The Allman Brothers and Jimmy Carter: The BBC Looks at Southern Rock

Share this post

There’s a classic sketch from the early days of Saturday Night Live in which Dan Aykroyd, playing President Carter, fields a call from a listener on a live radio program. The caller is in the midst of a bad trip, and Carter gently talks him through it, at one point suggesting he put on some music, “maybe some Allman Brothers.”

The incongruity of the president name-checking the ABB makes it funny enough, but in reality, there was a larger backstory that informed the joke. And that backstory supplies part of the premise for the BBC’s new documentary Sweet Home Alabama: The Southern Rock Saga. Namely, that Southern rock helped pave the way for the Carter presidency and “put the South back on the map” in the decade following the Civil Rights battles.

Slightly overstated perhaps, but as the filmmakers point out, Carter did announce he was running for president at the annual picnic/concert in Macon, GA, hosted by Capricorn Records, the preeminent Southern rock label of the day. (Side note: you could have also seen Andy Warhol and a 17-year-old future bassist for R.E.M. named Mike Mills at the picnics.) The Allmans played stadium-sized fundraisers for Carter. And Carter picked Charlie Daniels’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” as his campaign anthem. Perhaps even more remarkable, the music helped to mainstream Southern culture, ushering in a period in the mid-70s where you could have seen Italians from Long Island going to a Lynryd Skynyrd show at Nassau Coliseum wearing cowboy hats and bandanas.

How’d it come to this? Well, primarily because of the Allmans. About half of the hour-long film is dedicated to the story of Duane, Gregg & Co. “Everybody had to be affected by the Allman Brothers,” says Charlie Daniels. “They were the forerunners.” And not just in developing a distinctly white take on Southern black music, but culturally as well–being the only longhairs in the town of Macon, where they were lured by Phil and Alan Walden, who founded Capricorn in 1969. (Which itself provides a great story: In the words of Alan Walden, a bunch of black “gangsters” took over the southern soul studios and labels after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Their message was “We’ll fuck you up.” Hence, white producers and executives were forced to find white acts to manage.)

Predictably, the story of Skynyrd gets plenty of screen time as well. And unlike the Brothers, they didn’t have much in the way of hippie sensibilities. “They weren’t trying to make a better world; they just wanted to play,” says Mills.

By the time of Skynyrd’s plane crash, the Brothers’ first breakup and the Carter administration, the movie is about ready to wrap up. And that’s the great missed opportunity here.

Documentaries are often flawed in that they’re too long, as if the director couldn’t be persuaded to cut more of his precious footage. Here, it’s just the opposite. The filmmakers’ focus on the Brothers and Skynyrd gives short shrift to countless other bands, like Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot and the Outlaws, most of whom barely get a mention. Texas rock is glazed over, with a quick discussion of only ZZ Top, and New Orleans-influenced bands like Little Feat are ignored altogether. And quite glaringly, the influence of Muscle Shoals, specifically its house band the Swampers and the Rolling Stones recording of “Wild Horses” and Brown Sugar” there, get nary a mention.

But an even bigger question: where’s the discussion of the Southern rock resurgence? The filmmakers landed an interview with Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood, and yet we almost never see him, never hear his unique take on Skynyrd as heard in Southern Rock Opera, and never hear about his band–nor any of his contemporaries, for that matter.

British audiences have long been champions of Southern American music. Here, they just deserved to hear a little more.

See the whole documentary below:


Leave a comment!