The Gospel Truth

Kings of Leon grew up in the South, but not on Southern rock

So I'm slumming around the downtown Manhattan branch of Tower Records the other day, and I overhear this heated conversation happening the next aisle over. The super-hipster record-store clerk is shaking his head in disbelief as a schlumpy guy in his early 30s demands--demands--to know why he can't find any Stillwater records.

Remember Stillwater? The band in Almost Famous? Sure you do. So this guy just can't believe what the clerk is telling him: that Stillwater was never a real band; that Cameron Crowe made them up for the movie, sort of as a composite sketch of several bands he had interviewed in his youth; that the music in the film was all brand-new, written by Crowe's wife and former Heart mainlady, Nancy Wilson; and, finally, that if that's the kind of stuff he likes, maybe he should consider purchasing an Allman Brothers record or two.

This actually happened, by the way, and was not concocted simply for the purpose of making a point about Nashville's Kings of Leon, the latest band Britain's NME has tipped to save rock, again, and the one that just might do it, again. No. And all comic value aside, it was hard not to sympathize with that poor, misguided Stillwater fan: After all, Stillwater seemed like a group that should have existed, even if it never did. Kings of Leon are here to fill that void. If they weren't for real--which they are--someone would have had to invent them.

Nathan Followill is on the phone. At 23, he is the eldest member of Kings of Leon, and he is very, very polite. He's all "ma'am" and "pardon me" and honeyed Southern syllables, which doesn't quite jibe with their media image of rabble-rousing, up-all-nighters prowling London for a good time and waking up on rooftops and under tables.

"Well, I hope you'll pardon me..." Nathan coughs a little, as though to underscore the point that he feels bad about what he's about to say. "But I guess we're all getting a little, um, I guess we've talked a lot about how we grew up already. So, um, if you want me to go over it again, I guess I can, but..."

Sorry, Nathan. The story's too good not to repeat. In a nutshell, the Kings of Leon mythos goes something like this: Raised by a traveling Pentecostal preacher, Nathan and his bandmate brother Caleb got their musical start early, playing the gospel at tent revivals all over the South. When their dad was between gigs, he had them listening to the Stones and Neil Young; eventually, natch, Papa got defrocked, and his two eldest boys started rocking. Bible college was not in the cards, after all.

But the Lord did not stop loving the Followill brothers, no he did not. Quicker than you can say "Nebuchadnezzar," the group founded and headed by Caleb and Nathan had a publishing deal and a record-label bidding war on their hands. By then, youngest brother Jared and "guitar genius" cousin Matthew had joined the fold. The four of them bought a house outside Nashville together. And Bible college was out for good.

"We were just kind of writing songs, you know, to see if we were any good at it," Nathan recalls of his and Caleb's early musical endeavors. "And then a couple people got to hear some songs, and, you know, the wheels started rolling. From our perspective, it all felt pretty gradual. I mean, we were working hard, writing, playing. But at the same time," he adds, "I guess when you look back on it, it was kind of like we snapped our fingers and, you know, here we are."

Where the Kings of Leon are right now is at the head of a Southern-rock renaissance. Their debut LP, Youth & Young Manhood, is filled with catchy tunes that remind you of what was good about, say, the Steve Miller Band, without lapsing into any of the genre's indulgences. No spiraling guitar solos for the Kings of Leon: Youth's songs of sin and squalor run on pure momentum, their pithiness and spunky, spiky energy the only clues to the fact that the record was released in 2003 and not 30 years earlier.

Endearingly, Nathan claims that he and Caleb were not at all influenced by Southern rock--he says they never listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers, for example--but their itinerant childhood, riding through the backwoods and byways of Southern America during the sound's heyday, has clearly insinuated itself. Or maybe it's just that the same influences that fed the work of their Southern-rock forebears came to Kings of Leon directly: the Stones, the gospel, the open highway.

"I don't think we realized what an impact our upbringing had had on us musically until we really started pursuing this," Nathan asserts. "Some of it's just the fact we grew up with music being this sort of, I don't know, simple thing. If you played the guitar, then you'd get up and play it that night, no special effects or pedals or anything. And so, I mean, when Caleb and I started writing songs, and we all started playing together, none of us had any sense that there was, I don't know, a right way or a wrong way to do things. So we just did what came naturally.

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