Aaand we’re back!
And here we go: Way back in the first half of the ’70s, there was a great boom in what most people back then called Southern-fried rock. The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, Marshall Tucker Band — it was a thriving sound for a few years there, and there was some great music being made. But rock cycles and trends change, and Southern rock faded into the background as slicker, arguably more accessible arena rockers came into fashion on rock radio and disco took over Top 40. There was a little resurgence in the ’80s, with the chart success of .38 Special and their Van Zant cred, but their singles were actually pretty mainstream ’80s radio rock. (Which is not to say bad; nothing wrong at all with “Hold on Loosely,” and “If I’d Been the One” is even better.)
Though I live in a southern Nevada now, I’m entirely a city creature — even little Laughlin can’t really claim to be all that rural, what with the giant neon-coated casino hotels. But I still love the Southern rock classics; “Midnight Rider” gives me chills, and I’ll crank up the radio for all nine-plus minutes of “Green Grass and High Tides.”
But southern rock isn’t likely to come back in style any time soon. The music is still out there, in a certain form — but those acts are all calling themselves country now. There’s a small army of male artists in their early to mid 30s (Jason Aldean, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan, Zac Brown, etc.) who grew up on Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band but who also claim to love Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett and John Mellencamp, and whose instincts (both artistic and commercial) led them to try their luck with country careers instead of rock ‘n’ roll. These guys are frequently credited with bringing “rock style” or a “rock approach” to country music, and I guess there’s something to it. If John Mellencamp were starting out today, he’d fit right in with these guys musically, if not politically, and there’s no doubt he’d be accepted by country radio. They wouldn’t give it a second thought.
But back in the late ’90s, there was none of that. Country had far more career female artists than it does today, and Shania Twain and Faith Hill in particular were having hit after hit. Everybody wanted to cross over to adult contemporary radio, so big-voice power ballads, sappy story songs, and bouncy girl-friendly tunes were the order of the day. Rock was still doing — I don’t know, whatever came after grunge; was it nu metal? — and country had gone girly, and the South was showing no signs of rising again.
Then this comes screaming off the radio:
“Hillbilly Shoes” link for the e-mail people.
Montgomery Gentry’s “Hillbilly Shoes” was the best piece of Southern-fried rock to come out in easily 15 years, and it came to country radio during one of the mildest-mannered times in the history of the format. Sure, the production is slicker than any ’70s Southern act would’ve done it. But the pieces are all there. Raw vocals, drums slamming front and center, rock-steady bass, and unsophisticated lyrics with unabashedly redneck themes:
You want to judge me by the whiskey on my breath
You think you know me but you ain’t seen nothing yet
Till you walk a while, a country mile
In my hillbilly shoes
In my hillbilly shoes
It had two big homely Kentucky boys to sing it, and best of all, a screaming lead guitar that was a choir of angels compared to the dull, pandering, “female-friendly” music that surrounded it. And country programmers, as bored as the rest of us, actually played it.
“Hillbilly Shoes” wasn’t a huge hit then, and it most likely wouldn’t be now. But that it got any play at all was an early sign that country, which is even more cyclical than rock, was moving toward men and a harder sound, and within a year or two male artists were back to dominating the format.
Montgomery Gentry did become quite successful after that first single and have had many hits. But they never did anything remotely like “Hillbilly Shoes” again, settling into hard-sounding but substance-free records, contrived wannabe anthems, and the occasional “inspirational” hit of the type country artists seem to love so much.
But if they were only going to rock once, at least they did it right.