Take The Highway

Take The Highway – Spotify

And the time has finally come
For me to pack my bags and walk away

Southern rock started as R&B. Duane Allman was playing sessions in Muscle Shoals and Phil Walden was managing Otis Redding. But then…

It didn’t happen overnight, it was years in gestation, a group of players inspired by the blues decided to add a layer of improvisation and with Walden steering them they…

Didn’t break through.

The first Allman Brothers LP was produced by Adrian Barber, famous for his work on Cream’s “Goodbye,” the progenitor of the southern rock sound, the extended English jams, but the end result was too antiseptic. The songs were there, the playing was too, but the magic was absent, it’s all about capturing lightning in a bottle. That’s the thing with art, it’s that indescribable element you can’t put your finger on that puts it over the top, and although some perfectionists who write and record for eons get it right, most successes, most breakthroughs, are inspirational moments laid down nearly instantly which are undeniable, whether it be the opuses of the British Invasion or the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.

The Allmans’ follow-up was produced by Atlantic’s A-Team, Tom Dowd and Joel Dorn. The rough edges were sanded off, the end result was more palatable for the masses, more radio-friendly, but if you think you heard “Midnight Rider” on the radio back in 1970, you’d be wrong.

But then…

Came “Fillmore East.”

You see the band had been gigging. Getting it right, spreading the word. That’s the way you broke back then, not only the Allman Brothers but thereafter Bruce Springsteen, going to see the Boss it wasn’t so much about the songs but the performance, the stories, the passion. But with the Allman Brothers it was all about…

The playing.

There was no doubt the twin lead guitarists were skilled. These were not the amateurs of yore, great on wax and lame live. They delivered and word started to spread.

Insiders knew. Bill Graham had the Allmans close the Fillmore East. But it wasn’t until the live album was released that it exploded, YEARS after the Allmans had begun to try.

Still, it was another two years after that before casual listeners got infected, when “Ramblin’ Man” was all over AM radio.


It starts with a culture. Pushed forward not only by the music, but a businessman, Phil Walden WAS southern rock. And then, eventually the public catches up.

So, if you’re off the mainstream radar and gaining traction and part of a scene maybe, just maybe…

But there used to be a new sound every three to four years. Southern rock was superseded by corporate rock and then disco and then the new wave on MTV and then hair bands, the Seattle sound and popsters and rappers. But now, even though every sound is available at our fingertips it takes even longer to get traction. WHY IS THIS SO?

In a world of infinite choice the customer is alienated. Furthermore, it takes longer for a sound to rise above. And with all the wealth concentrated in a certain sound, everybody goes there. When a few acts are making millions and others thousands, not everybody chases the big cash. But when the top acts make fifty or sixty times more than the lesser ones, all the best business talent goes to the top, it’s no different from society at large, where you have the educated class going into banking and tech because that’s where the money is.

So the Allmans hit and other southern rock bands begin to propagate.

You read about them, but very few broke through. Dixie Dregs, Sea Level, Grinderswitch…they were rarely on the radio. Wet Willie was an exception, they had a song that got airplay, “Keep On Smilin’,” but no live reputation outside of their home base.

And then came the Marshall Tucker Band.

Every successful act depends upon a genius, a songwriter, sometimes a player, even a singer, who puts it over the top. In the case of Marshall Tucker, it was Toy Caldwell. He wrote all the songs on the band’s 1973 debut, and when you dropped the needle…

You were immediately taken away. That’s where you got your best shot, the opening track. “Take The Highway” was akin to “Revival,” but with more energy and more explosiveness.

Even better, the follow-up was superior, “Can’t You See” was the opposite of “Take The Highway,” it was subtle, it didn’t hit you over the head, rather it penetrated your soul, it was the kind of song you played on a Saturday afternoon as you contemplated your life.

Now the irony is the Marshall Tucker Band could never capitalize on this sound, could never deliver on it again, and then it turned more southern, more country and had further success, until Toy Caldwell died and the band became an oldies act.

Meanwhile, Al Kooper moved to Atlanta and signed the overlooked Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Free Bird” was not an overnight success, but within months it became the second most legendary cut on FM radio.

And one other thing about the southern rock cuts, and “Free Bird” and “Stairway to Heaven” too, is they were not made for the gatekeepers, they were not short and compact for radio. “Whipping Post” on “Fillmore East” was twenty three minutes long! And both “Take The Highway” and “Can’t You See” exceeded six minutes.

And Al was not the only man in.

Where there’s success, there are followers.

Epic had Molly Hatchet. Clive even had the Outlaws. Both followed the formula faithfully, extended numbers, but it started to appear like paint-by-numbers, and the whole scene cratered, even the Allmans broke up, and that had to do with more than the music, but their reputation as legends didn’t get burnished and solidified with strength until the nineties.

And that’s the story of southern rock.

But it’s the story of all cultural musical movements.

They don’t come from nowhere.

The Eagles wouldn’t exist without Bob Seger and the Flying Burrito Brothers, never mind “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” That mixture of rock and country took years to percolate.

It’s much harder if you’re not part of a scene.

But the story is always the same. Prog rock was for aficionados only, but it wasn’t until ’72 that “Roundabout” was on the radio. Where it dominated, people could not get enough of this new sound.

People want new sounds, but they don’t pass from early adopters to looky-loos immediately, they need midwives.

Furthermore, there’s cross-pollination. It was Duane Allman who played the lick on “Layla,” even though most people didn’t know that for decades, if they know it at all. But Eric knew of Duane’s genius.

So what sound is gonna percolate and dominate in the future?

First and foremost you must adopt the tools of the game.

Southern rock was about stretching out on an LP in an era where albums superseded singles. It was about being ready for FM radio, not AM.

But today only hip-hop has embraced the internet fully. Competing genres are still dependent upon terrestrial radio, which doesn’t move the needle, only amplifies and cleans up what’s already there, and has little impact other than in Top Forty and Country.

So you need a melding of culture and technology while you test the limits and admit the past is never coming back.


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