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Mark Kemp: The Gritz Interview

by Michael Buffalo Smith

I grew up during the turbulent 1960’s and ‘70’s in Spartanburg, South Carolina, waist deep in the music that would become the very soundtrack of my life, while not so secretly dreaming of becoming a rock star. My life was filled with experiencing the rich Southern history and traditions, living, loving and learning under the Southern moon, while dreaming of bright lights and fame.

I had no way of knowing there was another guy who was my age, living just north of me in Asheboro, North Carolina, who held almost identical dreams. A guy who was as into music as I was. A guy who was reading the same magazines and books as me. A guy named Mark Kemp.

Mark would go on to become a prominent music writer, deciding, not unlike myself, that the next best thing to being a rock star is to write about them.

Kemp was the editor of the now defunct alternative music magazine, Option, and has written for many of the best music magazines of our time, including Paste, Spin and the classic Rolling Stone, a publication he once worked for as senior music editor and still contributes material to. He was also a music editorial vice president at MTV Networks, and was the entertainment editor of The Charlotte Observer.

In 2004, Mark had a book published called Dixie Lullaby - A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South. The book is an excellent read. (I have now read it four times, if that tells you anything.) It is a memoir of growing up in the South, the lifestyle, the need to escape the small town for something more adventurous, and most of all, an exploration of Southern Music.

I am very pleased to present our conversation with writer Mark Kemp.

Tell me about where you grew up, and your earliest memories of southern music.

First, Michael, thank you for asking me to talk with you, and for all your support of Dixie Lullaby. You’re a real trouper out there keeping folks informed about all the music that comes out of the South.

To answer your question, I grew up in Asheboro, North Carolina, which in the sixties and seventies was a fairly small mill town – very working class, very conservative. My earliest memories of Southern music was the gospel music I’d hear my grandmother whistle when I’d stay with her. She’d get up in the morning and whistle while she was making breakfast and brewing up coffee for us – it was always stuff like, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” or “Amazing Grace” or “How Great Thou Art.” I can still see her at the stove in her nightgown, whistling away.

Sounds familiar. Those old hymns. My Mom and Grandmother used to sing them while sitting on the screened in porch breaking up greasy back green beans. Great memories. Tell me more.

It was also at my grandmother’s home that I’d watch “The Porter Wagoner Show with Dolly Parton,” and “Hee-Haw,” where I’d see Buck Owens and all the other great country stars of the period, from George and Tammy to Johnny Cash. Those are probably my earliest, pre-rock memories of Southern music. Also, my aunts were members of the Grand Ole Opry long before I was born. My mom would tell stories about how, when she was a little girl, she used to have to go see them sing at the Opry every Saturday night. She said they’d also go to these picnics with the whole Opry family – people like Little Jimmy Dickens and Roy Acuff, who actually once saved my mom from getting attacked by a bull.

But by the time I was born, my parents didn’t listen to country music. They fancied themselves too sophisticated for it. My mom was embarrassed about her country-music past. She disparagingly called it “hillbilly music.” But I loved it – even if I didn’t admit it until the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Leon Russell made it hip with Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Hank Wilson’s Back, respectively.

Those are my earliest memories of Southern music, but I didn’t know the full impact that the South had on the rock music I listened to until I heard the Allman Brothers at about eleven or twelve years old. That’s when everything kind of came together for me. It was like an epiphany. I realized there was a connection between that old country stuff and, like, the Rolling Stones.

I hear you brother. You were talking about "Hee-Haw" and those old shows. That one, and "The Porter Wagoner Show," "The Wilburn Brothers," "Flatt and Scruggs" – those are really the shows and sounds that caught my attention first, too, just before rock and roll took hold of me. And Hank Wilson. I had that Leon Russell masterpiece on 8-track and just loved it. When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

I was young – maybe eleven or twelve. Before I discovered Rolling Stone magazine, I read the teeny-bopper mags like Hit Parader (before it was a metal magazine), Songs Hits and even Tiger Beat. I loved to read about music celebrities, and I would imagine myself being the writer who got to talk to these pop stars. But it wasn’t until I discovered Crawdaddy, Cream and Rolling Stone that I really dreamed of being a music journalist. Like all rock critics, I guess, I was blown away by Lester Bangs. I loved his writing and I also loved to argue with his viewpoints. Reading him and Hunter Thompson and Cameron Crowe and all the others just really made me want to do that for a living. I thought the only thing better than actually being a rock star would be to write about them.

Boy howdy, do you and I run a strange and wonderful parallel. There you named my three main influences as a writer myself. And as writers, we don’t have to be subjected to life on a tour bus, which some folks think of as being cushy, but it ain’t!

What prompted you to write Dixie Lullaby?

It was the late nineties and I had been writing about all kinds of music for the previous decade – punk rock, hip-hop, music from around the world. I had edited the L.A.-based alternative music and culture magazine Option in the early nineties and moved on to an editorial position at Rolling Stone, in New York, in the later nineties. When I moved on to MTV in 1998 I started getting ruminative about my past – you know, ‘What am I doing with my life? How did I get here? Why do I stay here?” For many years, the Southern rock that I grew up with was the last thing on my mind. I mean, I’d hear Uncle Tupelo or the Bottle Rockets and see the link from Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Ramones and Sonic Youth. But I hadn’t really taken Skynyrd that seriously for many years. I’d long dismissed them and I rarely listened to even the Allmans. But back in L.A., I had gone to an Allmans show after years of not seeing them. This was right around the time Warren Haynes joined and I was impressed – blown away, actually. I’d been listening to bands like Pavement and Beck and Nirvana, and suddenly I’m at an Allmans show!

Then after I moved back to New York for Rolling Stone, I went to a club one night with some friends to see a band they liked: the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies. We went backstage after the show and there were the Wheelies, along with Warren Haynes and Kirk West, the Allman Brothers’ road manager. As I looked around the backstage area and listened to the Southern accents, it made me feel real comfortable, like I was home, but not in the literal sense. I don’t know – it was just one of those moments. Anyhow, I wrote a piece on the new Southern bands, like the Mule, the Cheetah Wheelies and Widepread, for the New York Times and it dawned on me that this might make a good book. That was the genesis of Dixie Lullaby.

What was your first exposure to The Allman Brothers Band? What is your best ABB memory?

I’ve written about this on several occasions – most notably in Dixie Lullaby and in the book Rolling Stone: The Seventies. I was with my sister riding around in her car in the early Seventies. At the time I was totally into the Rolling Stones. She pulled out this eight-track tape of Idlewild South and put it in the car stereo and it just knocked me out. I thought it was the most amazing music I’d ever heard. I went and bought Beginnings and played it in my room all the time, especially “Dreams.” That song really carried me away. Then I got the Fillmore album and it was the same with that, but even more so. I’d play “Statesboro Blues,” “Done Somebody Wrong” and “Stormy Monday” over and over and over.

Another good ABB memory is standing at the front of the stage with my friend Tim at a show in the early Seventies – I think it was right after Brothers and Sisters. Anyway, just before they go on, Tim looks up and sees this Styrofoam cup with the mushroom logo sitting on Gregg’s Hammond keyboard set-up. Tim tells me he’s going to get the cub, and before I knew it, he’d jumped up on the stage – it was easier to do back then – grabbed it and was back in the audience in a flash. I thought he was crazy, but he got the cup and probably still has it. By the way, the show was good, too.

Amazing. They have always been my number one band. Same question, but this time The Marshall Tucker Band.

Similar story: My sister came home with this album that had this bright, colorful sunrise or sunset on it over a desert landscape. It was the band’s first album. I liked it a lot, but not like the Allman Brothers. Still, there were songs on it I played over and over, like “Take the Highway,” “Can’t You See” and the country-flavored “See You Later, I’m Gone.” If you think about, all of those songs are about leaving, which is something I really wanted to do. I felt so confined and constricted in my little hometown.

It’s funny, I was talking with my sister after Dixie Lullaby came out and she told me that when she was in high school, she and a friend had gone down to Spartanburg and met and partied with the guys in Marshall Tucker. I said, “Really? You never told me that! Why didn’t you tell me about that when I was writing the book?” She said, “You didn’t ask.” I think it’s probably because she didn’t want me to write about it.

You mentioned earlier working at Rolling Stone. That was always a dream of mine, mostly due to Hunter and Lester. What was it like working there and what can you tell me about Jann Wenner? Also, did you meet Dr. Thompson or Lester, either one?

I liked my brief time at Rolling Stone, but it was stressful. Jann’s a very mercurial boss and you never know what to expect from him. You can never really anticipate how he’s going to react to something. For example, I expected to have to really sell our first Beck cover, but he was fine with it (this is after Beck won a Grammy, though). The first Marilyn Manson cover, on the other hand, was a hard sell. The art director had to mock up a cover and we had to put it side by side with an early Alice Cooper cover to get his attention. But that became the challenge – selling new ideas to the man. It was by turn fun, challenging, exasperating, humiliating and educational. I probably aged ten years in two. But Jann is smarter and much more perceptive than some people give him credit for. He has good news judgment. He may not always know what the latest good music is, but he knows a good story and I learned a lot working there.

I never met Lester – he was dead long before I first arrived in New York back in the late eighties. But I met the good Dr. Thompson. He came to town when Johnny Depp was working on portraying him in Fear and Loathing. I was in my office one day when they were having a party for him. I was busy and I didn’t really want to be around the alcohol at that particular time. Well, Thompson wasn’t having it. He walked through the office area at one point and noticed I was in mine and came to the door with a plastic ball bat and started beating on the glass, telling me to come to the party. It was one of those “Rolling Stone moments.”

That has to be a great memory for you. If someone asked you to answer the question "what is Southern Rock?" What would you say?

That’s a hard one, because it was always really just a marketing term made up by the record companies and perpetuated by rock critics. That’s why it isn’t in the title of my book. The narrow definition is: “the mix of blues, rock, country and boogie typified by Lynyrd Skynyrd.’ But these days, any rock from the South is called Southern Rock. Hell, I saw it used recently in a Spin magazine review of Jason Isbell’s new album, complete with all the stereotypes. The very first line was: “Southern rock is a minefield of rebel flags, drinking songs, and dudes yelling ‘Free Bird!’” In fifteen words, the writer reduced rock music from the South to the most inane generalization possible – and we’re talking about music that ranges from Booker T and the MG’s and Big Star to the Allmans and Skynyrd to the Black Crowes, the North Mississippi All Stars and the Drive By Truckers. Of course, that dude’s glib remark is more a comment on the sad state of music criticism and how these days we have to telescope big ideas into sound bites. But to me, if you’re going to define “Southern Rock,” it should be anything from Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash to Otis Redding and Ray Charles to the Allmans and Skynyrd to R.E.M. and Ryan Adams and the Drive By Truckers straight up to Goodie Mobb and OutKast. It’s rock & roll (and my definition of “rock & roll” is pretty broad) that’s made in the South and embodies some of the rhythm and nuance of the region.

Shifting gears, when I first started Gritz eleven years ago, there was a whole lot of controversy from folks who equated Southern Rock with the rebel battle flag and the flag with racism. Because I never used it in our masthead, some readers complained that I was "selling out." What are your thoughts on the stars and bars, as well as race issues in the south growing up compared to now, and do you feel the election of an African American as President has/will help race relations?

This is an easy question for me. I don’t know of any reason to hang on to the so-called legacy of the Confederate flag. I don’t say ignore it or erase it from history, but why fly it? We have so much good legacy to point to – legacy involving music and hard work and spirituality that’s welcoming of all races, from whites and blacks to the new Latinos moving to the South. Why would you want to fight so hard for the preservation of something that causes so much pain for so many people?

Some people like to think the “race issue” is over. But it’s not. Just recently, the Georgia home of an Obama supporter and her children was burned down by anti-Obama thugs who scrawled racist junk on the fence. It ain’t over. I hope that the election of President Obama will help. We’ll see. As I wrote in my book, I love the Southland and much of the culture I grew up with, but I hate a lot of the history that haunts this land, and too much of that history is still with us.

Give me some of your thoughts, memories of music that came out of the great Muscle Shoals scene, as well as Memphis and Stax. Who were the artists you loved most?

Well, to me Otis Redding will always be king of that hill. But so much more great music came out of the tiny town of Muscle Shoals and from up in Memphis, from Elvis to all the great Stax artists like Booker T and the MG’s and The Mar-Keys, Wilson Pickett, Johnnie Taylor, Arthur Conley, Rufus and Carla Thomas – good lord, the list just goes on and on. And then there are the songwriters, producers and session men like Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Chips Moman, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood. No list off the top of my head could do justice to the music of that little area of the world.

One of my personal memories that will always remain indelible to me is when I was in Muscle Shoals interviewing people for the book. Session bassist David Hood – the father of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers – took me over to 3614 Jackson Highway, the original home of Muscle Shoals Sound. Some guy was living there and let us in, and David points to a bathroom and says, “That’s where Duane Allman recorded the solo for ‘Loan Me a Dime,’” the song he did with Boz Scaggs. It sent a chill down my back.

Hood is a good guy. All of those Swampers, Jimmy Johnson. What great cats. I know this sounds like Tiger Beat Magazine, but would you list for me your favorite Southern Rock Long Playing record albums of all time?

God, Michael, I couldn’t possibly do justice to the Southern music I listen to by listing ten, but I’ll do it like the pop charts do: I’ll list my Top 40! You want vinyl, I’ll stick to vinyl – that is, until I get to the post-vinyl years. (But no CD box sets of Jerry Lee or Otis or the Allmans; vinyl greatest-hits collections are OK.) And I’m going to use MY definition of Southern Rock, which is a bit more catholic than just Skynyrd/Allmans-type stuff. I have a love/hate relationship with lists, because there are so many albums that are important to me and that are equally as great as many of these. (I’ve decided to forgo great southern bands like Big Star, the dB’s and Let’s Active, simply because their music skews more British, with a minimal southern influence.) So here we go; these are listed generally from oldest to newest, except for some of the vinyl “greatest hits” sets:

   1. Little Richard: Grooviest 17 Original Hits! (1959)
   2. Otis Redding: Otis Blue (1966)
   3. Otis Redding: Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966)
   4. Wilson Pickett: The Exciting Wilson Pickett (1966)
   5. Wilson Pickett: The Wicked Pickett (1966)
   6.  Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
   7. Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul (1968)
   8. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (1968)
   9. Jerry Lee Lewis: Original Golden Hits, Vol. 1 (1969)
  10. Leon Russell: Leon Russell  (1970)
  11. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East (1971)
  12. Duane Allman: An Anthology (1972)
  13. Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (1973)
  14. The Allman Brothers Band: Beginnings (1973)
  15.  Waylon Jennings: Lonesome, On’ry & Mean (1973)
  15.  Duane Allman: An Anthology, Vol. 2 (1974)
  17.  Lynyrd Skynyrd: Second Helping (1974)
  18. Al Green: Al Green’s Greatest Hits (1975)
  19. Elvis: The Sun Sessions (1976)
  20. Hank Williams: 40 Greatest Hits (1978)
  21. R.E.M.: Murmur (1983)
  22. Jason and the Scorchers: Fervor (1983)
  23. Fetchin Bones: Cabin Flounder (1985)
  24.  Tom Petty: Southern Accents (1985)
  25. Steve Earle: Guitar Town (1986)
  26.  Uncle Tupelo: No Depression (1990)
  27. The Black Crowes: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)
  28. Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... (1992)
  29 The Bottle Rockets: The Brooklyn Side (1995)
  30. Goodie Mob: Soul Food (1995)
  31 Whiskeytown: Faithless Street (1996)
  32. Gov’t Mule: Dose (1998)
  33. OutKast: Stankonia (2000)
  34. North Mississippi Allstars: Shake Hands with Shorty (2000)
  35.  Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera (2001)
  36.  Anthony Hamilton: Comin’ from Where I’m From (2003)
  37 Kings of Leon: Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005)
  38. Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere (2006)
  39.  The Knux: Remind Me in 3 Days.... (2008)
  40. The Derek Trucks Band: Already Free (2009)

Great list. Who is the greatest singer of all time?

Again, this is hard to do: One is Southern-born (Mahalia Jackson) and the other’s Pakistani (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan).

Where were you when you heard about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash? Your memories, feelings and thoughts on how that tragedy effected the band and southern music as a whole.

I was over at a friend’s house, partying, when this girl came in crying and saying she’d just heard that Skynyrd’s plane had gone down and that Ronnie was dead. We were shell shocked. Up to that point, we’d never experienced the death of a rock star whose music we really cared about. I mean, Elvis had died a couple of months earlier, but we didn’t listen to Elvis in 1977. He was past his prime and his music at that point was more the music our parents listened to. And I guess we were too young to be affected by the deaths of Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin or Duane Allman. But Ronnie Van Zant was at the peak of his success and talent. A couple of the biker types at the party started kicking the walls and the girls cried. It kind of put a damper on our partying. Then someone put on “Free Bird” and all of them started singing. I actually kind of thought that was silly. I was sad, but it just seemed kind of maudlin to me to start singing “Free Bird.”

The tragedy pretty much killed that era of Southern rock. To me, most of the stuff that came later – 38 Special, Molly Hatchet, the Dixie Dregs – was kind of lame. Their music didn’t really move me; it didn’t have the grit, spunk or originality of Skynyrd or the John Coltrane-like improvisation of the Allmans. To me, those bands were what Bush, Puddle of Mud and Creed were to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, or what early Green Day was to first-generation punk bands like the Clash and Buzzcocks. Some of those bands were OK to casually listen to, but they didn’t change the music landscape or rock my world. Anyway, by the time of the Skynyrd plane crash, the first wave of punk rock had arrived in New York and London in the form of Patti Smith, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, and they were changing the music landscape. And in a few years, of course, R.E.M., Jason and the Scorchers and Fetchin Bones would bring it all back home again.

Well, we might have to “agree to disagree’ on the Dregs, 38 and Hatchet thing. But that’s okay. (Laughs) Tell me a bit about your book, how long it took to write, and maybe share some stories about your research and the adventures the journey brought about.

I started thinking about the book in 1998, when I wrote that piece for the New York Times. I worked up a proposal for it and my agent began shopping the idea. A couple of publishers were interested but we went with the Simon & Schuster imprint Free Press, because they seemed to really get that this was not a typical music bio – they liked that I wanted to weave music history and cultural history into a narrative that read like a story.

That was 2000, and I was still living in New York. Once I got my advance for the book, I took a month-long trip through the South to do my research and interviews. The best thing about it was that my dad came along with me and we really bonded. We enjoyed each other’s company. We went from Charlotte to Macon, Athens and Atlanta, to Muscle Shoals, Nashville, and up to Kentucky.

In Muscle Shoals I met up with the “Swampers” – the guys in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that Skynyrd sang about in “Sweet Home Alabama”: bassist David Hood and Jimmy Johnson. In Athens, I visited Patterson at his home, and in Atlanta I met up with former Otis Redding/Allman Brothers manager Phil Walden at his home. In Macon, I visited Phil’s brother, Alan, who was Skynyrd’s first manager. And in Nashville, I had lunch with Ed King one day and then went to a recording session out at Charlie Daniels’ ranch, where I talked to him.

My dad and I spent an amazing full day in Kentucky with the Kentucky Headhunters’ Richard Young and his family. We met his brother, his kids and his parents, who invited us to dinner. Richard showed us around Metcalf County: we had lunch at this quintessentially Southern restaurant where they served the food in big bowls for everyone, and he took us on a tour of his home and his family’s land. The Youngs were just terrific. I mean, those folks are the absolute models of Southern hospitality.

My dad and I had a whole lot of fun together on that trip, re-bonding on the road as we drove across the South listening to the Allmans and Skynyrd and George Jones on the car stereo. And our re-bonding actually became part of the narrative of my book.

After I got back to New York and started writing, I realized I needed to be back home, so I moved to Charlotte for a job at the Observer. I took a few more trips after I got here – one to Jacksonville, Florida, and another to Memphis. It was an all-around great experience that helped me re-acclimate to the South and establish a new kind of love for home. I’d left in the eighties because I wanted to get away from the racism, redneck mentality and conservative politics. But I developed an acceptance of all that during my travels. Acceptance doesn’t mean defending, though. I still have big problems with the hatred and the bizarre interpretations of Christianity I see in the South, but I have a deeper understanding of where it comes from now. And I figure I can’t fight the ill effects of those things if I’m hiding out in New York City or Los Angeles.

I’m amazed at what’s happened since I’ve been back. We now have a growing Latino community that’s injecting even more colors and textures into our culture. And my home state of North Carolina actually helped elect the nation’s first African-American president. That wouldn’t have happened in the sixties or seventies or even the nineties. This is a state that held on to the racist Sen. Jesse Helms for years, and now we’re turning a corner. I can say today that I’m proud of what we’re doing in the South, I love it here and I hope we keep marching forward. There are still problems, but I have a bunch of hope.

Wow. That sounds like a fun trip. Are you still with the Charlotte newspaper?

No, I’m full-time free-lance these days, mostly writing for Rolling Stone and Paste, but I still do stories for the paper on occasion.

What do you have planned for the immediate future?

I like to live in the day. I get up and write, spend a lot of time with folks like me, who are recovering from substance-abuse problems. I still go out see a lot of music. And I love to travel. In the past few years I’ve visited Costa Rica a couple of times and spent a little time in Mexico – Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende. I’d like to write another book and I have some ideas in mind, but right now I try to just live in the moment.

There’s no better way to live. Thank you for the conversation Mark. I want to do this again soon. Compare thoughts a bit.

Well, thank you, Buffalo. I totally enjoyed it and would love to stay in touch.



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