Greg Martin knows a thing or two about Southern Rock. As co-founder of the legendary Kentucky Headhunters, the veteran guitarist helped forge a blues-Rock/country hybrid that, at the dawn of the ‘90s, propelled Southern Rock to a status it hadn’t enjoyed since its ‘70s heyday. The Headhunters’ 1989 debut, Pickin’ on Nashville, remains a classic of the genre.
A Les Paul enthusiast, Martin worked closely with Gibson to reproduce his iconic 1958 Les Paul, an instrument that passed from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ed King to Hank Williams, Jr. and on to Martin in 1991. “The moment I plugged that guitar into an old Marshall, I thought, ‘Okay, this is what I’ve been looking for all my life,’” says Martin. More recently, Gibson has gone on to honor Southern Rock in a monumental way—with the roll-out of the Southern Rock Tribute Guitar . From his home in Kentucky, Martin spoke with us about longstanding impact of the Southern Rock genre.
How did you first come to love Southern Rock?
My introduction to Southern Rock was the Allman Brothers. For me, they pretty much embody everything Southern Rock should be, and is. They took everything that was good about music—blues, country, jazz, soul and Rock—and made a nice Southern burgoo out of it. The first album of theirs I heard was the At Fillmore East album. I remember [fellow Kentucky Headhunters] Richard and Fred Young got a copy of it, and I borrowed it. I’ll never forget the first time I put the needle on “Statesboro Blues.” It just had this incredible groove—the slide was amazing. It’s got that nice little shuffle, almost like going to a skate rink. Over the years I’ve come to love the Allman Brothers’ music even more. It’s like the Bible—it gets deeper all the time.
Were there other Southern Rock bands that really grabbed you, early on?
Well, the next Southern Rock band I heard was ZZ Top. I missed their first album when it came out, but in 1972 or 1973 I heard Rio Grande Mud. I was like, “Oh, yeah—I get this.” I totally understood where they were coming from. And then the next group I heard was Lynyrd Skynyrd—their first album, when it came out in ’73. About a year after that, the term “Southern Rock” became a catchphrase. When I first started listening to the Allman Brothers Band and ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the term “Southern Rock” wasn’t a big thing. It was just bands coming out of the south.
What was it about Southern Rock that set it apart from other music—the West Coast scene, for instance?
It had a rural sensibility to it, and some country-playing in the music. Early on, the Allman Brothers didn’t show as much of that country influence. That came when Dickey Betts started writing more songs. I think Dickey represented the country element—brought in that inspiration. But all these bands had a little country and a lot of blues—they mixed these things. West Coast bands—bands like The Grateful Dead--didn’t seem as “down home.” The Southern bands took all this great music and put it together in a way that made sense. They were writing about things we all understood. They didn’t come off like rock stars, whereas lots of other bands came off as unapproachable. They came off as plain working people. Being from the gateway to the south, I got it. It felt right. It was like putting on an old pair of jeans.
Is there something about Southern-Rock guitar that’s distinctive?
There’s more country in the picking—sort of a mix of country and blues. Oddly enough, a guy who plays very “Southern”—but who isn’t from the south--is Leslie West. “Mississippi Queen” is country music played through a big amp. Leslie almost joined Lynyrd Skynyrd, oddly enough. I think it was around the time Ed King left the band. My understanding is they asked Leslie to join, but he wanted the billing to be “Lynyrd Skynyrd featuring Leslie West.” (laughs) So that was the end of that. When I think of Southern music, I think of a mix of country and blues and Rock—those three elements. And then with the Allman Brothers you also throw jazz into the mix—a lot of freeform stuff—which gives them their distinctive style.
Of course the ‘70s was a particularly special time for Southern Rock.
Oh, yes. Particularly around ’74 or ’75, it became very fashionable to be a Southern Rock band. By the time Charlie Daniels came out with “The South’s Gonna Do It,” all the labels were looking to sign bands from the south. Al Kooper started the Sounds of the South label in ‘73. He obviously saw something special happening. There are so many unsung bands who came from the south. We all know about Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and the Allman Brothers, but there was also the Atlanta Rhythm Section--a great band—and of course The Marshall Tucker Band. And Wet Willie, who was a different animal. Wet Willie was a Southern Rock band, but they had a lot more soul and R&B in their music. There was also a band called Hydra—on Capricorn Records—who was different from most Southern bands. They had a lot of British influence. You know, there are all those Southern Rock icons—bands we all know about—but there’s also a lot of great bands from the south who never really made it. People should learn more about them.
Are there any young Southern Rock bands you’re especially excited about today?
I think the guys in Blackberry Smoke are amazingly good. They’re a great Southern band. They take everything that’s good about Southern music and mix it all up in their own way. I like that band an awful lot. And there’s a band from here in Kentucky—Black Stone Cherry—who’s very good as well.
How do the Headhunters fit into the “Southern Rock” lineage?
Our influences were more English music—Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group. But we were smack in the middle of Kentucky, and we drew from everything around us. There was blues coming out of WLAC in Nashville—the big AM radio station—so that had an impact. We weren’t country music fanatics, but you couldn’t help but hear Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins. We fancied ourselves a rock band, but personally I had a lot more country in me than I probably realized.