Southern rock bands have always fascinated Kelley, as well as the Confederacy, the Civil War and American history.
Many Bands From America’s South Are Among the Best in Rock and Roll
Is there a difference between Southern rock and other types of rock? Hell, yeah! And here's why. The South was home to the Confederacy, which lost the American Civil War, and many southerners are still angry about that!
Also, chattel slavery lasted much longer in the South than it did in the North, and because of this, racial issues seem a greater problem in the South. There’s much poverty in the South as well; some of the poorest states in the U.S. reside there.
There’s also something known as Southern literature, dark, flowery prose, dramatic as a twister, though soft as a cotton puff. (Anybody heard of Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, or William Faulkner?) And Southern rockers try to convey these historical perspectives, art, sentiments, and traditions any way they can, though generally with lots of blazing guitars and soulful singing!
Anyway, many rock bands have sprung from this tragic land, which is beautiful and blighted, strong as moonshine and light as a mint julep, and this list tries to name the South’s top 15 rock bands of all time.
15. Brother Clyde
Billy Ray Cyrus leaped to prominence in 1992 when he released his debut album Some Gave All, the best-selling album of 1992 in the US, and was inspired by Cyrus’ appreciation for the service of Vietnam veterans.
The album’s hit single was “Achy Breaky Heart,” a crossover, country-rock tune that made Cyrus a superstar virtually overnight. But Cyrus began his singer-songwriting career playing in rock bands such as Sly Dog in the 1980s, his playlist including songs such as “Rebel Yell,” “Open All Night” and “Turn the Page,” as well as outlaw country hits by Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Charlie Daniels, and Waylon Jennings.
So it should come as no surprise when Cyrus returned to his rock and roll roots by forming Brother Clyde in 2009. Billed as an alternative rock supergroup, Brother Clyde’s hit single was “Lately.”
14. Bruce Hornsby and the Range
The obvious leader of this band is keyboardist, singer/songwriter Bruce Hornsby, who was born in Virginia and began his musical career in the early 1980s. The Range’s first album was The Way It Is (1986), featuring the hits “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain.”
The band’s sound—a mixture of rock, jazz, and bluegrass, became known as the “Virginia Sound.” It has a poignant gaiety that’s strikingly original and fun to dance to. Interestingly, Bruce Hornsby and the Range won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987. The Range produced two more albums, Scenes from the Southside (1988) and A Night on the Town (1990).
By the way, Bruce Hornsby has continued working as a solo artist and studio musician and has collaborated many times with the Grateful Dead, as well as its various post-Jerry Garcia incarnations.
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13. Point Blank
Coming from Irving, Texas, Point Blank was formed in 1974 and produced six albums that commanded a strong following on album-oriented, rock radio stations. Their original founding members were Rusty Burns, Kim Davis, John O’Daniel, and Richard Heaton.
The band’s two biggest hit singles were “Nicole” and “The Hard Way.” Essentially a Southern rock/Texas blues/hard rock assemblage that once performed as much as 200 shows per year, Point Blank broke up in 1984. But it later reformed in 2005 and has produced three more albums, including Reloaded (2006), a live album. Although all the founding members have passed on, Point Blank still performs with various surpassingly good musicians.
12. ZZ Top
ZZ Top, the prototypical hard rock power trio, has been ripping it up for 45 years. Regarding these three men from Texas, Billy Gibbons plays lead guitar, with Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums. They all do vocals—pretty much essential in a threesome.
ZZ Top’s third album, Tres Hombres, featured the very popular tunes “La Grange” (introducing their most notable riff) and “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” another fan favorite. In the early 1980s, ZZ Top updated its act, producing a high-tech-oriented sound using such devices as synthesizers and drum machines, certainly appropriate for the new-wave decade. However, they never strayed far from their blues-rock roots of the 1960s. These days, ZZ Top plans to return to its pre-1980s sound. This is good news for rock fans because they will always appreciate the pure, unadulterated riff.
Grinderswitch recorded and performed from the 1970s into the ‘80s and beyond. Playing a kick-ass style of blues that tends to blow off the doors of any honky-tonk juke joint, their first four albums were considered first-rate.
Often compared to such supergroups as the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, and English blues bands such as Cream and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Grinderswitch didn’t achieve great commercial success but they attracted many loyal fans who haven’t forgotten them. Their lineup included: Dru Lombar (vocals and guitar), Larry Howard (guitar), Stephen Miller (keyboards), Joe Dan Petty (bass), and Rick Burnett (drums).
10. Marshall Tucker Band
The Marshall Tucker Band, named after the owner of a warehouse where they used to rehearse, originally formed way back in the 1960s in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with some of its members having served in the military during the Vietnam era.
The band’s first album was released in 1973, all of its songs written by guitarist/vocalist Toy Caldwell, including the iconic tune “Can’t You See,” certainly one of the greatest Southern rock ballads of the 1970s, if not of all time.
The band, performing as many as 300 times per year in that heady decade, often added fiddler Charlie Daniels to their touring lineup, as well as other musicians such as guitarist Elvin Bishop. Since then, the Marshall Tucker Band hasn’t been quite as successful commercially, though they still perform and record with many new members having replaced the old lineup.
9. Charlie Daniels Band
Multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, Charles Daniels has been a solo act off and on for many years, but at times he’s fronted the Charlie Daniels Band; he’s also played with the Marshall Tucker Band.
Generally known as a fiddle player, Charlie plays many types of music, but most people, particularly in the South, may know him as a country artist, as well as a singer of gospel tunes. At any rate, Charlie Daniels’s music could be considered country-rock, and a primary example of this can be found on one of Charlie’s greatest hits, “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.”
And another one of his notable tunes is “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Charlie has also performed many patriotic songs, notably “In America,” which is about the Iran Hostage Crisis from 1979 to 1981.
8. Dixie Dregs
The Dixie Dregs or The Dregs, don’t sing, but they need no additions or embellishment to their music. Yes, they’re that good! Hailing from Augusta, Georgia, and formed in 1970, the Dixie Dregs play an eclectic style of music that’s hard to describe—part rock, country, jazz, progressive rock, and classical. It seems safe to suggest that nobody plays like them.
Generally a quintet with Steve Morse on guitar, Andy West on bass, and Rod Morgenstein on drums, The Dixie Dregs produced their first studio album, Free Fall, in 1977, and are still active, though they haven’t produced a new studio album since 1994. Perhaps their greatest singles are “Cruise Control,” “Take It off the Top,” “Punk Sandwich” “Go for Baroque” and “Crank It Up.”
7. Black Oak Arkansas
Originally known as The Nobody Else, Black Oak Arkansas (BOA) stole its first PA system from Monette High School. To avoid incarceration, these high school pals fled to the woods and refined their eclectic sound.
Fronted by singer “Jim Dandy” Mangrum, whose sexual lyrics and antics sparked the band’s performances, BOA released its first album in 1971, which contains many of BOA’s greatest hits: “Hot and Nasty,” “When Electricity Came to Arkansas” and “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul.” And then, continuing to impress audiences with their live show, BOA released Raunch and Roll Live in 1973.
Vocalist Ruby Starr also toured with the band for a time, often covering “Jim Dandy,” a hit from the 1950s. Later, Jim Dandy Mangrum changed the band’s name to Black Oak, and their music has continued, though not nearly as successfully.
Black Oak Arkansas
6. Thirty-Eight Special
Hailing from Florida (which is a part of the South, isn’t it?) members of Thirty-Eight Special formed the band in 1974 when their sound had a decidedly Southern rock tinge.
Then in the 1980s, Thirty-Eight Special switched somewhat to a more mainstream, arena rock style, releasing many hit singles, including “Hold on Loosely,” “If I’d Been the One” and “Caught Up in You.”
Then, in the 1990s, the band continued churning out hit albums such as Bone Against Steel (1991) and Resolution (1997). Thirty-Eight Special continues touring, though most of the original lineup has retired or gone elsewhere.
5. Wet Willie (Band)
Originally from Mobile, Alabama, Wet Willie is a Southern soul band whose core members include singer, harmonica/saxophone player Jimmy Hall and his brother bassist Jack Hall, both of whom brought the band together in 1969.
Throughout the years the band’s signature hit has been “Keep on Smilin’,” which hit #10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1974. They produced other Billboard-charting singles, including “Country Side of Life,” “Everything That You Do” and “Leona.” Maybe their most popular album from that time is Drippin’ Wet (1973).
In current times, three or more of the original members still perform with what is often called the Wet Willie Band. And in 2012, the band released the live CD Miles of Smiles.
4. Molly Hatchet
Like many Southern rock bands, Molly Hatchet, a sextet that formed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1971, began with a Southern rock sound and then switched to a more mainstream rock and roll style punctuated with advanced production values. Moreover, in the early days, this six-man group featured three lead guitars, but in 1984 they replaced one guitar with keyboardist John Galvin.
Rivaling in popularity with another Southern band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet has changed much of its personnel over the years and decades and a flowchart is necessary to keep track of its changes. Molly Hatchet has produced three platinum studio albums, the best of which is perhaps Flirtin’ with Disaster, produced in 1979, as well as many live albums, compilations, and radio shows (including a few bootlegs too).
The Outlaws are another Southern rock group that highlights guitar virtuosity, though their vocals aren’t half bad either, another long suit of theirs to be sure. The Outlaws first album, released in 1975, featured two of their greatest hits, “There Goes Another Love Song” and “Green Grass and High Tides,” the latter of which perhaps the most rousing and impressive Southern rock tune of all time. In this opus, lead guitarists Hughie Thomasson and Billy Jones swap mesmerizing guitar riffs, truly a rock guitar tour de force!
In 1980, the Outlaws cover of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” has been their greatest single to date, reaching #31 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. It seems the Outlaws will never be caught by law enforcement. Like Jesse James and his gang, they’ll reside forever in the hearts of their many fans!
2. Lynyrd Skynyrd
As seems to be the tradition for Southern rock bands, Lynyrd Skynyrd emphasizes guitar artistry and, like the Allman Brothers, has two drummers. Their vaunted “three-guitar attack,” similar to that of the Outlaws, was particularly mind-blowing on the rock anthem, “Free Bird,” the guitar solo of which considered one of the greatest of all time. During the 1970s, the band churned out many more hits such as “Sweet Home Alabama” and “That Smell.”
Then tragedy struck when a plane carrying the entire band crashed in Mississippi on October 20, 1977, killing three band members and seriously injuring the other members. Understandably, the band went on hiatus for the next ten years and then reunited with the recovering members and pre-crash members, eventually releasing the two-album live set, Southern by the Grace of God: Leonard Skynyrd Tribute Tour 1987. At present, the band soldiers on, though many members have passed on. But all members will forever be . . . free as a bird.
1. Allman Brothers
The Allman Brothers Band became a sensation after the release of the live album At Fillmore East in 1971, their blues-tinged rock sound most evident on the masterpiece “Whipping Post.” But just months after the album’s release lead guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident. Then, only a year later, bassist Berry Oakley also died in a bike crash. Such catastrophic losses could have destroyed many groups, but the band soldiered on with keyboardist/singer Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts on lead guitar. (Betts was nicknamed Mr. Clean, because of his precise, unadulterated phrasing.)
Also, the band developed a new twangy, Southern rock style. Primary examples of this new sound were the mega radio hit “Ramblin’ Man” and the Dickey Betts’ composition, “Jessica,” an instrumental. In 1989, the band added lead guitarist Warren Haynes, and later, guitarist Derek Trucks joined the group. Interestingly, over the decades, the band has included some of rock's best lead guitarists.
© 2016 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 31, 2019:
Hey, jburnsiderph, in a prior comment I explained why Blackfoot is not on this list, though it certainly deserves to be. And regarding Point Blank, I'll have to check them out and go from there. Later!...
Jburnsiderph on December 29, 2019:
Blackfoot and Point Blank should at least receive honorable mention
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 07, 2019:
Lynyrd Skynyrd's lineup changed a great deal back in the 1970s. At one point, Ricky Medlocke was their second drummer. Thanks for coming by!...
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on November 29, 2019:
Thanks for the comment, David. But I disagree with you about Bruce Hornsby; he's an excellent songwriter and keyboardist and his band, the Range, has a unique country-rock sound that should be represented on this list. As for Blackfoot, I included them on the list of the 12 Greatest Native American Rock Bands. I don't like putting the same band on multiple lists. Sometimes I have to do so but I avoid doing it. In general, redundancy is not a good thing on the internet!...
David on November 29, 2019:
I'm sorry but the one thing I can not agree with is Bruce Hornsby and The Range. That spot should be Blackfoot, Pure Prairie League or Atlanta Rhythm Section. Bruce Hornsby was more interested in flirting with the Deadhead Scene than Southern Rock, where as the above 3 were part of pioneering the Southern Rock genre. My pick would be Blackfoot seeing that founder Rickie Medlock was in and out of Lynyrd Skynyrd from the bands formation.
Suzie from Carson City on July 22, 2019:
LMAO!! Close call!
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on July 22, 2019:
Paula, I was just about to propose to Kelley, then I realized he was a he. Heh.
Suzie from Carson City on July 22, 2019:
Southern Rock is great! Thanks for this awesome article.
By the way, Wesman....I agree with you. I like Jesus, His prose and His taste too!!...You're a kook, my friend! LOL
Kelley Marks on July 22, 2019:
Thanks for the comment, Wesman Todd Shaw. I could always use another compliment!...
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on July 22, 2019:
Jesus. I think I like you. I really like some of your prose. And I definitely like your tastes.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on July 21, 2019:
Wet Willie is now on the list, if anybody is interested. And hey, Rickey Ward, Lynyrd Skynyrd is definitely no cheap knock-off of the Allman Brothers Band. Perhaps you know little or nothing about Southern rock. Later!...
Rickey Ward on June 25, 2019:
Tim Brown is absolutey right. The Allman Brothers Band created a new genre of music called southern rock. I loved Lynard Skynard but theh were a cheap knock off of the ABB. Wet Willie was never mentioned. Whoever came up with this list knows nothing about southern rock.
Tim brown on March 14, 2019:
Any listof southern rock that doesn't have the Allman brothers # 1 is a bad list