Little Feat - 1973 - Dixie ChickenI’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis, and the Commodore Hotel

And underneath the street lamps, I met a Southern belle…

Like poles on opposite ends of some weird Midwestern planet, Southern California and the South exist in a state of magnetic attraction and repulsion. In some ways no two areas of the country could be less alike, and yet within each you will find, often quite unexpectedly, aspects of the other.

Bakersfield and Galveston are 1,700 miles apart, but psychologically they’re just down the road from each other. Great swaths of Gwinnett County are like Orange County with pine trees. Drift in to an electronics store in Huntsville, Ala., and you might think you were at the Frye’s out near LAX. Drop by Mr. Pockets’ on Sepulveda on any given Saturday in the fall and you’ll find yourself in a crowd of Alabama fans, though the leaves in their new home never turn crimson. Once a year, they even fly in barbecue from Dreamland.

And what is Florida, really, but a kind of Yankee-Cuban Baja, an illicit appendage mirroring the peninsula on the other side of the continent? With a few twists of history, these two states might easily have wound up in opposite countries, with the University of Baja California as a power in the PAC 11, and zebra-painted donkeys on the streets of Panama City.

Musically, a certain magnetism operates between the two regions as well. There’s no telling how many songs have been written about girls from Oklahoma and boys from Georgia, gone west to strike it big and longing for home. Many of those songs are true.

The gravitational pull moves in the other direction, also. In 1969, the band Little Feat was formed around the nucleus of Lowell George, a guitar player from Hollywood whose father was a furrier for movie stars, and Billy Payne, a keyboard player who’d found his way to California from Waco. Their sound owed its out-there lyrics and jazz tinge to the Mothers of Invention, in which George and the band’s original bassist, Roy Estrada, had played, and its groove and bluesie feel to the Southern boogie bands that proliferated around that time.

It took a few years and three albums for Little Feat to catch on and gain the cult following which has kept them afloat to this day, but well before then they had become a local favorite in Atlanta, gigging at a club, now long gone, called Richard’s. (It helped, perhaps, that they sang an anthemic tribute to our town’s women, “Oh, Atlanta.”)

“Dixie Chicken,” the title song of the album that made them, was often performed in a long jam with “Tripe Face Boogie” – the best version to listen to is on the live album, “Waiting for Columbus.”

“Dixie Chicken”  is ersatz Southern, but that’s the way it is with a lot of Southern songs. The Commodore Hotel is actually located halfway between Memphis and Nashville, but sing “I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis, and the Peabody Hotel,” and it will be obvious this was lyrically if not factually the right choice of words.

If you’ll be my Dixie chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb…

It’s that classic tale of a young man who takes up with a wayward woman who leaves him. I assume, though I’m not sure, that the Dixie Chicks took their name from it. The song works because of the witty last verse, in which the forelorn lover strays back to his old haunt:

But then one night in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel

I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well

And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song,

And all the boys there at the bar began to sing along…

After they struck it big, Little Feat played a few big dates at the Fox. I had a backstage pass at one of them, and I remember eavesdropping on a conversation George had with an old friend from his Atlanta clubbing days during one of several encores.

“They’re killing me,” the exhausted slide guitarist said before he bounded back on stage again.

And sure enough, they did. He died after a show in a hotel in Arlington, Va., in 1979. The death was attributed to a massive heart attack, but that was only the final symptom of Rock ‘n Roll Musician’s Disease: Too much adrenalin, too many drugs, too many cheering audiences demanding another encore, when not long before it had been a struggle just to stay on the road. He was 34.

Inara George, his daughter, now plays with Greg Kirsten in the indy-rock duo The Bird and the Bee. There’s a certain studied wackiness to their lyrics her father might have liked. Little Feat went dormant for several years after Lowell George died, but reformed in 1987. They’ve gone through several personnel changes, the most recent this year, when Gabe Ford stepped in for drummer Richie Hayward, who has liver cancer. There was a benefit concert for Hayward on Oct. 4 at a club in L.A. In one of those nasty little ironies, Hayward has been living in Canada when not on the road, but doesn’t have health insurance.

Little Feat: Dixie Chicken

The Bird and the Bee: Love Letter to Japan

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter is the South's leading political reporter. He is currently editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice-president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. For more than 40 years, he has worked for newspapers in Montgomery, Ala., Columbia, Md., Charleston, S.C. and Atlanta, Ga. At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was a reporter, editor of the Sunday Perspective section, national editor, and for 20 years, chief political correspondent.

  1. What fun. Great story. Got to do some thinkin’ on Bakersfield/Galveston, though, but whatever, point well made. Thank you!

  2. Jeff Cochran

    Tom Baxter is a wise man. For the last 20 years I have noticed the similarities between Orange County and Gwinnett County. They get more like each other each day, but still no ocean close by in Gwinnett.

  3. Great story on one of my all-time favorite bands. Great story.

  4. Keith Graham

    Tom is talking about contemporary culture, of course, but historically the relationship between the South and Southern California is not so far-fetched. The original charter from the Kingdom of Great Britain for the colony of Georgia specified that it stretched from sea to sea and a narrow strip of the colony extended all the way to what is now California.

  5. Mike Williams

    Too many great lyrics to recall: There’s a fat man in the bathtub with the blues; I’ve been from Tuscon to Tucumcari, Tohatchapee to Tonapah….

  6. Cliff Green

    Good stuff, Tom. I saw Little Feat open for somebody at Chastain Park years ago. To show you how much better they were than the headliner, I can’t remember who it was. (It may have been Jimmy Buffet.) Anyway, I was young then and did many strange things.

  7. Willin. The best traveling song ever especially if you did strange things or just like the road.

  8. Is Fred Tackett still with Little Feat. He’s the younger brother of an old friend and fellow Little Rock Central High Swing Band member. The last time I saw Richard, who now lives in Nashville, he said Fred said they would continue to play as long as someone would hire them.

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