By T. Michael Stone
A few days before Alan Walden was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame along with Kenny Rogers and the Indigo Girls back in 2003, I interviewed him for a story that would appear in the Monroe County Reporter.
Alan told me then that he was working on a book about his experiences in the music business, and after our lengthy conversation, I was excited to one day read it.
The finished product took a while. But he never gave up on it.
“You get a Southerner who is determined, and he’s probably going to get where he’s going,” Alan said. “He might take a little longer, but he’ll get there.”
Alan finished that book last year after two years of working with writing partner S.E. Feinberg. His memoir is called Southern Man: Music and Mayhem in the American South.
The title is certainly appropriate because Alan Walden has seen plenty of both during his career.
Alan had continued to work on his narrative, but it was British singer-songwriter Rumer who hooked Alan up with Feinberg and inspired the book’s completion.
I was finally able to arrange an interview with Alan a few weeks ago, and I was excited to be seeing him again after the passing of almost 19 years. As I made my way down U.S. Highway 41, I thought about the road I was on, how it winds through the history of Alan Walden and the music he has been instrumental in bringing to the world.
Had I continued south on U.S. 41, I would have passed The Big House, Allman Brothers Museum in downtown Macon. The Allman Brothers are more associated with Alan’s brother, Phil, who founded Capricorn Records, which is often credited with creating the Southern Rock genre.
Had I just kept going down U.S. 41, I would have eventually arrived in Tampa where the Outlaws band, which Alan discovered and promoted for several years, hail from.
U.S. 41 ends at its intersection with U.S. 1 which will take you north along the coast of Florida to Jacksonville where the founding members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band, another Alan Walden discovery, are from.
But the story of Alan Walden begins in Macon. When I arrived at his home, I was greeted warmly by Alan and his wife, Tosha, who Alan says got him sober and turned his life around.
Alan seemed to have changed very little. He still smiles often and breaks into a story at the slightest prodding.
At 79, he regards every day as a miracle to be cherished, but he’s still nearly as spry as he was when we met all those years ago.
He still loves Otis Redding, and much of his book chronicles his days working with the man known as the King of Soul.
“Otis was my best friend in life,” Alan said. “Otis was the kind of guy who could walk into a room and charm the redneck over there and the liberal over here.”
He also wants to see a quality movie made about the life of Otis Redding, which may partially explain why Alan’s book is composed of two acts: Soul of the South (with 36 sections called “scenes”) and A Most Splendid Renaissance (with 26 scenes).
Alan joined Otis on tour in 1963 as the American South was emerging from its petulant adolescence while the Civil Rights Movement began to make progress. Alan recounts with unflinching frankness the challenge facing Black artists in those years.
“Black artists were getting ripped off all over the place, but not at our shop,” Walden remembers in his book. “We felt if we prospered our Black entertainers, the world would become a better place.”
Alan relates the tale of how his father sent him to the Macon courthouse to pay a fine for Otis Redding, who had been jailed for selling a car he hadn’t paid for yet.
“Otis was tall and lanky with the biggest smile and a great personality,” Alan remembers. “When he came out of that jail, he just stood there and took these big whiffs of the Macon afternoon.”
When Alan asked Otis what he was doing, Otis said, “Man, smell that fresh air. Look at the trees. Look at the sky. I hear birds singing. Do you hear the Mockingbirds singing?” It was the most beautiful description of downtown Macon Alan had ever heard. “Otis appreciated life,” Alan remembers. “He was thankful for life.”
But Otis Redding’s life was cut short in a plane crash on Dec. 10, 1967, when Otis was just 26 years old, his popularity skyrocketing. “It was the worst day of my life,” Alan said.
It wouldn’t be the last time, an airplane crash brought tragedy into Alan Walden’s life.
After Otis was killed, Alan soldiered on and eventually found Ronnie Van Zant and Lynyrd Skynyrd as the genre of Southern Rock became a major force in the music industry.
Alan recounts how he first heard the song “Sweet Home Alabama” while sitting in a boat floating down a river out in the country.
Ronnie Van Zant had asked him to paddle out a few hundred yards, so he could hear the tune from a distance in the woods. “There was real beauty to hearing music like that – the sound moving up the river like a warm mist,” Alan remembers.
Alan had a falling out with Ronnie Van Zant, and the band hired a new manager before the band’s plane went down in a swamp five miles northeast of Gillsburg, Mississippi. Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and both pilots were killed. Several band members suffered severe injuries.
But before his death, Ronnie Van Zant had told Alan about another Florida band who had a “bird song.” “They got themselves a Freebird,” Ronnie told Alan.
Not long after that, Alan signed the Outlaws and the bird song turned out to be “Green Grass and High Tides,” which featured a rousing three-guitar solo section in the tradition of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Our interview concluded and with my copy of Southern Man tucked underneath my arm, I headed north up U.S. 41.
If I had continued north past Atlanta, I would have passed through Nashville (Music City) before rolling across Kentucky; and then along the shores of the Wabash River alongside the Cannonball Roy Acuff once sang about; and on to Chicago, the Windy City, where many of the progenitors of Southern rock earned a living playing beat up Telecasters in smoke-filled honky-tonks; then riding through some of the many towns Alan Walden has visited with the artists he represented, until I finally reached Highway 41’s terminus on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Part of me wanted to miss that turn toward Monticello and keep riding with Otis Redding on the radio and soothing me with “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay.” And I realized that I owe a good portion of the soundtrack of my life to Alan Walden and some of the decisions he was wise enough to make.
Rock On, Mr. Walden!
For more information on the book or where to buy it, go to http://jawbonepress.com/southern-man/
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Story by T. Michael Stone, photos contributed by the Waldens. Published in the July-August 2022 edition of Lakelife magazine.