Fresh Meet

Leon Hearted

Garage-rockin' good ol' boys KINGS OF LEON are bursting with the spirit of the South whether they know it or not.

Kings of Leon

With a renewed wave of patriotism sweeping the country and trendsetters Pharrell Williams and Ashton Kutcher sporting trucker hats, the time couldn't be better for a young, all-American rock band to emerge from the backwoods of Memphis as Southern-garage heroes. But despite their long, shaggy 'dos, scraggly beards, and Salvation Army attire, this band of brothers (and a cousin) would prefer if everyone dropped the ''Southern'' moniker and all its connotations. ''We're not taking our shirts off, barefoot, drinking moonshine, kicking our wives,'' insists Kings of Leon's charismatic frontman Caleb Followill in his syrupy drawl. ''We try to stay away from the Southern thing as much as possible.''

Like it or not, the quartet's Southern roots run deep. Caleb, 21; Nathan, 23; and Jared Followill, 16, were raised Pentecostal by their Bible Belt evangelist father who loved the Stones and Neil Young and a gospel-loving mother who thought rock & roll was the devil's music. Early exposure to the soul and passion of hymns, coupled with what they viewed as hypocrisy in the church, motivated Nathan (drums) and Caleb to start a band. By the spring of 2002, they had recruited guitarist and cousin Matthew Followill, 18, and little brother Jared snatched up a bass before his siblings had a chance to get famous without him. ''It would have pissed me off,'' he admits.

With Caleb's gruff vocals -- a demonic cross between Gavin Friday and Townes Van Zandt -- driving their Southern-tinged (shhh!) brand of bare-knuckles rockabilly, the Kings were quickly discovered by Steve Ralbovsky (who also signed the Strokes). They set up shop with RCA and released the acclaimed ''Holy Roller Novocaine'' EP in February 2003. Their full-length debut, ''Youth & Young Manhood,'' dropped this summer, and suddenly critics everywhere had their very own Stillwater.

Although the boys respect their Dixie brethren and are learning to get used to the Southern-garage tag, they just don't see how some of the comparisons are warranted. In fact, they can't fathom cribbing from sources they don't even recognize: ''I swear to God, people tell me that I've definitely heard [Lynyrd Skynyrd] songs on the radio, but I just don't know what they are,'' Jared protests. ''I've never even heard the Allman Brothers.'' He is, however, willing to concede: ''Garage is somewhat accurate. I mean, I definitely think that there is a garage in there just because that's where we started playing.''

Originally posted Sep 05, 2003 Published in issue #726 Sep 05, 2003 Order article reprints