The best Southern-rock bands of our time — The Drive-By Truckers, North Mississippi Allstars, Gov't Mule, Bottle Rockets and Alabama Shakes — are nowhere to be heard on country radio. Which is strange, because Billboard's country charts are more and more dominated by Southern-rock acts. Perhaps the above bands are too bluesy and too honest about the South's contradictions, or maybe they just lack the knack for grabbing a listener's ear in the three minutes between commercials. Country's new wave of "cap acts" — Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Kip Moore, Brantley Gilbert, Luke Bryan and Randy Houser — are essentially radio-friendly Southern-rockers despite being marketed as country, and so are Miranda Lambert, Eli Young and Zac Brown. Brown has become such a major figure, in fact, that he now has his own label, Southern Ground Artists, and his own traveling circus, the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival, which comes to Nashville Friday and Saturday — and then pops up again in Charleston, S.C., Oct. 20-21.
Zac Brown Band will play long headlining sets both nights in Nashville; Alan Jackson and Sheryl Crow will make guest appearances Friday, while Gregg Allman and Dwight Yoakam will guest on Saturday. Three of Brown's bandmates — bassist John Driskell Hopkins, guitarist Clay Cook and guitarist Coy Bowles — will each lead his own band over the weekend. The festival features five more artists signed to Brown's label — Sonia Leigh, Blackberry Smoke, The Wheeler Boys, Levi Lowrey and Nic Cowan — as well as more diverse artists such as Jerry Douglas, Michael Franti, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Los Lonely Boys and Vintage Trouble.
Brown is unusual in that he doesn't take his cue from the typical models — The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd — but from Jimmy Buffett, who redefined the Southern rocker as a beach bum rather than a biker. Not only did Brown turn his duet with Buffett, last year's "Knee Deep," into a No. 1 country single (and No. 18 pop single), but Brown's new album, Uncaged, is steeped in Buffett's sound. This is most obvious on "Island Song" and "Jump Right In," pop-reggae odes to a beach vacation, and "Overnight," a calypso-tinged and horn-backed ode to guilt-free sex. But nearly every song, even those with Appalachian fiddle, echoes Buffett's happy-go-lucky breeziness. The current single, "Day That I Die," turns even death into impetus for a bouncy, celebratory party anthem.
In other words, African-American blues and working-class angst are de-emphasized, while pop craftsmanship and vacation hedonism are reinforced. Such craftsmanship is not to be sneered at, for Brown and his co-writers (bandmates Hopkins, Bowles and Jimmy De Martini; labelmates Leigh, Cowan and Lowrey; and ringers Jason Mraz, Wyatt Durrette and Mac McAnally) have a knack for making a melodic hook or verbal catchphrase jump out from the arrangement and grab one's attention. Even when Brown attempts an unapologetic imitation of a Dickey Betts song on the new album's title track, Brown's sweet tenor (so different from the grizzly growl his beard-and-leather appearance suggests) steps forward from the Southern boogie, as the Allman Brothers' former lead singer never would, to deliver the pop hook.
This album, like all of his releases, is credited not to Brown alone but to Zac Brown Band. That makes a difference, for instead of relying on the same A-Team session players that everyone else in Nashville uses, Brown uses his own guys and gets his own sound — especially in the vocal harmonies, which are a big part of this record. "Natural Disaster," which refers not to a hurricane but to a woman, applies three-part bluegrass harmonies to the galloping Southern-rock rhythm, while the held-out vowels behind Brown swell the heartache on the country-pop ballad "Goodbye in Her Eyes." One can fault Brown for his lack of artistic ambition, but one can't fault his impeccable pop instincts.
As faithful as Brown is to the Buffett model of Southern rock, Blackberry Smoke is to the Skynyrd template. This Georgia quintet makes its debut on Southern Ground Artists with its third album, The Whippoorwill. All the Skynyrd musical moves are accounted for: the power chords, the boogie-woogie piano, the stomping rhythm section, the bluesy guitar licks, the belted-out, Southern-drawl vocals. When wailing female vocals are added, a song like "Everybody Knows She's Mine" sounds like an outtake from Gimme Back My Bullets. Unfortunately, the songwriting has little in common with Ronnie Van Zant's. The 13 songs are unfailingly tuneful, but the characters in the songs — the tempting women, lying women, conquered women, drunken men, guilty men and strict fathers — are so vaguely depicted that they never evolve from stereotypes into real people. And the bar-band backing music never develops enough tension to be worth releasing.
The two best albums released by Southern Ground Artists this year are Live Volume One: Sky High and Live Volume Two: Nail and Tooth. They both come from The Wood Brothers, the unconventional pairing of jazz bassist Chris Wood (from Medeski, Martin and Wood) and folk-blues singer-songwriter Oliver Wood. Backed by drummer Jano Rix and guest lap-steel guitarist Clay Cook (from Zac Brown Band) on these live recordings from several different shows, the two siblings bolster their rootsy songs with plenty of muscular tension and release. Oliver writes smart, witty songs, and Chris plays the most adventurous bass lines in the entire history of Southern rock. Unfortunately, The Wood Brothers — who just played at both The Rutledge and the Downtown Presbyterian Church as part of the Americana Music Festival — will be playing the Southern Ground Festival in Charleston, but not the one in Nashville.