The Mysterious Case of Gainesville, Florida
These days the University of Florida may be best known for its powerhouse football teams, with quarterbacks like Tim Tebow taking the spotlight both on the field and off. The town of Gainesville, once smack on the tourist trail of US 441 (where outside of town you could guzzle fresh orange juice from the local orange grove as you watched bouts of alligator wrestling), has today—maybe with the exception of the football stadium, affectionately known as “The Swamp” thanks to the dank sogginess of Gainesville’s almost unbearable humid and hot atmosphere—been washed over in the wake of Disney’s powerful tourist waves.
Yet, as Marty Jourard reminds us in his sometimes tedious but mostly delightful and appealing new book, Music Everywhere: The Rock and Roll Roots of a Southern Town (University Press of Florida, $19.95), Gainesville formed the cradle that rocked four musicians—Don Felder, Bernie Leadon, Tom Petty, and Stephen Stills—who swung rock and roll in new directions. Fueled by his own memories of growing up in the music scene in Gainesville—he recalls standing near the stage at the Gainesville High School gym in 1969 watching Duane Allman turn in scorching slide guitar solos as part of his new-at-the-time band called The Allman Brothers Band—as part of the band Road Turkey and later as a member of The Motels, Jourard ponders just what made Gainesville so special and why it gave rise to such great music.
On the way to his answer to that question, he weaves the cultural and political history of the times with the evolving careers of these four musicians, as well as many other players who turned the Gainesville scene into a hotbed of rock and roll. Each chapter covers a one- or two-year span, offering at the head of each chapter a list of the top songs of those years as a framework for the kinds of music out of which or against which Gainesville musicians developed their own sound. Thus, in 1964, while folk music such as The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell” wafted through the air, the unquenchable desire for dance music played by live bands blew like a mighty wind around Gainesville and surrounding areas, thanks to the area’s dance halls and juke joints. There were plenty of groups playing folk music, such as the Accidental Trio, in which Stephen Stills played guitar, but rock and roll emerged quickly to dominate the scene.
Don Felder tuned in late at night to two Nashville stations—WSM and WLAC—each of which cut through the airwaves with 50,000 watts of power, bringing Chet Atkins (WSM) and the blues guitar (WLAC) to Felder’s eager ears. Consumed with playing the guitar like Chet Atkins and B.B. King, the young Felder practiced obsessively. As Jourard points out, Felder would play tapes of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and others on “one channel of his home stereo tape machine and then plug in and record his guitar on the other channel, teaching himself the songs by playing along.” One night, Felder and a friend drove far outside the city limits where they watched through a window as B.B King played at a club—they were two young white teenagers who’d arrived at a black club, and too young at 14 to get in the door anyway—and where he met King the same night. Felder soon put together The Continentals, one of Gainesville’s early rock bands, through which Stephen Stills passed momentarily.
Stephen Stills moved around quite a bit during his childhood and youth, but he landed in Gainesville in 1962 and was a member of the Gainesville High School class of 1963. Felder recalls Stills as having a “rebellious, independent streak” but also as having “one of the most distinctive voices I’ve ever heard.” After Stills joined The Continentals—he was initially the group’s drummer—the band played gigs around campus and town before Stills just up and left Gainesville. “The next time I heard him,” recalls Felder, “was his voice on ‘For What It’s Worth’ on the radio, and I went, ‘Wait, I know that voice. That sounds like Stills’, and sure enough it was Buffalo Springfield.”
On February 9, 1964, the Beatles introduced a frenzy of music to American teenagers when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. The Fab Four’s appearance was an epiphany for Tom Petty, whose life had already been altered when he saw Elvis step from a white Cadillac in Ocala in 1961: “It all became clear. This is what I’m gonna do, and this is how you do it.” Within 24 hours, Petty recalls, “I wanted a group. I set about scouring the neighborhoods for anybody that owned instruments, that could play instruments,” and the Sundowners were soon born: “working guys who were either practicing or playing all the time; we were obsessed with it.”
In early 1964, the Leadon family arrived in Gainesville when their father joined the faculty at the University of Florida. While Tom would eventually join up with Petty in Mudcrutch and then the Heartbreakers, his brother Bernie was fascinated by country and bluegrass music. As Jourard points out, “Leadon arrived one day at Lipham Music, the main music store in town, and asked for the name of the best local guitarist. The answer was Don Felder. … The two became immediate friends and they soon found they were both highly proficient on guitar.” As Felder recalls, “Bernie and I had two bands; we had the Maundy Quintet or whatever we were doing for a weekend band, and then during the week we had a bluegrass band.”
Jourard traces the evolution of the Gainesville music scene through the developing careers of these musicians, including that their ways often crossed later in their musical lives, such as Felder’s and Leadon’s time as bandmates on two albums with the Eagles: On the Border and One of These Nights.
Why have so many rock musicians come out of this swampy university town in north central Florida? Jourard offers a few answers. “Lipham Music catered to a wide variety of musicians of various genres, including skilled country and bluegrass musicians such as steel guitarist Shot Jackson.” Rock guitarists had the firsthand opportunity to hear the tremendous technical proficiency and watch the lightning speed with which bluegrass players played. In addition, he observes, Gainesville is “diverse, geographically isolated, Southern, yet liberal and relatively progressive in politics, with a long tradition of supporting music. It’s a city with equal parts higher education and hedonistic behavior with a general lack of artifice. … But there is another reason, often referred to as the ‘X’ factor. Sometimes a place just happens naturally of its own accord. Gainesville has brought a lot of musicians to the world, and Gainesville continues to nurture the musical spirit of those who live and play music there. It’s the hippie city and retains the best of that era.”
In these affectionate fan’s notes, Jourard’s glimpse into this little-explored chapter of music history, the reputation of Gainesville, Florida, as a football town fades in the rearview mirror; the little Florida town that gave birth to some of our most influential rockers won’t back down now as it continues to spawn other artists that continue to give their musical gifts to the world.