I was born and raised in Florence, Ala., a small town on the northern banks of the Tennessee River in a region known locally as the Shoals. It’s a Bible Belt community; my hometown was “dry” until I was nearly 20 years old. It was also the birthplace of some of the most beloved and important music of the 20th century.
W.C. Handy, sometimes known as the father of the blues and an important early jazz figure — the author of “Beale Street Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” among other early standards — was born in Florence in 1873. The radical and ingenious producer Sam Phillips was born half a century later in McGee Town, a small farming community about eight miles to the northwest, two farms over from my family’s homestead. He nurtured the invention of rock ’n’ roll, discovering Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.
On the south side of the river, the neighboring towns of Muscle Shoals and Sheffield hosted recording studios — FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, respectively — that along with Stax Records’ studio in Memphis became the epicenter of the soul and R&B explosion of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, the Staple Singers, Bobby Womack and many other African-American artists crossed racial barriers and recorded classic music with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who happened to be white. Together, they recorded landmark hits that were the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement.
The four towns that make up the Shoals are deeply religious and politically conservative, but they also hosted a bubbling underground of progressive thought, home to a vibrant minority of freethinkers and idealists. In our own mythology, we weren’t caught up in the bloody violence that will forever haunt the reputations of Birmingham, Memphis and Selma — we were too busy making joyous music. The elementary school I attended had already been integrated (peacefully, as far as I know) by 1970, when I started first grade. I never saw a burning cross or a burning church. That said, I’m sure there has been plenty of frothing at the mouth there recently over last month’s Supreme Court decisions, President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the rainbow lights at the White House — and of course, the Confederate flag.
When I was growing up, I never thought much about the flag. My father, David Hood, was and still is a session bass player with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. His views on the Civil Rights era were shaped by the time he spent playing with Aretha and the Staple Singers. He looked at George Wallace and Bull Connor with great disdain, and was mortified to think that people around the world believed all Southerners were like that.
My father worked long hours at the studio, and I spent a large part of my childhood with my grandparents and great-uncle. Raised during the Great Depression, they were progressive by the standards of their generation and told me stories about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who the old folks said had saved Florence and the surrounding towns; and Wilson Dam, a World War I-era structure that crossed the Tennessee River just east of Florence, made the river navigable and provided the impetus for Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which electrified the region and brought it — sometimes kicking and screaming — into the 20th century. They also told stories about my great-great-grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy at Shiloh during the Civil War. They were always quick to say that he had been poor and never owned slaves, and had simply fought against a conquering army invading his home.
Such is the storytelling that pervades the Southern character. The South loves myths and legends, and while they may have roots in the truth, they often overlook certain complexities. We raise our children steeped in “Gone With the Wind” folklore and pretend that all the things we saw in “12 Years a Slave” didn’t happen.
As a songwriter, I’ve spent the better part of my career trying to capture both the Southern storytelling tradition and the details the tall tales left out, putting this dialectical narrative into the context of rock songs. My band’s best-known work, an album we recorded a decade and a half ago called “Southern Rock Opera,” is an examination of life in the South after the Civil Rights era, in the form of a coming-of-age tale of a Southern boy about my age who grows up to become a famous musician before dying in a plane crash while on tour. The album wrestled with how to be proud of where we came from while acknowledging and condemning the worst parts of our region’s history.
When Drive-By Truckers were recording “Southern Rock Opera,” we were very concerned about how the record would be received. We wanted to back up everything we said with documented facts, lest we be construed as apologists — lest someone not notice that a sympathetic song about George Wallace was written from the Devil’s point of view. And we made a conscious decision not to discuss the so-called rebel flag. We didn’t want our narrative getting bogged down in a debate about an antiquated symbol, one we considered a moot point in any case. My own coming-of-age story revolved around much more important things like going to rock concerts and trying to get a date or hanging out with friends on weekends. The flag might have been a backdrop at Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts, but beyond that it wasn’t really anything any of us thought much about at the time.
It was only later, when we started playing songs from the album at shows, that we noticed that fans were bringing rebel flags and waving them during a song called “The Southern Thing.” The song was written to express the contradictions of Southern identity:
It was around that time that I began paying attention to the flag flying at courthouses and state capitals. I started hearing things like “heritage, not hate” from people who were perhaps well-meaning, but were nevertheless ignoring the fact that their beloved Southern Cross flew at Klan rallies — that it was a symbol for a war fought on the principle of one man owning another. Let’s pause to think about that one for a moment: one man owning another. When our kindly Grandpa says “states’ rights,” that’s the “right” he’s talking about. Unfair tariffs? Many of the soldiers in the Civil War probably couldn’t spell “tariff.” But they certainly knew that the South’s economy and very way of life was built upon the backs of men, women and children of color.
Last month, a terrorist with a gun killed nine unarmed men and women in a church in Charleston and woke the people in our country up from sweet dreams of a postracial America, driving home just how far we still have to go. As the city mourned and tried to make sense of its grief, the State House of South Carolina still flew the rebel flag at full staff. Now the tide is turning; the state’s legislature voted to take it down from the Capitol grounds early Thursday morning, and it’s not impossible to think that other Southern states might do the same before long.
It’s high time that a symbol so divisive be removed. The flags coming down symbolize the extent to which those who cry “heritage, not hate” have already lost their argument. Why would we want to fly a symbol that has been used by the K.K.K. and terrorists like Dylann Roof? Why would a people steeped in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible want to rally around a flag that so many associate with hatred and violence? Why fly a flag that stands for the very things we as Southerners have worked so hard to move beyond?
If we want to truly honor our Southern forefathers, we should do it by moving on from the symbols and prejudices of their time and building on the diversity, the art and the literary traditions we’ve inherited from them. It’s time to study and learn about who we are and where we came from while finding a way forward without the baggage of our ancestors’ fears and superstitions. It’s time to quit rallying around a flag that divides. And it is time for the South to — dare I say it? — rise up and show our nation what a beautiful place our region is, and what more it could become.