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Home is where the South is 

A city boy returns to Dixie to reconnect with his music roots

"Years pass. Our hero moved to the city, then a couple of more cities. He got him a funny haircut or two. He became a punk rocker and tried to disassociate himself from his youthful transgressions. Much like so many well-meaning southern people who try to talk down their southern accents for fear of sounding 'too southern' (as if that was inferior or something)." Patterson Hood, Southern Rock Opera--Drive-By Truckers

Mark Kemp had everything he needed: the facts, the experience, the interviews, the feelings. In 2002, Kemp sat down to write his long overdue first book, a personal journey through the culture of the Southern rock that had served as the soundtrack to and watermark of his youth.

As a teenager, he had been fascinated with them all, from Ronnie Van Zant and Duane Allman, straight down to progenitors like Dr. John and Ronnie Hawkins. For Kemp, those bands "had made a man out of me." And, at last, he was ready to tell the world exactly what those contradictory, crotchety men had meant to his generation.

But one thing was missing from Kemp's repertoire of rock 'n' roll memories and musical deconstructions: the South itself.

"Here I was sitting in New York City, writing a book about the South, and I hadn't lived there in 15 years. It's just so easy to romanticize where you come from when you're sitting in the middle of Manhattan," Kemp--an Asheboro native who lived in Los Angeles and New York during stints as an editor at Option, Rolling Stone and MTV--remembers of the morning he decided to straddle his Harley-Davidson and head south.

"It was hard to concentrate there, and I knew that I couldn't do this thing without coming back home."

Kemp was in the preliminary stages of writing Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South, and his exhaustive research had allowed him to reconnect with his childhood and its sometimes ugly, often racist setting. He had taken a month-long tour of the region by car, speaking to the heroes of his youth--Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ed King and Johnny Van Zant, record executives Alan and Phil Walden, Kentucky Headhunter Richard Young, Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood--and peering into the Southern psyche, in part as a music critic, but largely as an aged kid paying homage to the men that helped him overcome his region's bigoted inclinations.

Kemp's journey below the Mason-Dixon line was about overcoming personal demons too. He had been at odds with his family in Asheboro before he left his native state, before Ronnie Van Zant died. His father had been conservative and never understood his son's fascination with rock 'n' roll or why he didn't conform to these "very specific ideas of what he wanted me to be." His mother wouldn't let him attend a Rolling Stones show when he was 12, though both parents had agreed to let him see the Jackson 5 the year before.

"Though my folks weren't religious fanatics by any stretch, they were susceptible to the right-wing religious propaganda that branded the Stones as dangerous," writes Kemp on his first Stones concert, three years later in 1975.

The relationship hadn't improved, either. His parents were concerned with his rock-star existence in the journalism limelight of New York and Los Angeles, and they were especially concerned with the drug and alcohol use that seemed to be adulterating his work in 1999. His expedition through the South, though, gave him an opportunity for the reconciliation he needed.

"When I decided to go through with this quest to interview these old Southern rockers, I was going to do it on a Harley. But I'd have to carry stuff to record with and clothes, and it would have been this logical nightmare," Kemp says from his home, early on a Thursday morning before heading to work as the arts editor at The Charlotte Observer. "My dad said, 'Well, why don't I go with you?' And it was certainly one of the best things that happened with this book, because we've been very close after that."

Similar hunts for redemption and reckoning seem to be Kemp's modus operandi as a writer, musician, music fan and son in Dixie Lullaby. Kemp turned a blind eye to his Southern rock allegiance following his North Carolina exit, looking to punk and eventually hip hop instead. He witnessed the recording of some of hip hop's most groundbreaking records, from Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to De La Soul's seminal debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. He vacationed with the niece of Rolling Stone founder and publisher Jann Wenner at their home in the Hamptons, living his dream of being an important voice at the magazine he had combed as a child. He was the editor of Option--"the head rush I had long been searching for"--canvassing the underground for new sounds and possibilities, from Throbbing Gristle to Sonic Youth. But something was wrong.

"If I compared an Uncle Tupelo song to Lynyrd Skynyrd, it was 'irony.' I had my sincere feelings ... behind the cool exterior of a hip, alternative magazine editor and music critic," admits Kemp in the closing chapters of his book, documenting his return to the honest appeal of the music on which he cut his teeth. "It didn't feel as if many of us were being truly honest."

In Dixie Lullaby, Kemp levels the playing field with his steadfast honesty and seamless pairing of first-person recollection and a thorough sense of the music's historical context. He recognizes the contributions of those Southern rockers who gave his peers the chance to see new horizons without idolizing them. Charlie Daniels is presented as a racist converted by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. but who still harbored homosexual hatred in his songs as late as 1998, and Ronnie Van Zant is an impassioned genius with a taste for beating women.

"I have a lot of mixed feelings about Ronnie. There are certainly parts of him I just couldn't disagree with more, but some of his songs touched me more than any in the history of rock 'n' roll," Kemp claims. "He carried some pretty reactionary views about the South ... but he couldn't write those songs and not be a smart man."

It's a complex, iconoclastic analysis in which the stereotypically biased brutes, miscreants and hoodlums of the musical South become contradictory disciples responsible, in large part, for giving rise to a new breed of Southern youth. Thankfully, that youth had the ability to recognize its heritage and foundation while accepting and welcoming those that had been excluded in the past. Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood refers to the phenomenon of interlocking, sometimes interdependent sentiments of growing up below the Mason-Dixon line, leaving it and returning to it, as the "duality of the Southern thing."

For Kemp, it's just life.

Mark Kemp will be signing and reading from Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South at the following Triangle locations:

  • Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham, 286-2700: Monday, Sept. 20, 7 p.m.
  • Market St. Books, 704 Market St., Chapel Hill, 933-5111: Tuesday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m.
  • Quail Ridge Books, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh, 828-1588: Wednesday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m.
    • A city boy returns to Dixie to reconnect with his music roots

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