festivals, such the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970 and the shows that the Hampton Grease Band and the Allman Brothers put on at the Lakewood International Speedway just south of Atlanta.
Fans and DJs used the descriptor as a way of talking about a certain style of music that fused country, blues, and rock and that focused on lightning-fast lead guitar solos, greasy slide guitar, and vocals. The lyrics often focused on the excesses and hopes of working-class Southerners but just as often featured characters that recalled a Southern ethos — Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe,” the Allman Brothers’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (though the origin of that song is less about Southern Gothic than the title would lead us to believe). Other songs espoused the virtues of small-town living at the edge of creeping urbanism in the New South, such as Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “Doraville” — “a touch of country in the city,” as the lyrics remind us.
Southern rock may not have reached its zenith had it not been for an enterprising young man from Macon, Georgia, named Phil Walden. During his college years at Mercer University, Walden managed and promoted some local bands. After he graduated from Mercer, having discovered that he had a knack for promotion and loved music, Walden managed Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and Al Green, among others. But became most famous for giving Southern rock a home at Capricorn Records, the label he founded in Macon in 1969 with his brother Alan and their friend Frank Fenter.
Capricorn Records became synonymous with Southern rock; it launched the career of the Allman Brothers, whose members soon became Macon’s most famous residents. Between 1969 and 1979, when the label went bankrupt, Capricorn was home to Bonnie Bramlett, Stillwater, Dobie Gray, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Hydra, and Grinderswitch, among others.
In his new book Capricorn Rising: Conversations in Southern Rock (Mercer University Press; the title is part of the series Music and the American South), Michael Buffalo Smith (Rebel Yell: An Oral History of Southern Rock and Prisoner of Southern Rock: A Memoir) gathers 30 interviews that he has conducted with many of the musicians and producers associated with Capricorn Records during the time that it established Southern rock — some previously published and others never-before published. While these interviews do not form an oral history, exactly, they deliver precious insight into the sometimes fraught and sometimes joyous relationships that musicians share, and they often focus on the making of the music or the songwriting. They sometimes give the artist ample time to reminisce about a time past when a new sound was being born. Smith clearly puts his subjects at ease — in part because he’s a musician himself who’s played with some of these folks, but he’s also an admirer of these artists and allows them the freedom to roam about in their thoughts.
For example, Smith talks to Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks about each of their takes on the now-famous split between Betts and the Allman Brothers Band. Betts tells Smith: “I can tell you pretty much what is happening, and it’s becoming more obvious if you’ve read any of Butch’s quotes on the internet. Butch [Trucks] has kind of taken over the band, in my opinion. The way I see it, and I was there when all this shit went down, and I really didn’t realize how much pent up resentment and damn near hatred, I guess, Butch has for me … To put it simply, Butch has finally taken over the band. And the first thing he does is get rid of me because he feels I was keeping the other guys from going along with his business ideas.”
Trucks tells Smith, though, “We reached a point to where we couldn’t [deal with Dickey] anymore. … So I called Gregg and Jaimoe and told them ‘no more’. … We decided to do the summer tour without him. …Dickey hired a lawyer and sued us. As Jaimoe said, ‘Dickey quit’ that day.”
Looming over the entire Capricorn enterprise, of course, is the memory of Duane Allman, who died 45 years ago on October 29. Gregg Allman tells Smith that the most important lesson he ever learned from his brother was, “stick to how you really feel about things; keep your own mind about things.” Trucks recalls that “Duane is the most powerful human I have ever known. … He wanted to experience everything life had to offer, good and bad.”
Duane Allman’s daughter, who worked with producer Bill Levinson to put together the 7-CD box set, Skydog, says the music collected in the box set is what he dedicated his life to. “That’s the lesson for me,” she tells Smith. “He was a really down-to-earth American character. He was a self-made person, and really excelled remarkably early on.”
Smith also interviews is Bonnie Bramlett, whom he calls “the Queen of Southern Rock.” She tells him that the most important thing in life is education: “I mean, it’s important to be a nice person, and da da da — but that’s all taken for granted, do the right thing and blah blah blah. But if you’re going to be in any kind of business, just know how to count your money, okay? And keep track of where it is. You can’t do that without an education, especially if you’ve never had any money. People who know how to keep their money will take your money. They know you don’t know how to handle it. Just be able to handle your own success.”
Smith’s book might be even more valuable for the long, in-depth interviews with producers such as Tom Dowd — who produced Layla as well as albums by Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Cream, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among many others — and Johnny Sandlin, producer of the Allman Brothers Band. He also spoke with Alan Walden and Frank Fenter’s son, Robin Duner-Fenter. These conversations from behind the boards give us more insight into the music than some of the conversations with the musicians.
In the end, these are one admiring fan’s notes about music that’s shaped his life unalterably. His admiration and fandom never gets in the way of his ability to ask difficult questions of these artists or producers. To their credit, the subjects of the interviews never hold back in their responses.
For fans of Southern rock, this is an indispensable book. Though some interviews are thinner than others, readers will be richly repaid every time they open it. More importantly, though, these conversations remind us why this music touched us and gained the momentum it did in the early 1970s, shaping later artists like Widespread Panic and Gov’t Mule. Smith’s book also gives us an incentive to seek out this music and listen to it again, or for the first time.