For most of the past decade, "Southern rock" has remained the forgotten child of rock music. Critics hated it, "modern" music fans laughed at it and radio programmers forgot about it.

But the fans who grew up in the 1970s with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and others like them never forgot the sizzling blend of country music, electric guitars, roadhouse blues and good ol' boy antics.Southern rock was rock at its most fun.

Somewhere along the way, Southern-fried bands either disappeared (the Allmans, Skynyrd) or became hybridized versions of mainstream rockers (ZZ Top, .38 Special).

All of which had critics climbing over each other to sing "Southern rock is dead."

But dead is a relative term these days, what with the Who, Little Feat, Asia and scores of others reuniting to make new music. And now two bands that helped define Southern rock are back in the saddle again.

The Allman Brothers Band has returned with "Seven Turns," arguably its best album in 17 years, and the Marshall Tucker Band returns with "Southern Spirit," a less-than-classic effort, but one packed with trademark Tucker sounds too long missing.THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND; "Seven Turns" (Epic Records).

It's been eight years since the last incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band. But in this case, the layoff did the band a world of good. "Seven Turns" is arguably their strongest album since "Brothers and Sisters," and features vocalist Greg Allman and guitarist Dickey Betts at their very best.

As Betts told one interviewer, "We went into the studio with the go-ahead to play Allman Brothers music. The record company didn't suggest songs, they didn't ask for changes. They left it to us."

And that resulted in a pure Allman Brothers sound. "Seven Turns" harkens back to the early days when blues, country and rock meshed together in a uniquely improvisational style that is as infectious today as it was 20 years ago.

While the album hasn't yielded any chart-topping singles, there isn't a bad cut on the album. And a warm reception by critics and album-oriented rock stations has pushed "Seven Turns" toward the top of the rock album charts.

The best news may be that the Allman Brothers are now on an extended concert tour - the band's traditional strong point with its fans. "We're not 20-year-old headbangers," Betts says. "We're a lot wiser, but we still like to raise hell and have fun. We just try to keep things in perspective."THE MARSHALL TUCKER BAND; "Southern Spirit" (Sisapa Record Co).

Less auspicious is the return of the Marshall Tucker Band. Several new members join with founding members Doug Gray and Jerry Eubanks to resurrect the Tucker sound that created country-rock classics like "Heard It in a Love Song" and "Fire on the Mountain."

Particularly refreshing are Gray's sensational baritone vocals and Eubank's saxophone and flute playing, which harken back to the days when Tucker was at its best. Cuts like "Stay in the Country" and "Closer Today" are as good as anything the band has ever done.

Unfortunately, several songs just don't hold up. And the "country" sound used so effectively in the past is largely missing on "Southern Spirit."

While the Allman Brothers have found a warm reception among rock radio programmers, any commercial comeback of the Marshall Tucker Band (they have existed in various formats off and on for years) will hinge on the band's reputation for tireless live performances, sometimes playing up to 300 venues a year.

That kind of take-it-to-the-people dedication once garnered the band a loyal grass-roots following. Fans will undoubtedly enjoy "Southern Spirit," but whether the album pushes the band back into commercial viability remains to be seen.