Is there a musical instrument that tells the story of the South any better than the guitar? After all, the South gave birth to rock and roll, which everyone knows will never die.
We decided to find some of the guitar makers headquartered in the South who have the most fervent professional adherents, concluding that they logically produce among the best crafted instruments.
There is a long tradition of advanced guitar craft around Nashville, as well as in parts of Texas. But other parts of the South are also producing masterful and beautiful stringed instruments, reflecting the fidelity and honest tone demanded by professionals.
Here are some of the South’s great guitar makers, in no particular order:
Gibson Brands of Nashville is probably the most iconic maker of guitars anywhere, of both the electric and acoustic variety.
Gibson’s most famous model is the Les Paul, designed in part by the guitar-playing impresario of the same name. The Les Paul has inspired many pros over the years.
The pantheon of accomplished guitar players who have played a Gibson is a long, long one, and includes Woody Guthrie, Rosetta Tharpe, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, BB King, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Warren Haynes, Duane Allman, Wes Montgomery, Scotty Moore, Slash and Dave Grohl.
When it comes to music, the people who play it are the first to acknowledge the instruments they hold in their hands are vital to their success.
Many guitar players are evangelists for a particular brand, and have a reverent affection for the craftsmen, aka luthiers, who made their instruments.
Blues musician B.B. King was famous for his career-long love affair with the Gibson ES-335.
He dubbed it “Lucille” after a woman by the same name who sparked a fistfight in an Arkansas club where was playing. The passionate fight resulted in the club actually burning down.
In the liner notes for his 1968 album “Lucille,” King wrote of his guitar: “It seems that it loves to be petted and played with. There’s also a certain way you hold it, the certain noises it makes, the way it excites me… and Lucille don’t want to play anything but the blues… Lucille is real, when I play her it’s almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries.”
Gretsch, also a drum maker and now headquartered in Savannah, likewise has a distinguished pedigree. The company is known for its Electromagnetic and Streamliner guitar models.
Some musicians are so meticulous they help design their own guitars. Gretsch produced the emblematic “Country Gentleman” guitar fostered by Chet Atkins, as well as Bo Diddley’s trademark cigar-shaped guitar nicknamed “The Twang Machine.”
Other Gretsch players have included George Harrison, Bono, Lou Reed, Brian Setzer and Michael Nesmith.
Peavey Electronics Corp. is a Meridian, Miss. maker of guitars, amplifiers and other musical gear. Founder Hartley Peavey, a towering figure in the industry, started the business as a one-man shop, but today it is one of the world’s biggest makers of musical devices.
Its notable guitar players include Eddie Van Halen, Gary Rossington and Steve Cropper.
In Texas, Austin-based Collings Guitars is a venerable stringed instrument maker. The company was founded by master luthier Bill Collings, who set out in 1948 to make "heirloom quality instruments" and, by all accounts, succeeded mightily.
Noted players of Collings guitars include Rui Velos, Ariel Posen, Jack Pearson, Andy Summers, Michael Kang, Keith Urban, John Sebastian, Audley Freed, Lyle Lovett and Joni Mitchell.
Master luthiers like Bill Collings toil in a zone where craft meets art, working long hours with beautiful woods like mahogany, ash, alder and rosewood. all for the glory of music. The best luthiers are obscure, and famous mostly among the music stars and pros who seek them out.
Much-travelled luthier Scott Baxendale recently set up shop in Athens, Ga., site of a burgeoning contemporary music scene. Thankfully, Baxendale Guitars also teaches the art of lutherie to aspiring craftsman.
Notable Baxendale players include members of Drive By Truckers, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, Luther Dickinson, Booker T Jones, Butch Walker and members of Widespread Panic.
Here are some of SouthernAirs' favorite newer Southern rock bands. Some of them have been on the scene for a while, but they are not of the original 1970s genre -- they are the heirs, perhaps. Others are just getting the wind beneath their tour buses.
Our selection methodology is not overly proprietary, but designed to pick enduring potential. SouthernAirs uses a combination of social media views, industry charts, festival & tour frequency, media buzz and studio output to identify stand-out talent.
There is no particular order to this selection of Southern-based bands. We admire them all for the risks they take, their determination, and always the talent they bring.
SONS OF BILL These Charlottesville, Va. based balladeers have something to say. Lots of lyrical strength.
THE REVIVALISTS Currently playing to sold-out shows, with a spot in the venerable Billboard charts. This roots-driven rock group from New Orleans taps some definite R&B swagger. Great stage presence.
LEON BRIDGES Lordy, we hear echoes of Smokey Robinson in this up-and-coming soul & gospel performer from Fort Worth, Tx. But there is plenty of original heart also in his restrained phrasing. Should have staying power.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS These alt-country rockers plumb a depth that's all their own. Based in Athens, Ga., with occasional forays into the nature of being Southern.
SKINNY MOLLY Power rockers from Nashville, Tenn. Staffed by Lynard Skynard and Molly Hatchet alums, among others, so you know what to expect and you shouldn't be disappointed.
THE WEEKS Indie rock band from Jackson, Miss. These guys are playing something that feels original. They make it easy to revel in their fresh sound.
GOV'T MULE No list of contemporary Southern rockers is complete without the masterful Warren Haynes and his top-talent sidemen. They are at the peak of their powers. How the heck do they manage to play everywhere at the same time?
ALABAMA SHAKES Southern blues rock band from Athens, Ala., led by the multi-talented Brittany Howard. Deserving Grammy winners with a classic sound and a ton of heart.
TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND Festival mainstays led by virtuosos Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. They may be associated with Southern rock, but they are transcending the genre with ease these days. Brilliant musicianship, awesome artistry -- the superlatives just stretch onward and upward.
THE MARCUS KING BAND The new guy in the blues rock space. Tons of raw talent with miles to go before he sleeps. Careful out there on the road, young sir.
LEE BAINS III + THE GLORY FIRES Reviewers have described the Southern rock sound of this Alabama group as "pandemonium" and "mayhem." We suspect it's more than that, but they do make anarchy fun.
SERATONES Be sure you're wearing asbestos mitts when you turn this Shreveport, La. group's music on -- the heat can burn your hands. Soaring vocals and hot, hot guitar riffs. These folks play like they mean it.
The American artist Neill Slaughter grew up mostly in the South, but these days New York is more his milieu.
Celebrated by his peers and with an international following, Slaughter’s prolific output of landscapes and portraits and other work shed light on the world in an important way.
Slaughter’s long list of accolades include fellowships from both the Ford Foundation and the Fulbright Foundation, and various prizes and grants. During 38 years as an art professor, Slaughter spent a considerable amount of time traveling throughout the world to teach, conduct research and create art.
His bio states that Slaughter’s “extensive travels have influenced what he paints, which often reflect the social conditions of his surroundings.”
But we remember him when he was younger and still of the South.
After college, we were upstairs-downstairs neighbors in a beach duplex one memorable summer in the 1970s on Hilton Head Island.
While the rest of us were writing newspaper and magazine articles about fleeting sports stars of the moment like Bjorn Borg and Johnny Miller and Chris Evert, and drinking beer nightly in watering holes from the tip of Harbor Town to the up-island tackiness of the renowned Golden Rose, Neill was honing his craft.
Day after day, he worked at his easel on a screen porch with an Atlantic view, inventing himself as an artist.
The paintings shown here are mostly set on the Chesapeake Bay, which in its lower reaches marks a boundary of the South that flows away with the tides… then gradually disappears from view. We reflect on Slaughter as he created these works on that boundary, an artist who started in one place and has ended up in others.
Slaughter notes that while he has lived in many places since he departed the Georgia of his youth, he has usually lived within a short distance of the sea.
“Drawing or painting on location is quite challenging because the artist must deal directly with constantly changing environmental conditions, therefore one has to concisely capture the essence of what is being portrayed within a finite amount of time, generally two to three hours before the light changes thereby altering the subject,” he wrote in an artist statement for a maritime exhibit. “As a result there is a sense of urgency and spontaneity apparent in the brushwork.”
A location by the sea seems apt for Slaughter.
Some of his works will be on display April 14-May 29 in the East End Collected3 exhibition at the Southampton Arts Center in Southampton, NY
His website is located at http://www.neillslaughter.com/
In 1947, after the United States had recovered from a rationed economy that must have seemed like it would never end, and had beaten the odds to conquer world fascism. anything was possible.
The short film here from the great Alan Lomax examines Southern music as it existed to that point. A banjo-playing Pete Seeger is joined by luminaries Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, among others, in an exploration of folk, country, blues and gospel music. They celebrate the Scotch-Irish roots of much of the region's music, its patchwork tapestry.
What strikes us is the air of innocence about the culture to that point, the absolute lack of irony in what the characters say and do, their open faces. This was the moment before rock & roll burst onto the scene from its roots in the Southern Delta.
American society may be much coarser now than then, but we are certain rock & roll is not the cause. Rather, it may be some consolation. Perhaps rock & roll can even help lead us back around to the honest expression that we see here.
John Morgan was an executive at Billboard Magazine's parent company for nine years, and notably led the launch of the magazine's Website, www.Billboard.com. He was also founding editor of the "This Day in Music Almanac," and created the BPI Entertainment News Wire. He has a special fondness for Southern music and other Southern art, from literature to crafts and photography.