From Nashville cats who play clean as country water to Bible Belt rappers who chronicle the wheelings and dealings of the Dirty South, musicians have a long history of setting the pace, pulse and people of Dixie to music. Here, we bring you the best of the old, sweet songs that’ve kept Georgia — and all of the Southern states — on our minds.
Though 1969's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was written by Canadian Robbie Robertson, the song's evocative and Southern-inflected lead vocal was delivered by drummer and Arkansas native Levon Helm — the only American-born member of The Band. Told from the perspective of fictitious Tennessean farmer and Confederate soldier Virgil Caine, "Dixie" recalls the final days of the Civil War, when the South struggled in the face of staggering losses and punishing conditions. Though Joan Baez's 1971 cover of the song reached Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100, The Band gave what was perhaps the most lasting rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in Martin Scorsese's 1978 concert documentary The Last Waltz, wherein Helm conveys a profound sense of Southern honor, dignity, work ethic and self-sufficiency through Virgil Caine's words: "You take what you need and you leave the rest/But they should never have taken the very best."
Released the same year as "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," Arrested Development's first single sat closer to the socially-conscious camp of hip-hop hippies like PM Dawn, leaving pimps, blunts and Snoop Dogg cameos to the gangstas. Leader Speech wrote "Tennessee" in his dorm room at the Art Institute of Atlanta, after losing his grandmother and his older brother in the same week. Built around an uncleared sample from Prince's "Alphabet St.," the inclusion of which would later cost the band $100,000 in legal fees, the song unfolds like the funkiest prayer this side of Funkadelic's "Eulogy and Light," with Speech talking to God about slavery, modern-day black culture, death and the strange lure of the Volunteer State.
Inspired by Edward Albee's fiery four-character play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Billy Edd Wheeler wrote "Jackson," about a couple whose romantic spark was losing its flame, and sought input from legendary tunesmith Jerry Leiber ("Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock"). More an editorial contributor than co-writer on it, Leiber suggested placing the then-buried "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout" line at the beginning of the song, thus creating one of the most famous opening lines in country music history. Although first recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1963, the best-known version came four years later from yet-to-be-married singers Johnny Cash and June Carter. "Jackson" became a Number Two hit and a Grammy winner for the dynamic duo and has since been featured in such blockbuster films as Walk the Line and The Help.
Faith Hill has come "a long way from Star, Mississippi," as told in the "Mississippi Girl" lyrics written specifically for her by John Rich and Adam Shoenfeld. But no matter how big the stage or popular the name, she's still the hands-on mom in an "old ball cap" who hasn't forgotten her Magnolia State roots. Widely considered country music's version of "Jenny From the Block," this track plays out like Hill's autobiography, but the real story is found by reading between the lines. "Mississippi Girl" was released a year after she made her big-screen debut in Stepford Wives and was her first hit post-Cry — an album criticized for crossing into pop territory. Country music welcomed her back with open arms, as "Mississippi Girl" spent two weeks at Number One and was nominated for a Grammy.
Patterson Hood grew up in Northern Alabama in the Seventies, an era when it was dangerous to let one's freak flag fly. As this seven-minute spoken-word epic details, he found solace in the music of icon Number One, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant, while trying to avoid beat-downs from enthusiasts of icon Number Two, Crimson Tide football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. But the Alabama icon who left the most lasting mark was Governor George Wallace, a staunch good ol' boy whose strident defense of segregation made him the face of Southern bigotry to the rest of the world. Wallace eventually atoned for many of his racial sins and won his last governor's race with more than 90 percent of the black vote. In Hood's telling, that was not enough to keep him out of hell, although there's a bright side: "Fortunately for him, the devil is also a Southerner."
One thing you can say for the King of Country Music, he gets around. From Rosanna in Texarkana to Sweet Eileen in Abilene, Allison in Galveston to Dimples in Temple, the South Texas native leaves a trail of broken Lone Star hearts in this Number One country hit. And if it's not George Strait's signature song, it's close; in 2011, rap superstar Drake began his "HYFR" with, "All my exes live in Texas like I'm George Strait." No surprise that the original song finds the country icon keeping his distance from his angry exes — "And that's why I hang my hat in Tennessee" — while sounding a shade more gleeful about it than he should. But redemption comes from the tune's ace low-key swing arrangement, which sounds like something Bob Wills would have put down with his Texas Playboys way back when.
Georgia boys Ludacris and Field Mob paint an honest picture of the so-called "Dirty South" in this 2005 track that samples Jamie Foxx's Oscar-worthy version of "Georgia on My Mind." Their home state is tough: "Come anywhere on my land and I'll aim at your Georgia dome." It's rich with civil rights history: "The birthplace of Martin Luther King" is also where "your folks picked cotton." And it pleases all the senses, with everything from the state's signature peach cobbler to Atlanta's many strip clubs. (We did say all the senses.) Most of all, "Georgia" is a love letter to a place where the rappers are proud to plant their roots and viciously stake their claim.
Songwriter Jimmy Webb penned some of the biggest hits Glen Campbell ever had, including "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman." And even though he wasn't the writer responsible for "Southern Nights" (that would be New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint), Webb turned his friend on to the tune, which would become Campbell's fifth chart-topping country hit and a Number One pop (and AC) smash in the spring of 1977. The ethereal, piano-driven version Campbell first heard at Webb's house, from Toussaint's 1975 LP of the same name, was vastly different from what he eventually recorded, with Toussaint's rendering conjuring up a swampy mirage and Campbell's skipping and hopping along. But both still manage to capture the unmistakable feel of a sultry Louisiana evening.
Jerry Reed's 1967 swinging song about a musician searching for a place to play guitar — traveling through Tennessee, Georgia and Florida before settling in Mobile, Alabama — provided Reed with a career-long nickname. But the tune's journey wasn't over yet. Elvis Presley loved "Guitar Man" so much, he recorded it and brought in Reed, one of music's most underrated guitarists, to play on his version, which went straight to Number One. Presley's swaggering performance of "Guitar Man," paired with "Trouble" in his 1968 Comeback Special, remains one of TV's greatest musical moments.
Ryan Adams has always had a somewhat thorny relationship with his native state — it's been nearly a decade since he's played a show anywhere within its borders. But you'd never know it from this gorgeous ballad, featuring a radiant Emmylou Harris duet vocal and gentle piano by Wilco's Pat Sansone. A fugitive's Valentine to the Old North State, "Oh My Sweet Carolina" ruminates on how you can only run from your roots for so long before you find yourself back home, like it or not. "All the sweetest winds, they blow across the South," Adams croons before concluding, "May you one day carry me home." Maybe someday he'll come back after all.
Jason Isbell may have kickstarted his career as a member of the hard-rocking Drive-By Truckers, but he was over it by 2011, when this song spun the story of a ragged, road-weary southerner who can't get through a Sunday afternoon without a visit to Wayne's Liquor store. Released on Isbell's last album as a drinking man, "Alabama Pines" is technically a work of fiction. In a classic case of art imitating life, though, Isbell — who frequented Wayne's Liquor during his wetter days — checked himself into rehab one year after the song's release, turning his own life around before it "kind of vanishes away" like the first name of his song's narrator. Some Southern anthems glorify the highs of the drinking lifestyle; this one shines a light on the hang-ups and hangovers instead.
Brad Paisley has always pushed country's boundaries — geographically, musically and ideologically. Without ever sounding condescending, he takes the listener around the globe on 2013's "Southern Comfort Zone," explaining, "I can't see this world unless I go outside my Southern comfort zone," and that there are wondrous adventures to be had in places that seem at first strange and unfamiliar. But, as he concludes, the nicest part of any trek is getting to come back to "my Tennessee home," even if he knows he's not going to be down on the farm for long before wanderlust sets in again. For the song's video, the country superstar visited eight countries in eight days, running into (literally) the Band Perry in Norway and jamming with a giraffe in Kenya.
By 2010's Come Around Sundown, the brothers (and cousin) Followill had come a long ways from their days touring in a beat-up Oldsmobile driven by their traveling-preacher father. But the global rock stars remembered their roots (and perhaps some of that country twang that might have played on their dad's radio) on the album's unambiguously wistful fourth single, "Back Down South." Over drippy steel guitars, weepy fiddles and a porch-stompin' groove, Caleb Followill croons about starry nights, loud fights, pretty women and cold beer. Apropos of the song's title and sentiment, it's golden-tinted music video featured shots of broken-window farmhouses and double-wide trailers, main-street barbershops, young-and-in-love fast-food employees racing down two-lane roads, horses, tractors, good ol' boys shootin' skeet, mixin' dranks and doin' doughnuts in the mud with their pick-up trucks — scenes more common to CMT than MTV.
So many songs are written about a place while really being about a woman; and so many songs are written about a woman while really being about a place in time. Tom Waits' "I Wish I Was in New Orleans (In the Ninth Ward)" is no confused love affair — draping his deep, crooning rasp over the piano, it sounds like the streets of the Big Easy after the jazz clubs have closed; a last drink over bittersweet saxophone notes before the first hints of sunrise. The city, and the city alone, is his only mistress. "I can hear the band begin 'When the Saints Go Marching In,'" he sings on this track off of 1976's Small Change, that makes both sinners and saints feel like the tattered, beautiful streets are calling their names.
The bohemian bourgeois shores of the Cote D'Azur might not seem like a place where one could conjure up southern spirits, but somehow, when the Rolling Stones decamped to the infamous Villa Nellcôte with a stash of heroin, a flock of models and a little help from Gram Parsons, they came out with this Exile on Main Street stunner that slides in with a swampy harmonica breeze blown through Mick Jagger's famous British lips. Whether the 16-bar country-blues of "Sweet Virginia" is about the state, a drug-induced state of mind or a woman who's sweeter than both is up for debate — knowing the Stones, it's probably all three.
"Dixie Chicken" so entirely embodies the sly, swampy gestalt of what it means to be from below the Mason-Dixon Line that it instantly transports you there. From Bill Payne's stone-skipping, light-handed piano intro to Lowell George's slightly slurry delivery, the title track from Little Feat's seminal 1973 album takes place in Memphis, but the slinky, full-bodied sound is straight out of New Orleans. The lady in question is such a smooth Southern belle that before the Dixie Chicken knows it, his Tennessee Lamb has taken all his money and left him for the guitar player and his fine memories. Not only have Phish and Garth Brooks performed excellent covers of the song, the Dixie Chicks named themselves after the tune.
When you're born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus, is there any doubt that you'll spend your life on the road? Not if you're the protagonist of the Allman Brothers' biggest hit, 1973's "Ramblin' Man," who spends time traveling from Nashville to New Orleans and points in between. Dickey Betts may have loosely based the song on Hank Williams' 1951 tune of the same name, but the band created its own unique tune that ultimately became a tentpole of the Southern rock movement and was just enough of a step into country that some of the band members were initially hesitant to record it. As soaring as the track is on their Brothers and Sisters album, the jubilant, extended live version became the cornerstone of the band's concerts for years.
Like it or loathe it, Lynyrd Skynyrd's tribute to Dixie has been damn near inescapable for four decades, rendered immortal by several generations of classic rock radio DJs and proud southerners. It's also a bundle of contradictions: a song called "Sweet Home Alabama" that was written by a band of Florida natives, recorded in Georgia and delivered as a kiss-off to the Canada-born Neil Young, who'd taken potshots at the American South with "Southern Man" and "Alabama." Regardless, nothing could stop "Sweet Home Alabama" from becoming the rebel (flag) yell heard 'round the world. More than 40 years later, it's still pulling double duty as the signature song not only for Skynyrd, but the entire Southern rock genre.
The ninth Number One hit for the band who loved the South so much they decided to name themselves after one of the region's states, Alabama's "Dixieland Delight" is an example of what the ferocious, fiddling foursome did best: high-octane, country-rock number with a hint of bluegrass that are so distinctly from the lower half of the Mason-Dixon they smell like whiskey and wisteria. Sure, this song from 1983's The Closer You Get… is about getting "a whirl" from a Southern cutie, but it's also about a love affair with the land they come from: "livin' in heaven" with the hawks, deer and mountain moonlight. Bands like Old Crow Medicine Show have adopted it as a staple, embellishing on the old-time melodies and plunging it as deep into lore as dusty Appalachian traditionals.
One of the most successful pop hits of the Seventies was inspired by football, friendship and Farrah Fawcett. Songwriter Jim Weatherly was living in Los Angeles and playing on a flag football team with his pal, actor Lee Majors, who would go on to star as TV’s Six Million Dollar Man (and later marry actress Fawcett). One day while talking to Majors, Weatherly ended up on the phone with Fawcett, who said she was taking “a midnight plane to Houston.” Weatherly says he created a mental film of Fawcett and Majors to create the song’s scenario. A record executive suggested the title needed a more appropriate Southern spin so he could pitch it to an R&B act, hence the geographical relocation — and updated mode of transportation. Although Gladys Knight and the Pips (from Georgia) earned a Grammy for their version, the first to cover the song was Cissy Houston. It has since been recorded by numerous artists, including Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Indigo Girls and Garth Brooks.
"Everybody movin', if they ain't already there," sings Bob Dylan on this track off 2001's Love and Theft. "Everybody got to move somewhere." It's a classic Dylan parable: Do we have to be in motion to find out where we truly belong? After naming one of his most beloved records in tribute to Mississippi's most famous four-lane – Highway 61 Revisited – which paints a direct line from his hometown of Minnesota to the land of the Delta blues, it's hard not to pay extra attention to what the poet laureate of rock & roll says here. "Stayed in Mississippi a day too long," is the one mistake Dylan confesses to in a song of lost love and broken souls, but maybe he's not talking about himself: He's already veered off that highway, across the state lines, and all we can do is try to catch up.
You can take the guy out of the south, but "in my heart I'm always there," Darius Rucker sings in this concert favorite from the 2010 album named after his southern hometown, Charleston, SC 1966. So when he goes to California and says "yes, m'am," the singer gets the same kind of confused look that a New York waitress gives him when he orders sweet tea. Call him crazy, but Rucker's "southern state of mind" just keeps him from getting homesick. Five years later and the rock-gone-country star continues to wear his roots on his musical sleeve. He's titled his upcoming album, Southern Style, after a similar song that touts the virtues of hospitality, good manners and great food.
Floridian by birth, Tom Petty has never shied away from singing about his Southern heritage, as in the titular track from 1985's Southern Accents. But it's a latter-day Petty and the Heartbreakers song — "Down South" from 2006's Highway Companion — that leans the hardest into Southern imagery. In characteristically wry fashion, Petty sings of family headstones, seersucker and white linens, Spanish moss and Mark Twain, all between choruses about sleeping on the listener's floor. It's an easygoing, mid-tempo tune about lonesome rambling that showcases a very Petty-esque side of the Southern identity: subtle humor, self-awareness and concealed deeper meaning.
In the 85 years since Indiana native Hoagy Carmichael first wrote "Georgia on My Mind," it's been covered by everybody from Louis Armstrong to Coldplay. The Beatles spoofed it in "Back in the U.S.S.R." ("and Georgia's always on my my my my my my my my my mind"), and Willie Nelson took it to Number One on the country charts in 1978. Nevertheless, the singer who owns it is Peach State native Ray Charles — there's a reason why his 1960 version used to be the track Georgia Public Television would play as nightly sign-off music. "Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind," Charles sings, pining for the pines. After he played it at the Georgia General Assembly in 1979, "Georgia on My Mind" was officially declared the state song.
James Taylor hasn't lived in North Carolina for five decades. But most every election year, he comes back to play benefit shows for progressive candidates, invariably closing with "Carolina in My Mind." This marooned expatriate's homesick remembrance is not the University of North Carolina's official song but it might as well be, as often as it's sung at sporting events and graduation ceremonies. Taylor wrote and recorded the original while overseas making an ill-fated album for the Beatles' record label and wondering if he'd gotten in over his head with a drug addiction that soon landed him in the hospital. But the better-known version is the 1976 remake for Taylor's "Greatest Hits" collection, which slows the tempo, adds steel guitar and hits the perfect wistful sweet spot.