Whenever a new Kings of Leon album comes out (this time around it's the return-to-form Mechanical Bull), my fellow rock critics begin lacing their previews, reviews and profiles with the genre tag "Southern rock." This is something I have never understood. Kings of Leon sound nothing like good old-fashioned Southern rock. The Followills might hail from the South, and they might make rock music, but their musical heritage is far removed from that of the Allmans and Van Zants. Mechanical Bull, as with the rest of the band's albums, is modern rock influenced by The Strokes, U2, White Stripes, Coldplay, Radiohead, etc. And that's totally cool, but Southern rock it clearly is not.
The same goes for My Morning Jacket. We critics just love labeling these proud Kentuckians Southern rock. And again: dead wrong. Granted, Jim James and company's spacey alt rock contains shades of acoustic-based folk music, but it's a quality that seems more inspired by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Canada by way of California) than, say, The Marshall Tucker Band or the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
I believe this misperception has to do with critics' well-established tendency to seek out "Southernness" in any artist who happens to have been born in the South. It's as if they assume all musicians born below the Mason-Dixon Line are somehow plugged into the region's rich musical heritage. Admittedly, it's something of an honest mistake. After all, the South looms large over our country's musical identity, having more or less invented rock 'n' roll, jazz, blues, country, soul, old time, R&B and bluegrass. But having said that, the South still has managed to cough up myriad bands and artists who have zero desire to sound twangy, bluesy, jazzy or soulful.
Indeed, over the last several decades the South has given us everything from classic alternative rock (Big Star, R.E.M., The dB's) to eardrum-mincing thrash and death metal (Corrosion of Conformity, Morbid Angel, Deicide) to arena-savvy post-grunge (3 Doors Down, Shinedown). Additionally, there's all the pioneering indie rock (Superchunk, Slint, Olivia Tremor Control) and avant-garde weirdness (Ashrae Fax, Pelt, Cross). And don't forget: It's the South from which the utterly campy B-52's emerged. They sure as hell don't sound like Skynyrd!