The Southern Bitch is back

by Jordan Green

Warm, soft light seeps into the dim cinderblock confines of the Garage as the Georgia rock-and-roll band Southern Bitch loads in at this Americana-roots music outpost in Winston-Salem. It’s the third day of spring and the evening air feels like a warm bath.

The band members look a little worn at this last stop before the home stretch back to Athens following gigs at the Raven in Burlington and the Pour House in Raleigh, but it’s clear they’re also relishing the chance to win over another audience and conquer another little piece of their dream.

“Playing live and feeling the enthusiasm about the rock – that made us want to rock,” says singer Adam Musick, explaining how Southern Bitch made the transition from an alt-country to full-on rock and roll.

“I was writing stuff that I liked,” Musick continues. “As far as traveling, you get inspired by life experiences… what it’s like to do it because you love it, not making much money, doing it because it’s fun.”

Following the band’s founding in 1998, Southern Bitch followed the lead of bands like Slobberbone, the Bottle Rockets and the Drive-By Truckers, who made the transition from the Clash-cum-Johnny Cash nexus of insurgent country to classic rock and roll – the kind heard in stadiums across America in the glory years of the 1970s when screaming guitars and thundering rhythm sections provided catharsis without irony.

“The whole rock and roll idea peaked in the 1970s,” says bassist Chuck Bradburn. “It’s a case of history repeating itself because it was good the first time around.”

Musick doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the band’s debt to the Drive-By-Truckers, whose 2001 album Southern Rock Opera led to a critical reassessment of the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“The Drive-By Truckers are real close,” Musick says. “They’re really good friends of ours. As far as Southern rock, they really paved the way as a touring band.”

The art-commando décor of the Garage might suggest it as an unlikely outpost for a Southern rock revival. The partition that backs the booths running alongside the stage is plastered with old event posters (“Sex Workers’ Art Show”), paintings on loose canvas of superheroes and chimpanzees, and stenciled agit-prop art (“Greed is not a family value: Re-defeat Bush”).

A funny thing has happened since Lynyrd Skynyrd let loose its Southern nationalist anthem, “Sweet Home Alabama,” a song that defiantly challenged outsiders’ perceptions of the region as backwards and racists. Bands like the Drive-By Truckers and Southern Bitch have co-opted Skynyrd’s working-class attitude, not to mention its musical virtuosity, but inverted its cultural assumptions with anti-authoritarian lyrics that question war, bigotry and structural injustice.

Released in the second year of the Iraq war, Southern Bitch’s second album Snake In the Grass repeatedly hits upon themes of the waste of war and the need for popular dissent.

“Cast your vote for your president,” Musick sings. “Turn your head when the rules get bent/ Send the youth to an Arab land/ To spill their blood on the desert sand.” Then the counterintuitive kicker: “I’ve got a right not to feel my pride/ Ain’t afraid to walk on your fightin’ side.”

The songwriting on the band’s third album, Strong Medicine, largely departs from political themes and pursues the rock and roll travelogues so delightfully rendered by Skynyrd. “Living on a shoestring can take its toll,” Musick confesses in “Rising Star.” “Telling myself it’s all for rock and roll/ I’ve been a long time running chasing down this dream/ Barely seen home since I turned eighteen.”

After the sound check, the house system switches back to a Southern rock show on XM satellite radio, and Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” saturates the room. Bart Watts, guitarist for 44 Love, discloses that he and his bandmates are big fans of Southern Bitch and they finagled a slot on the bill to open for their heroes even though they’ve only played live once before. It feels like a movement.

During 44 Love’s set, Andy Musick and his wife – and fellow guitar player – Wendy share a booth and sip drinks. When the opening band’s singer pays homage to Southern Bitch, Andy Musick exclaims, “All right!” and commences some good-natured hooting and laughter.

When 44 Love finishes, the members of Southern Bitch hustle onto the stage. With little ceremony, drummer Taylor Sproull begins a steady thwack – solid, loud and simple. Bradburn lays down a rumbling bass line, and the Musicks attack dueling, screaming guitars. “Are you ready – are you with the band?” the song goes. “Stayed up and drove through all night to make a one-night stand.”

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