The Louisville band My Morning Jacket has a wildly allusive cameo in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown. They appear as Ruckus, a Southern-rock group covering "Freebird." It's a curious choice: an actual band from the South portraying a fictional band from the South playing one of the most iconic Southern-rock songs ever written. It's even more puzzling because My Morning Jacket has often railed against being identified as a Southern-rock band. As they told an interviewer, "Ever since day one, we've tried to do lots of different things on all our EPs and records and stuff like that, and feel like the image is mostly conveyed because we're hairy and we're from Kentucky and we play in bare feet sometimes."
Like all labels, "Southern Rock" can be ghettoizing and silly—there's no such thing as "Northern Rock" or "Midwestern Rock." Yet, like most labels, it's an efficient shorthand, in this case for an unadorned guitar-based rock with a little bluesy swagger, written and played by Southerners. Dormant through much of the '80s and '90s, the genre has been freshened lately, courtesy of acts such as Kings of Leon, Bobby Bare Jr., Drive-By Truckers, and My Morning Jacket. In the media, each of these groups has been tagged as channeling progenitors: Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels. They're also often depicted as small-town guys who play homespun music, drink too much, regret too much, and complain too much about their jobs at the factory.
No band in this genre was so nakedly foisted upon us as throwback Southerners than Nashville's Kings of Leon, who have a marketer's dream of a bio (rural roots, sibling band members, an evangelist father). Too bad they're a very generic rock band, a Southern version of the Strokes: all hair, image, and carefully chosen vintage T-shirts. Their success has overshadowed a more talented old-fashioned Southern-rock band: the Drive-By Truckers. Hailing from Muscle Shoals, Ala., the Drive-By Truckers sing about officially sanctioned Southern themes like Wal-Mart and bar fights, complemented by accessible and unaffected guitar leads and basic rhythms. "We can't afford no insurance," frontman Patterson Hood complains in the song "Puttin People on the Moon," adding, "I been 10 years unemployed." Just in case you missed it from the album title (The Dirty South) or the "I been" locution, the way Hood drawls "insurance" ("inshur-nce") reveals his Southern pride. If this all sounds a little self-regarding, it is. But the band redeems their kitsch with solid musicianship. Hood has a muddy, emotive growl, an instrument so distinctive that it can overwhelm the guitar play underneath.
While Drive-By Truckers seem unconflicted about their heritage, My Morning Jacket's resistance to trumpeting their own roots stems from an idealistic hope that music need not be compartmentalized. Their ambivalence also likely derives from the fact that the word "Southern" (and by extension, "Southern rock") has often been used synonymously with "racist," "redneck," and "stupid." In 1970, on his album After the Gold Rush, * Neil Young famously admonished, "Southern man better keep your head/ Don't forget what your good book said/ Southern change gonna come at last." Which earned a rebuke from unreconstructed Southerners Lynyrd Skynyrd, in "Sweet Home Alabama": "Well I heard Mister Young sing about her/ Well, I heard ole Neil put her down/ Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/ A southern man don't need him around anyhow."
My Morning Jacket, aside from chafing at their categorization, has remained above this fray. They don't grapple with the taint of racism that accompanies their drawl; they express neither sympathy nor condemnation toward neighbors who might still fly the Confederate flag. Lyrically, their songs are about the universal themes (love, loss, and hope) that are the purview of no single part of the country. Instead, their ancestry bleeds through in the way that their songs are assembled. Through four albums, the band has been lacing traditional rock compositions with bits of country, folk, and psychedelia. Jim James, My Morning Jacket's singer and songwriter, is obsessed with space. He attempts to widen the contours of a conventional rock song, cutting the fences circumscribed by hummable, melodic guitars and foot-tapping drums and bass—all the while still preserving a classic enough sound so that a listener never feels alienated or lost.
On the band's first two albums, the intensely personal At Dawn and The Tennessee Fire, this spatial experimentation was accomplished through soaking the songs in reverb. James's voice is haunting even when it's unfiltered; tunneled through so much echo, it becomes heartbreaking. My Morning Jacket's 2003 album, It Still Moves, saw the band ambling toward a more standard rock sound. The churning guitars, always out front during the furious live shows, dominate tracks like "One Big Holiday"and "Mahgeetah." The songs reveal their influences, but they are not typical of Southern rock. Instead of grounding his songs with bluesy pain and an Elvis-esque strut, James turns to sources like the aforementioned scolding Mr. Young; he shares with the Canadian a voice that can transfix a listener with lamentation, along with the ability to shift quickly between rough-hewn and fragile. It's a good bet that James has also listened to a fair share of Led Zeppelin. The most aggressive songs are underpinned with the kind of searing, shattering riffs found on "Black Dog." Finally, there's a healthy dose of Cheap Trick, whose looser guitars, driving and bright, show up here as well.
On their latest album, Z, My Morning Jacket has ventured even further afield, toying with reggae ("Off the Record"). Not all of the experiments work, but when the band sticks closer to home, as on the album's strongest cut, "Gideon," the results are moving. The song starts off slow and calm, with James asking, "Gideon, what have you told us at all?" Then, in the space of a minute and a half, it has built into a towering stream of glorious, melodic noise, with James howling at the end, "Animal, come on."
It's a song that encapsulates My Morning Jacket, as much as any one song can: soft and loud, tiny and epic. For all of the band's protests at being called Southerners, they are engaged in the same sort of boundary-stretching as two of their brethren, albeit in very different fields: William Faulkner and Samuel Mockbee. Faulkner's sprawling sentences never devolved into mush because they were anchored by precise logic, a structure that let them veer and return; they too were about space, about carving new space and verging on the out of control. And the architect Mockbee, whose Rural Studio erected churches and homes out of cast-off tires, carpet tiles, and other detritus, worked within an inherited vernacular as well. That both of these men, and My Morning Jacket, were products of a region of the country so rich in charm and conflict has to be something more than coincidence.