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December 5, 2012 

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Free Bird? No charge...

I’d die a happy man if I never heard “Free Bird” again.

I acknowledge the Lynyrd Skynyrd opus as a legitimate slice of rock ‘n’ roll genius and history - I just don’t want to hear its 20-minute triple guitar solo again.

On the other hand, “Sweet Home Alabama,” I can still handle, as long as it’s not being butchered by a crappy cover band changing the lyrics to “Sweet Home Carolina” or passed off as an original song by Kid Rock mashing it up with a Warren Zevon composition.

The sad thing about these two tracks is they have somehow obscured the rest of the seminal southern rock band’s tremendous catalog.

I would probably not be pegged as a Skynyrd fan, but I am…at least of the pre-plane crash days. And if you have to ask what I’m talking about, then well, you don’t know shit about Skynyrd.

The first Skynyrd song that grabbed my ear is “Gimme Three Steps” and I used to love when this groove was played at the skating rink as I’d hop on the track and zip around pretending I was the “fat fellah with the hair colored yellow” escaping the gun-wielding jealous lover.

See, I grew up just south of Atlanta – and southern rock and the Capitol of the New South went hand-in-hand.

In fact, the cover photo of Skynyrd’s debut album was shot in Jonesboro, Ga., which is a few paces south of my hometown, East Point, Ga.

Southern rock isn’t my favorite rock sub-genre, but it’s in my blood. You can take the boy out of the southern rock, but you can’t take the southern rock out of the boy.

So despite the genre’s slide into the cesspool of Velveeta, I still love Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” and “Workin’ for MCA,” .38 Special’s “Chain Lightning” and “Wild Eyed Southern Boys,” Marshall Tucker Band’s “Take the Highway,” Molly Hatchet’s “Gator Country,” and Blackfoot’s “Highway Song.”

While bands such as Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws and to some degree The Allman Brothers Band (which has been more aligned with the jam band movement in recent years) are still in rotation in classic rock radio, these days, the sound of southern rock isn’t that discernable from what is considered contemporary country.

Case in point – emerging southern rock outfit Blackberry Smoke, whose own publicity calls the quintet “outlaw rock” – hit iTunes country chart with the release of its latest album, “The Whippoorwill.”

No stranger to the Grand Strand, the Atlanta (no coincidence?)-based Blackberry Smoke returns Saturday to the House of Blues - and the stakes are a little higher as “The Whippoorwill” has garnered significant critical attention, and the band has enjoyed a higher profile after signing with still-on-the-rise country superstar and fellow Georgian, Zac Brown’s record label. Dare I say the eclectic Zac Brown Band would probably be considered southern rock, too, back in the mid-‘70s and find a home on F.M. rock radio.

I’ve listened to “The Whippoorwill” and the act it reminds me most of is The Georgia Satellites, especially that band’s underrated “In the Land of Sin and Salvation” album.

Whereas rock ‘n’ roll has been declared dead many times over, southern rock has been deemed in many circles to have been pushing up daisies since the early ‘80s.

But it seems Blackberry Smoke is seen as the best non-tribute/copycat/gimmicky hope for breathing new life into the once-proud brand of rock - yes, it’s rock, and not country - that once ruled the Southland...and beyond.

What do members of Blackberry Smoke think about being labeled the Lynyrd Skynyrd of the new millennium?

How does southern rock - which has some roots right here in the Palmetto State due to Spartanburg’s Marshall Tucker Band - delineate from country - or does it anymore?

Where does alt-country and Americana fit in the puzzle?

Do any local acts fly the southern rock banner?

For answers to these questions and more, we enlisted our decidedly Yankee correspondent Paul Grimshaw to track down Blackberry Smoke’s leader Charlie Starr, as well as tap a wide array of sources with knowledge and investment in this decidedly southern invention to get to the bottom of our mystery.

For his expert exploration of southern rock past, present and future, turn to this week’s cover story.

Kent Kimes, Editor

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