There’s something about the land and its role in the formation of music that has always intrigued me. From the north of England to Detroit to Los Angeles you can tell where an artist came from simply by the sound and content of their music. That’s diminished a little today, but geographic roots still affect the creative process. Eminem could not tell the stories he tells if he came from anywhere other than Detroit.
The Blues could only be a product of the Delta and the places (Chicago, Kansas City, New York) early Blues musicians took it. Jazz is a product of the dichotomy of classes and styles and mix of cultures in New Orleans and then the refinement that took place when the music hit New York, LA and Chicago. The 1970s had the Asbury Park Sound, the 1990s had Seattle. But the Delta South has had a greater impact on all styles of music than any other place, including Liverpool. The Beatles would not have happened without the music of the Delta.
In the 1970s, there were few American bands bigger than Black Oak Arkansas. Some felt they were a bit of an acquired taste, but the popularity of their records and shows makes it clear a lot of people acquired the taste. As a teenager (think Dazed & Confused, the 1993 Matthew McConaughey movie relocated to the swamps of Jersey) I had more than a passing acquaintance with the band (girls liked them and my parents and older brothers hated them – so yeah, they were in), but there is something beyond the records they released in their prime that make them interesting. The music of Black Oak Arkansas is a complete gumbo of all the styles of music that made the region they came out of the force it is in the history of music.
Listen beyond the pop trappings and you’ll hear bluegrass, Nashville Country, Memphis Soul, Gospel, Rockabilly, the seeds of Southern Rock, Honky-Tonk and straight Blues. All that’s really missing is Jazz and Zydeco. Coming from an area just 30 miles to the west of Memphis in an age and era when the music was exploding, it’s no surprise that a band from the region would be fluent in all of those styles. Throw in the explosion of hippie ethos and all of the things associated with that and Black Oak Arkansas becomes a band that deserves a second look in the pantheon of American music.
I sat down with Rickie Lee Reynolds, main songwriter, founding member and rhythm guitarist for Black Oak at a little burger joint in Memphis Tennessee to get his thoughts on how the time and place his band came from shaped its music. I was treated to enough material to write three of four pieces on the music and the times, but I have deadlines to meet and a limited amount of space, so we’ll stick to the subject matter at hand (for now).
Build Me Up Buttercup followed by Fontella Bass’s Rescue Me played in the background as the sounds of a diner cleaning up after the lunch rush accentuated our conversation. As our lunch arrived, Rickie Lee started the conversation. “The potato is an amazing thing,” he said as he surveyed his Home Fries. “They can do anything,” I replied, thinking as quickly on my feet as ever. We extolled the virtues of mashed potato bread and tater tots for a few minutes and then started exploring.
JS: So, what is it about this area that made it so musical and so innovative?
Reynolds: It’s a blend. In this area, back in the 50s and 60s on the radio during the daytime you could hear Country music or old Soul and Rhythm Blues from WDIA, and that’s all there was. Late at night, WLS from Chicago would kick in and you could hear that damn station all the way down to New Orleans. [Ed. Note – WLS was a station first started by the Sears & Roebuck Company in 1924 to help it sell goods to farmers in the Midwest. In the 1960s they played a mixture of Top 40 and Rock & Roll and were considered one of the cutting-edge stations in the country]. So, musicians around here during that time began blending Country music with old Rhythm & Blues and Soul music with the stuff they heard off WLS. You know, I really like this but I kind of like that too, so in your mind you start writing a song and it melds into both things. The music changed by doing that. It’s like taking a potato and something else and blending the two together to make something different.
JS: Listening to the Black Oak discography there’s Bluegrass, straight Country, Blues, Rock & Roll, I mean take the song Good, Good Woman and it’s a Calypso song.
Reynolds: [Laughs] It was like pulling teeth to get Jim to do that song. I wrote it and [Producer] Tom Down loved it, but Jim was like how are we going to do that?
JS: Your band was the embodiment of everything that had taken place musically at the time. You made it different and your own, but it was all of these roots…
Reynolds: I listen to all kinds of music from Classical to Jazz. Earth, Wind & Fire are one of my favorites and good friends of mine. You never know. All kinds of things you listen to affect you when you’re writing a song. We were lucky and got to get out of our area, but so many bands never break out of their own hometowns, so you don’t get to hear what they’ve done with what they’ve heard. A lot of bands started off opening shows for us – Springsteen, KISS, Lynyrd Skynyrd, James Gang, Bob Seger, Bad Company – I’m not saying we’re better because they opened for us because they’re excellent now and we’re hanging by a thread, but we helped them get known. I loved Bad Company, but you listen to the first album and it’s almost like the same song all the way through the album – same key, same tempo – and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to mix it up. We were never thought of as a Southern Rock band in the old days because you couldn’t put a label on us – what the hell is that and that sort of thing. We were supposedly the first band to come out with a three guitar attack, but that’s another story.
JS: What was it that made the music of the South become so influential to so many other forms of music?
Reynolds: If you’re religious you’d call it an Act of God, I call it an accident. A year later or a year earlier and it might not have happened at all. But right at the time it was the ‘in’ thing to do. You had Black Oak Arkansas, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, we all hit right around the same time, and we all had that funk beat boom-bam-bam-boom-bam-bam-bam, and it made you want to dance. It wasn’t disco, it wasn’t soul – it was just different. And people in the area claimed it as their own. Southern people, when they get into something, they get into it with both feet, and that’s what happened with Southern Rock and southern music in general.
Over the next three hours, Rickie Lee took me on a fascinating journey that included working with Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records, playing in front of 200,000 people at California Jam and then in front of another 2,000,000 people in Brazil a few years ago – Reynolds says he really wasn’t affected by the size of the crowd and that it was no different than playing in a roadside dive with three people in the audience. I listened to cassette tapes of unreleased songs and material from the forthcoming album (there are some really excellent tracks; the band is not just plowing the same fields they plowed forty years ago).
It’s pretty certain that one hundred years from now the music produced in the years from World War I until Grunge hit in the 1990s will be regarded as an important part of US and world history in general, and it’s a pleasure and honor whenever I get to speak to someone who was part of that history. Whodathunk those records all those high school burnouts bought for $4.99 would carry such historical weight? When I asked Rickie Lee to sum it up for me, and if it could ever happen again, he put it as perfectly as it could be put…
Lewis and Clark were explorers, and everyone who came after them built on what they did. The same with Robert Johnson, Elvis and Johnny Cash. They made the path and we just followed it. I hope it can happen again, but it will never be like it was because there was so much exploring and discovery going on.