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The Southern United States’ Great Contribution to History: The Riff


Today Nate Garrett of Spirit Adrift presents a guided tour through the history of the guitar Riff in the South, from Robert Johnson to Inter Arma.

I grew up in the South. It wasn’t until after I left that I realized just how entranced I am with that region of the globe.

Historically speaking, the states below the Mason-Dixon line are responsible for a lot of reprehensible shit, but it isn’t all bad. There is a tangible magic in the air in places like Little Rock or New Orleans. Passersby feel traces of its presence, but for lifers it becomes a part of who you are. It’s hard to put your finger on it but it’s there. This energy resembles desperation, but also excitement. It’s in the same ballpark as fear, but it’s neighbors with a total lack of inhibition, too.

I won’t attempt to pinpoint why the South is such a hotbed of great heavy music. There have been plenty of studies conducted in that field, Slow Southern Steel for example. Instead I’m simply going to trace the almighty riff as it weaves its way through the Southern United States, then across the globe, and back again.

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It’s a given that heavy music can be traced back to the blues. For many poor Southerners, music was the sole source of joy (and really, not much has changed today). This rang even more true for poor black Southerners.

Not only is the blues the breeding ground of the pentatonic all-caps RIFF that most rock guitar figures are derived from, it is also dominated by lyrics that deal with existential crises, heartbreak, bone-deep emotional and spiritual turmoil, and plenty of other topics that have since come to define heavy music. That influential early blues musician Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil secures his extreme heavy metal cred, but the power of the blues extends beyond folklore. There’s a conviction present in the music of guys like Lead Belly, Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters and RL Burnside that is rare, to say the least. They channeled the pain, suffering, and injustice visited upon an entire people and created music that is emotionally crushing. Try and find anything more powerful than this song (and wrap your head around the fact that it was recorded by a dirt-poor, disenfranchised blind man and is currently cut into an actual gold record rocketing through outer space):

The general consensus is that the birth of heavy metal occurred when Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin hit the scene at basically the same time. I’ll go a step further and say that this was a direct result of the blues migrating overseas. Sure, they turned up louder and were more theatrical about it, but these guys were playing their version of what began in the American delta.

While these English heavy hitters were stunning and scaring the living shit out of everyone overseas, bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, ZZ Top (both from Texas), and later Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as the criminally overlooked Black Oak Arkansas (David Lee Roth took his entire schtick from this band) were staying true to the spirit of the blues, but also expanding upon it. The Southern riff was being cultivated internationally.

Great rock, soul and country acts that inspired heavy metal hail from every Southern state. Every rock, soul, and blues band worth their salt was recording at Muscle Shoals in Alabama back in the day – see this excellent documentary for a 100% necessary overview of that studio’s importance. Johnny Cash, a major inspiration to hard rockers everywhere, was born in Arkansas. Waylon Jennings, patron saint of the entire concept of an outlaw lifestyle, raised hell in Texas. Both wound up in Nashville. You get the point.

Let’s take a moment to talk about Florida, the state in which I was born. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Allman Brothers Band, Bernie Leadon from the Eagles and Skynyrd all came from roughly the same area in the Sunshine State. Not that The Eagles have any actual riffs that weren’t written by Joe Walsh (who was born in Kansas), but still, pretty impressive for a state that has since become a national running joke.

The Southern riff tradition continued in death metal. Bands like Obituary and Death invented the genre stateside and still haven’t been topped. To this day, Trevor Peres insists that Southern rock be played over the PA leading up to an Obituary set.

A pivotal moment for heavy music occurred when a group of guys inspired by early Melvins, the b-side of My War, and Lynyrd Skynyrd took the riff to depths below sea level in New Orleans. Eyehategod invented a new style of music (down to earth, motherfucken post-amplification blues, as they call it) and they continue to inspire bands all over the world. From sludge sprung a plethora of genre-expanding bands a generation (musically speaking) later. Mastodon and Baroness are just a couple, and they remain two of the most beloved bands in all of heavy music. They’re both from the South.

We’re all too aware of the stoner rock/retro doom revival that has been sweeping the world as of, well, the last 10 years. It could be argued that the whole thing was jump-started by The Sword, a band from from Austin, Texas. Depending on where you stand, we should either be thanking them or demanding an apology, but the fact remains that yet another band from the South reinvigorated an entire movement in heavy music. And don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you crusty folks. His Hero Is Gone (now Tragedy) hail from Memphis, Tennessee. We could talk all day about the Econochrist/Neurosis connection but I won’t bore you. And I’d be remiss not to mention Richmond’s Inter Arma and Atlanta’s Dropout.

I would be remiss not to specifically put some respect on the entire state of Arkansas. I began playing live music when I was about 13 years old. This was in a small town in Oklahoma. We were fortunate enough to have one live venue for punk, Sabbath worship, Slayer worship and the like. But it wasn’t until I migrated to Arkansas that I fully experienced a true sense of community, support, and artistic energy.

The magic that I spoke of earlier in this piece is omnipresent in The Natural State. It has birthed incredible bands like Rwake, Pallbearer and Deadbird. It is also home to some better-kept secrets, such as the almighty Seahag and the one of a kind powerhouse Perpetual Werewolf, who are still two of my favorite bands. And it’s even the dwelling place of the mysterious Dragon Sunday, a crypto-zoological and horror based traditional doom band the likes of which I’ve not heard elsewhere. Some of the most genuine, unique music I’ve ever heard comes from Arkansas, and I am forever in debt to my entire musical family there.

I’ve felt conflicting emotions throughout my life about my Southern upbringing. I’m an adamant supporter of equality and human rights, and I’m pretty violently anti-religion. My beliefs don’t exactly jive with the majority of the population where I grew up, but I think I’ve reached a point where the primary feeling I experience when I think about the South is fond nostalgia, even pride. Generally speaking, people are less full of shit in the South than anywhere else, whether you agree with them or not. At the same time, a lot of the most open-minded, compassionate, talented, and flat-out loving people I’ve ever met were born and raised there. The riff was also born and raised there. I miss the South, and I hope I captured even a fraction of its tragic majesty on Chained To Oblivion.

Nate Garrett is Spirit Adrift. He also plays in Gatecreeper. His first album, Chained to Oblivion will be released August 12 via Prosthetic Records.

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