Vintage Review – The Black Crowes – Southern Harmony & Musical Companion
This week marks the 50th Anniversary of one of the most iconic and influential albums ever released in popular music in Exile on Main St. by The Rolling Stones. Though not as interfacing and relevant to country music as the album’s predecessor, 1971’s Sticky Fingers, Exile is still critically important for defining the loose, gritty, sweaty sound that musicians would subsequently struggle and mostly fail to achieve in equal measures for the coming decades compared to Keith, Mick, and the boys.
But if there was one record that successfully rose to the challenge of emulating the same type of raucous, uninhibited abandon with an unprecedented sense of feeling and soul that puts you right in the studio surrounded by all the sounds and smells of under-the-influence musicians sowing audio magic beyond the 70s era, it might be the Southern rock masterpiece put out by The Black Crowes, released 30 years ago this week, and 20 years after Exile by The Stones.
For certain, when you broach the subject of The Black Crowes, 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker is the record that first comes to mind. It was the Atlanta, Georgia-based band’s big breakout that has since gone five times Platinum. Their version of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle” was ubiquitous, as was the ballad “She Talks To Angels.” In the 90s, it was like hearing classic Southern rock, but from a modern band. It had all the roots that hair metal had forgotten, and much of grunge would forsake as well.
But those studious listeners to The Black Crowes and the greater Southern rock canon know that The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was the superior project, at least from a creative standpoint. It actually launched five #1 singles as opposed to Money Maker‘s two. But only “Remedy” from the record really sticks out as a signature Crowes cut. Southern Harmony also sold a couple million less copies than Money Maker.
Nonetheless, it was the Black Crowes second record that would leave their most lasting imprint on American music. Recorded in only eight days, and straight to 24-track tape, it saw the exit of original member Jeff Cease at the lead guitar position, the addition of Eddie Harsch in a new permanent keyboard position, and most importantly, the drafting of Los Angeles-born lead guitar player Marc Ford, who would add that certain something to The Black Crowes sound that took it from great to spectacular.
Shake Your Money Maker felt sincere and rootsy when it was first released. But in the shadow of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, that project came across as safe, ordered, and predictable. Recorded after significant time on the road opening for bands like ZZ Top and Aerosmith—and lead singer Chris Robinson famously mouthing off about bands selling out to corporate beer sponsors and wanting to headline shows themselves—it was the deadly combination of being pissed off, having something to prove, and being sinister tight from so many shows played that made Southern Harmony so propulsive as a musical work.
25 songs had been written before heading into the studio, but Marc Ford was still trying to gel with the Robinson brothers, who along with being super driven and having something to prove, were at each others throats constantly. It wasn’t unusual for a studio session to devolve into an outright fist fight between the two, but channeling much of that rage into the tracks themselves is what rendered them so sick.
Everything on the record is way too slow in the best of ways. What were supposed to be up-tempo rockers were brought into the mid tempo. What were supposed to be mid-tempo songs were slowed down to sludge. This plodding, achingly slow pace—along with songs with a chorus of backup singers being the ones singing mostly on time, with Chris Robinson sometimes just scatting on top of them—is what gave the album a measure of soulful virtuosity that was virtually unprecedented for its time, while Chris Robinson’s lyricism may have never been as seductive and involved.
Then of course you had Marc Ford doing his worst, with the most raging, inebriated, and ejaculating guitar solos that probably fit more appropriately in heavy metal than Southern rock. But it still somehow worked brilliantly, just from the imagination and epicness each solo achieved. The guitar parts are these ugly, snarling monsters, but exquisitely beautiful in their own way, possibly best illustrated by the madness that ensues in the pulverizing performance on the song “No Speak No Slave.”
But when you think of the sound of “Southern Rock,” you think of the savvy chord movements of “Hotel Illness,” or the soulful blues of the insanely slow “Bad Luck Blues Eyes,” or “Sometimes Salvation”—the latter also marked by an insane Marc Ford guitar solo full of abandon. “Remedy” and the acoustic “Thorn In My Pride” would be the big singles from the record, but most every selection from the work is a lesson in one way or another into the mastery of Southern rock music.
The 10 song set ends with a rather sloppy, and slightly forgettable rendition of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” recorded with a mic in the middle of the room, and little or no arrangement. It would foretell in some respects the band’s move into more jam-based music that would start to express itself in their 1996 release Three Snakes and One Charm. But that wasn’t what people tuned into The Back Crowes for. They wanted that greasy, Southern fried sound like was served up in big ladle fulls on Southern Harmony.
Drug problems would mean Marc Ford would only last for a couple more records with the band, and to be frank, his later stuff with The Black Crowes was never as potent as it was on Southern Harmony. Once sober though, he’d go on to other significant projects, and subsequently has become one of the best producers in the Southern rock/roots country rock, and Americana space. Taking that tasty feel he exhuberated on Southern Harmony and applying it to other people’s projects has been quite the successful chemistry.
These days, The Black Crowes are more of a nostalgia band than continuing to help set a creative pace. The Robinson brothers and their constant implosions and sibling rivalry made it hard sledding for the band over the years. But there’s not much better than piping up The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion on a Sunday afternoon, or during a long drive, and losing yourself in the waves of American music goodness that you really have to go back to the 60’s and 70’s to find comparable experiences from in the Southern rock sphere.
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was classic, and has proven itself to be timeless.
Two Guns Up!
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Purchase The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion
Sir Adam the Great
May 15, 2022 @ 7:05 pm
“Remedy” is one of the only songs played to death on classic rock radio that I actually still like.
May 15, 2022 @ 7:47 pm
Something of a coincidence, as I was listening to my local country station on my way to work this morning when I heard “She Talks to Angels”. Seemingly this (The Southern Harmony, etc.) is actually the album I need to go back and listen to.
Making it my homework to do so…..
May 15, 2022 @ 8:09 pm
Hard to top this as a show opener! https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8BAY1zczX7I
May 15, 2022 @ 8:33 pm
True that. Bunch of great videos from that same set. Fell into a wormhole with them when writing this review. Black Crowes at their peak.
May 15, 2022 @ 9:31 pm
I just reviewed this about few moths back! Great album. Nice to see it pop up here.
May 16, 2022 @ 1:35 am
cool to see my favourite r’n’r band on this site!!
never been too musc into their post crowes stuff, but some CRB songs were pretty good( RIP Neal Casal).
May 16, 2022 @ 4:48 am
Just saw them live at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last week – Fantastic!
May 16, 2022 @ 5:15 am
Fully agree with Kyle. Its a Southern Rock masterwork. Absolutely the bands best album. I put this up there with Pronounced Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers Band Brothers and Sisters, The Outlaws debut album, and Molly Hatchets debut album, all essentials. Now, i dont see it as great as Allman Bros at Fillmore East, that album is the singular greatest Southern Rock album ever made. And Eat a Peach close behind that one. But, this is a more modern day record, and it put Southern Rock in the spotlight once again. Of course there was Dan Bairds band Georgia Satellites, and Warren Haynes great band Govt Mule, who also were big time contributors to the genre.
May 16, 2022 @ 7:43 am
And the first two Marshall Tucker albums – Toy Caldwell at the height of his brilliance.
May 16, 2022 @ 9:22 am
Yes indeed! Marshall Tucker Bands early records are all that. A New Life is a masterpiece to me.
May 16, 2022 @ 10:11 am
Yeah buddy! To me, they were the only band that that swung as gracefully as the Allmans, especially on the “A New Life” album. Paul Riddle, Tommy Caldwell and George McCorkle (and producer Paul Hornsby on keys in the studio) provided the bedrock for the most underrated guitarist in rock history. Man, Toy could do it all – even beautiful pedal steel when it was warranted.
May 16, 2022 @ 10:18 am
ZZ Top before the beards, in the Fandango era
May 16, 2022 @ 5:18 am
There are some bands that no matter how much time goes buy they never leave your playlist. For me, you mentioned two of them in this article, The Rolling Stones and The Black Crowes. Southern Harmony was a great album, and many of the songs are in my Crowes mix that I still listen to frequently.
May 16, 2022 @ 6:37 am
This is a true classic that is still relevant today. It has it all, the swagger, the chip on the shoulder attitude and it hits you right in the face! And damn, they could make it all work even with all the internal scuffling! Hats off to the Crowes!!!! Thanks for the review Trig!!!
May 16, 2022 @ 7:24 am
Thorn in My Pride is one of my favorite songs ever. IMO it’s their best.
May 16, 2022 @ 10:23 am
Awesome album. Have to say though, Crows shows have been hit or miss over the years..
May 16, 2022 @ 11:29 am
“the most raging, inebriated, and ejaculating guitar solos”
Your ability to paint a vivid picture in the mind of the reader is unmatched, Trigger. I guess the ol’ saying that the guitar is essentially an extension of the player’s “manhood” does have some truth to it lol.
May 16, 2022 @ 12:28 pm
One of my all-time favorite albums. Not a bad cut on it and brother, it is a whole mood.
May 16, 2022 @ 12:38 pm
“southern rock masterpiece”?😆
May 16, 2022 @ 6:38 pm
I agree. This album pales in comparison to Shake Your Money Maker, which is also not a ‘southern rock masterpiece’.
May 16, 2022 @ 12:40 pm
This was one of the first CDs I ever bought. My wife yelled at me because she thought it was heavy metal. She ended up taking it from me and wore it out.
May 16, 2022 @ 2:37 pm
Quite appropriate that the name was borrowed from a hymnal.
May 16, 2022 @ 3:04 pm
Banger of an album and still an all time favorite. I was a young teen when this was released and it was the odd album among my Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Red Hot Chili Peppers collection in ‘92.
To me it was all just good music, but this one is the only album among the previously mentioned bands I still listen to today with frequency and undying reverence. Timeless, and as fresh today as it was then.
May 16, 2022 @ 6:32 pm
Timeless. Can listen to it over and over not get bored.
May 16, 2022 @ 6:40 pm
Saving Rock Music now, too? 🙄
May 16, 2022 @ 7:53 pm
May 16, 2022 @ 7:02 pm
Thank you for this, Trigger. Crazy timing to my recent listening!
May 17, 2022 @ 3:43 am
Great record, good article.
‘But only “Remedy” from the record really sticks out as a signature Crowes cut. Southern Harmony also sold a couple million less copies than Money Maker.’
Fewer copies, my friend. But only “Remedy” from the record really sticks out as a signature Crowes cut. Southern Harmony also sold a couple million less copies than Money Maker.
May 19, 2022 @ 4:45 am
I guess he skipped over “Black Moon Creeping,” “Sting Me” & “Hotel Illness.”
May 17, 2022 @ 5:31 pm
SHMC is definitely a classic album but for me Amorica has always been their best album. It’s hard to beat Wiser Time and there are many other fantastic tracks on that one. Descending is their best album closer, for my money.
Their last album, Before The Frons…Until The Freeze is worth a review too. It is amazing how far they veered into country. There’s a Gram Parsons cover and their live shows had a number of Flying Burrito Brothers in them. It’s a fantastic album too and speaking of the Stones, I Ain’t Hiding is a great homage to them, albeit from the Some Girls era and not Main Street.
Just my two cents.
May 19, 2022 @ 4:43 am
It’s their best album, and it’s not close. And it’s bittersweet; this record shows what the Black Crowes could have been but for Chris Robinson’s sociopathy: the greatest American rock band ever.
When you read Steve Gorman’s memoir (I literally couldn’t put it down,) it’s even sadder and more infuriating.
May 24, 2022 @ 6:13 pm
“Salvation” – my favorite track – has an extra beat at the 4:00 mark. It’s been a thorn in my side/pride for 30 years now.
May 29, 2022 @ 6:21 pm
This is when they became world class. Leaves SYMM in the dust easily. Huge part of why that happened is the introduction of new guitarist Marc Ford and the late great Eddie Harysch ( not sure of spelling..) on keys into the fold.
They were never the same band once those 2 were gone. True fans know this.
The Robinson brothers think they single handedly brought the band the accolades they won in the 90s. Would not have happened w/o Ford,Ed & Steve. There is absolutely something to be said for Chemistry.