Give ‘em the (Free) Bird

“Creative people struggle with demons, and try to deal with them on certain levels,” suggests Mark Kemp, author of the just-published rock ‘n’ roll memoir Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South.

“Based on conversations I’ve had with musicians, alcoholics, drug addicts and recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, there’s a sense of unease that needs to be assuaged,” he went on to add in our recent interview. And growing up in the South, for Kemp, meant growing addicted to feeling backward, defensive and inferior, thanks to the entrenched contempt non-Southerners displayed for citizens of Dixie — and the legacy of slavery that still lingered there.

“With white [Southerners], there was a tremendous amount of shame and guilt that needed to be somehow treated. A lot of people ‘treat’ themselves.

“And in the South,” Kemp acknowledges, “there’s an uncanny ability to sweep things under the rug.”

The author airs all of it in his book — shame, guilt, addictions, unease and the unmentionables swept out of view. But Dixie (Free Press) isn’t about rock ‘n’ roll’s dirty laundry: It’s about music’s ability to heal.

It’s only rock ‘n’ roll — but he likes it

Raised in Asheboro, N.C., the author was in third grade when schools there were first integrated. Though he discarded racist sentiment at a young age, Kemp didn’t find a voice for his feelings until he discovered the Allman Brothers Band at age 13.

“The Allman Brothers’ first album, released in 1969, redefined the boundaries of rock & roll,” Kemp writes. “This psychedelic music conveyed the ambiance of the Deep South — the mournful echo of a country church choir, the lonesome moan of a Mississippi farmhand, the exasperated cry of a confused trailer boy. This was southern music, but it was like nothing that had ever been heard before.”

The book also follows the careers of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Doctor John and later acts like R.E.M., Jason and The Scorchers and the Drive By Truckers. But this more than just a history of rock; Kemp aligns his own coming-of-age story with the exploits of his musical heroes.

“It didn’t start out as a memoir, but as I wrote and talked to all the musicians and people on my trip through the South, I found myself interjecting my story,” the author explains in our interview.

“I’m not a sociologist — I’m a music writer who lived through a particular time,” he continues. “This isn’t objective.”

In fact, it’s that subjectivity that keeps Dixie likable — even readable — amid the sometimes-tedious deluge of information Kemp offers in support of his thesis.

Not so Hee-Haw

“By the mid-’70s some Southerners were tired of feeling guilty, tired of being told they were guilty by people in other parts of the country,” Kent relates in his book. “Their rage wasn’t essentially aimed at blacks … it was a rage born of fear.”

“This book started with an issue I’d been talking about since I was a kid,” he imparts during our phone conversation. “I’d always felt white Southerners had been given a one-dimensional definition in the media. It gave me a sort of inferiority complex.”

In ’98, Kemp wrote an essay for The New York Times that he’s described as a “sort of evolution of southern rock”: an opportunity to redeem that negative stereotype of the Southerner. Positive feedback gave him the impetus he needed to further mine his subject. He hit the road, reconnecting with old friends and interviewing musicians, producers and eyewitnesses to important musical events.

“The one thing I noticed as I wrote this book was the safe haven for tolerant blacks and whites [that] was music,” he explains now. “And that’s the beautiful thing about music.”

But inside his voice of authority — of the jaded music critic who cut his teeth on early Skynyrd concerts and went on to work for Rolling Stone, a job he’d coveted since age 14 — there’s also the fervor of the diehard fan.

“I didn’t know his name at the time,” Kemp writes of a particular band front man. “It didn’t matter. To me, this band had been sent straight down from heaven and was taking us back home on the wings of the free bird they were singing about.”

So, did framing his autobiographical sketches — his own accomplishments and failures — in the context of such luminaries as Duane Allman and Skynyrd’s moody, sometimes-violent Ronnie Van Zant give Kemp any insights into these larger-than-life characters?

“It brought me to see these people as struggling people,” he reveals as we talk. “By the time I wrote this book, I’d worked for MTV, so I’d lost that star-struck-ness. But it gave me some compassion for the musicians that I hadn’t had before.”

And the beat goes on …

Of course, Kemp didn’t remain that teenage enthusiast. He moved on, adding groups like country-punks Jason & The Scorchers, Athens-based indie rockers R.E.M. and Asheville-native guitarist Warren Haynes to his growing canon. He worked for Rolling Stone during the Nirvana-dominated grunge era, and then crashed and burned — rock-star style — in a drug-induced haze in New York City’s famed Chelsea Hotel.

So when Kemp muses about the demons haunting artistic types, he’s been there; he knows. And he also understands that “a lot of us turned to music [because] music, throughout history, is healing.”

These days, Kemp — now an entertainment editor with The Charlotte Observer — is keeping his eye on a new breed of musician.

“A lot of Southern music now, of the rock genre anyway, is in a period of acceptance: ‘That’s who we are, and we’re OK,'” he reveals to me. “No longer the anger or melancholy.” As for finding a distinctive Southern sound, the longtime music critic looks mostly to up-and-coming Athens and Atlanta acts.

“Underground bands like the Drive By Truckers are still attacking the questions [of race and place].”

The author also cites the hip-hop of Mississippi-based David Banner, whose rhymes address the world of the black Southerner.

“There’s no rap in New York,” Kemp concludes proudly, “that sounds like that.”

Mark Kemp reads from Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.) at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25. Free. For more information, call 254-6734.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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