Interview with Michael Ray FitzGerald
Bill Delaney: So to start things off, why this book, and why now?
Michael Ray FitzGerald: There’s been a resurgence of interest in southern rock, possibly because it’s been 50-plus years since its inception, so it’s become a legitimate topic of historical interest. Also it’s one of the few things this city is famous for, and I and several other people–including members of the Jacksonville Historical Society and some city officials–think it’s about time we exploited it.
The book kicks off with a discussion on how hard it is to define “Southern rock” in a way that covers all the various musicians and bands associated with the style. Ultimately you write that it comes down to “subject matter” more than musical style. I think that’s a great observation - can you elaborate on what makes Southern rock Southern rock?
There are so many styles of southern rock that it’s impossible to pin it down. Scholar Michael Buffalo Smith, who has written several books on the subject of southern rock, agrees that it is extremely difficult to define. On one hand you have the white-soul groups like Wet Willie, and on the other you have country-rock groups like Marshall Tucker. Ultimately I have concluded that it was music for the so-called counterculture with a southern flavor. That’s a pretty broad interpretation, but it’s the best I could come up with.
Even folks who don’t know much about Southern rock are probably familiar with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. However, Jacksonville alone has been home to several other prominent Southern rock bands. What are some others people should know?
Cowboy was a sort of folk-rock group, the second act signed to Capricorn Records, thanks to Duane Allman. Blackfoot was an important group with a very talented singer, Rickey Medlocke, who is now a guitarist in Skynyrd. Molly Hatchet scored four platinum albums. 38 Special had more hits–a total of 15–than any other group from Jacksonville. And don’t forget Derek Trucks, who is still going strong, keeping the dream alive. His and his wife’s Tedeschi-Trucks Band leans toward the blues/soul end of the spectrum. But he was with the Allman Brothers Band for 15 years, which makes him southern-rock royalty.
This is clearly a big question, but if you can put it in simple terms, what do you think it was that made Jacksonville such a hotbed of Southern rock?
It was a confluence of factors, a perfect storm, if you will. First was the southern tradition of playing your own music, which meshed with the obsession for electric guitars that exploded nationally in the early 1960s. Second was the baby boom reaching its teen years, who tended to enjoy dancing to live music more than records. Then there was the involvement of local media who supported the music scene, especially AM radio station WAPE, which even played local acts on its 50,000-watt signal reaching all the way to North Carolina. Getting played on the Big Ape was a major career boost. WAPE also promoted local music in other ways such as concerts and probably deserves the most credit for setting the stage for the explosion that happened in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Newspapers and television also promoted live music and local bands.
Early in the book, you describe Riverside in the 1960s as “Jacksonville’s answer to Greenwich Village,” a haven for musicians and artists. Several future members of the Allman Brothers Band were staying in Riverside when the band formed. What made the neighborhood such an epicenter?
Duane Allman explained it himself in a letter to his girlfriend: the hippie movement had been embraced by young people here in a big way, and music was a major part of it. The Second Coming, which featured Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley, was the premier hippie band, drawing hundreds of people to their shows. The group was giving free concerts, called “be-ins” in Riverside’s Willowbranch Park. Galvanized by all this, Allman moved into the Gray House on Riverside Avenue with Ellen Hopkins. There’s a historical marker out in front of that house. I’ve recently been talking with some city officials about recreating or otherwise commemorating those be-ins.
What’s the most unexpected thing you learned in your research for the book?
How hard all these guys–and it WAS a boys’ club for the most part–worked to make their dream happen–and it did. And here we are 40, 50 years later, still talking about them!
One thing that stuck out to me was just how deep some of these bands’ roots go in the local music scene. For example, Ricky Medlocke of Blackfoot and later Lynyrd Skynyrd is the grandson and protege of Paul “Shorty” Medlock, who had been playing “blues-inflected country” locally since the 1940s. How much did Jacksonville’s Southern rockers owe to earlier musicians in the region?
A lot! in the 1950s and ’60s there were Toby Dowdy, Johnny Tillotson, Jimmy Strickland, the Shilos (with Gram Parsons), the Illusions, the Bitter Ind, the Classics IV and others making it big. We musicians watched them and knew this wasn’t just some pipe dream. We SAW people doing it.
You yourself are a veteran of Jacksonville’s music scene. What is your take on the scene today?
It’s been dead for a long time but appears to be stirring in some small ways. There was a renaissance happening here in the 1990s, but the NFL came in and killed it in its crib. There are only so many discretionary dollars to go around, and local bands simply could not compete. DJs killed live music too; the public went back to dancing to recorded music. The live-music scene here is on life support at this point, especially due to covid restrictions. There may be hope, however. It just depends on whether young people will go out and support live music instead of DJs. I think there would be more of a chance if it didn’t depend on bars and nightclubs, so teenagers can join in. That’s what happened here in the 1960s–lots of bands playing teen clubs and free concerts for people who weren’t old enough to drink. I was 16 when I saw the Second Coming at Willowbranch Park. I couldn’t get into bars, nor could thousands of other kids my age, so we were lucky Berry and Dickey decided to play for us for free!
What’s something you’d like readers to take away from the book?
The main thing is the work ethic these southern-rock bands evinced. As far as most of them were concerned, especially in Skynyrd’s case, there was no problem hard work and persistence could not remedy.Turns out they were right!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think it’s unfortunate that many of these musicians got caught up in the hell-of-a-fellow syndrome and felt it was a macho thing to deliberately destroy yourself with drugs, booze and risky behavior. Molly Hatchet even spelled it out it in “Flirtin’ with Disaster,” and a lot of these guys indeed died relatively young. One band who steered clear of this kind of stuff was 38 Special, which just goes to show you can be a big star without destroying yourself. But the fans lapped it up like rubberneckers at the scene of an accident. Part of their vicarious thrill was watching these guys take crazy chances with their lives, like Evel Knievel or something. That’s a sad, sick way to make a living if you ask me. I can understand doing it as a stage act, like professional wrestling, but to live it out is just plain stupid.