The Most Soulful White Soul Singers of the South

In the many memorials and remembrances published after Gregg Allman’s death on May 27, 2017, the Allman Brothers Band and Hour Glass vocalist has been hailed as one of the great white blues and soul singers. It’s worthy praise for a mighty stylist, though it also has to be noted that Allman was just one of a slew of white Southern singers who, in the ’60s and early ’70s, reshaped the contours of American roots music by blending African-American soul, blues, and gospel with elements of country, pop, and, in select instances, the anti-establishment fervor and experimental flavors coursing through the hippies’ rebellious rock jams.

Some of these musicians are well known. Dr. John, of course, is an American icon synonymous with New Orleans R&B, and Joe South achieved pop stardom at the turn of the ’70s thanks to a string of hits, including “Games People Play,” a socially conscious anthem laced with electric sitar and delivered with a preacher’s passion. Others, meanwhile, have never moved beyond cult status. Swamp rock pioneer Tony Joe White remains under the radar despite having his songs covered by Brook Benton, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley (whose comeback era, 1968 through 1973, makes him a key figure in this milieu). Even more obscure is the late Eddie Hinton. A songwriter and guitarist who contributed to many of the seminal soul albums recorded at Muscle Shoals, he also was a fabulous vocalist in his own right. Indeed, music critic Peter Guralnick describes the gravelly voiced howler as the ”last of the great white soul singers” in the indispensable book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.

With all due respect to Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, and the seriously bad-ass Daryl Hall, nobody can touch these Southerners in terms of blue-eyed soulfulness. Of course, soulfulness is a tricky notion, as it veers into the immeasurably shadowy world of metaphysics. Thus, it helps to ground it in some geography and culture. After all, these singers—who so thoroughly soaked up the sublime cadences, emotiveness, and phrasing of their African-American heroes—were raised in a region of the United States where black music, art, and religion permeate—despite rampant racism and oppression—white culture to a degree that’s unique unto itself. (This is part of what Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood has called the “duality of the Southern thing.”) This influence isn’t the result of merely buying records, attending concerts, or, in Jerry Lee Lewis’ case, growing up near a juke joint. It’s archaic, and it’s soaked into the very bedrock of the Southern collective subconscious.

To see a mind-blowing microcosm of this point, check out the opening sequence of the 1983 documentary Chase the Devil: Religious Music of the Appalachians: Rev. Bobby Akers, based in Virginia, leads his all-white Pentecostal congregation in a style of revival—Holy Ghost–raising piano boogie, ecstatic singing, dancing in the aisles, speaking in tongues, hands raised to God, and what seem like trance states—that can be traced back to the African-American church and to the religious rites and rituals slaves brought over from West Africa. These very same roots are embedded in the jams comprising this playlist. They creep their way into both Gary Stewart’s honky-tonk bummer “Single Again” and Bobby Charles’ muddy “Save Me Jesus.” And they most certainly creep their way into The Allman Brothers Band’s “Dreams,” a sublime slice of Southern cosmic gospel music, if there ever was one.