Rock’s Complicated History with the Confederate Flag
As civil rights protests and the removal of controversial statues dominate headlines, the often-argued topic of the Confederate flag has once again reared its head. The divisive image - which many view as a symbol of racism due to its connections with slavery, while others argue is an emblem of Southern pride - has a long history with many rock artists.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is arguably the classic rock group most closely associated with the flag. The iconic Southern rock band incorporated its image into merchandise and marketing material for decades following their rise to fame in the early '70s, while also routinely using the Confederate flag as a backdrop during their live performances. The Stars and Bars was even prominently featured on the cover to their 1988 live album Southern by the Grace of God.
In 2012, the group decided it was time to retire the image, removing it from their live show and pulling all merchandise that bore its likeness from their store. The move was met with backlash from some fans who claimed the band was turning its back on its Southern roots. The response soon caused them to clarify that the flag would indeed fly at their shows "every night," although founding member Gary Rossington was quick to denounce its association with hate groups.
"Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers,” he explained during a 2012 CNN appearance. “We didn't want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things."
During their farewell tour, Lynyrd Skynyrd has chosen to perform in front of the American flag, also bringing out the Alabama state flag during their classic hit “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Tom Petty, who, like the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, was raised in Florida, briefly used the Confederate flag during his 1985 tour, a decision he later called “downright stupid.” “In 1985, I released an album called Southern Accents. It began as a concept record about the South, but the concept part slipped away probably 70 percent or so into the album,” Petty explained to Rolling Stone. “I just let it go, but the Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour. I wish I had given it more thought.”
Things came to head when Petty stopped mid-show after a fan threw a Confederate flag bandana on stage. “I stopped everything and gave a speech about it,” the singer recalled. “This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn’t who we are.”
In years past, right-wing rocker Ted Nugent was known for wearing apparel adorned with the flag. In a 2015 interview, the Motor City Madman explained that he wouldn’t don such attire these days. “Back when I would wear a Confederate flag on stage — along with an American flag and a POW flag and a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag — I would be on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and there wasn’t a racist thought to be found,” the rocker said. Still, shortly thereafter Nugent admitted in a separate interview that he continues to fly the Confederate flag at his home. “I believe that if you believe the Confederate flag is one of honor for the Southern tradition, I believe you should have every right in the world to display that flag and wave it proudly.”
Fellow Michigan-born musician Kid Rock has also gotten caught up in the flag debate. Around 2001, the singer started using the Stars and Bars at his live shows, calling it “a symbol of Southern rock and rebellion.” Several years later, the rocker changed course, though protestors continued to criticize his history with the flag. In a 2015 statement to Fox News, Rock said “Please tell the people protesting that they can kiss my ass.”
Several bands have used the flag in their merchandise, including heavy metal act Pantera whose guitarist Dimebag Darrell was also known to play a guitar with the Confederate flag painted on its body. Zakk Wylde and Bret Michaels are other musicians to have featured the image on their instruments.
For the most part, the artists mentioned have ceased their use the Confederate flag, but there remain some holdouts who refuse to cave to public pressure. Among them, Grammy nominated country-rockers Confederate Railroad, who continue to use the flag in their logo and on merchandise, despite losing gigs as a result.
“I love the part of the country I’m from, and I will never apologize for that,” explained their lead singer, Danny Shirley, his sentiment echoing what many other artists have stated in the past; namely, that they see the flag is separate from racism and instead a sign of Southern pride and rebellious attitude.
“You don’t need a symbol to be proud of who you are,” contends Warren Haynes, former guitarist for Allman Brothers Band. His late bandmate, Gregg Allman, had a similar opinion. “If people are gonna look at that flag and think of it as representing slavery, then I say burn every one of them,” the rocker declared in a 2015 interview with Radio.com.
Likewise, Drive-By Truckers have long integrated their lyrics with what they describe as “contradictions of Southern identity,” including views on the Confederate flag. The group’s 2001 song “The Southern Thing” featured the line “Ain’t about no foolish pride, ain’t about no flag” reflecting the band’s disdain for the image.
In a 2015 op-ed for the New York Times Magazine, Drive-By Truckers bassist Patterson Hood declared it was “high time that a symbol so divisive be removed.” “Why would a people steeped in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible want to rally around a flag that so many associate with hatred and violence? Why fly a flag that stands for the very things we as Southerners have worked so hard to move beyond?” A year later, the musician was more succinct in his opinion. “Get over the fucking flag,” he proclaimed to Rolling Stone. “Fuck that flag.”