Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera

[25 July 2002]

By Andrew Gilstrap

The Southern Thing

Ah, the South.

It’s a contradictory place to be sure. Our storytelling tradition has generated some of the nation’s best writers, but low SAT scores in reading sweep across the region. We’re roped in by the Bible Belt, but we have no shortage of Saturday night sinners. We’re known for Southern hospitality, but you should hear the how freely folks in my neck of the woods use the term “carpetbagging Yankee” when Northern retirees start buying up all the lake property. We’re simultaneously considered ground zero for both the civil rights movement and American racism. Most of all, we’re collectively weighed down by the whole experience of the Civil War, proud of ancestors who fought for what they believed in, but ashamed of most of those beliefs. As a region, we constantly struggle with these things; meanwhile, the rest of the world perceives us as a bunch of likkered-up Lil’ Abner characters who somewhere along the way got our hands on Camaros and Walmarts. The South is just now emerging from its adolescence, and there have been a lot of fits and starts along the way, to say the least.

That struggle of identity, the “duality of the Southern thing” as the Athens, GA-based Drive-By Truckers put it, permeates Southern Rock Opera. You’ll hear the album described as a concept album based on the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it’s far more than that. It’s about how natives and outsiders perceive the South. It’s also about growing up and trying to keep your head on straight amidst boredom and wildly conflicting messages.

That makes for a convoluted path, sometimes. If you’re expecting a concept album with the precision of a Roger Waters production, you’re going to be disappointed. At times, Southern Rock Opera meanders or relaxes a little too much. The mixture of themes hinders the narrative flow once or twice—it’s not until well into Disc 2 that Skynyrd even comes to the forefront. Overall, though, the album operates on a scope that’s wondrous to behold. You’re impressed by the lyrics, and taken aback by the ferocity of the attack; you’re pissed off that this band’s put out three previous albums that you knew nothing about (although Southern Rock Opera is by far the best of the group’s four discs).

The 2-disc set is divided into two acts. The first concerns the life and burgeoning attitudes of a teenager growing up in Northern Alabama. It’s here that lead Trucker Patterson Hood explores the tightly wound facts and myths of his upbringing. Urban legends where “Freebird” plays on the stereos of crashed cars interplay with the more concrete realities of Birmingham and George Wallace. The ominous chiming of “Days of Graduation” eases into the ferocious “Ronnie and Neil”, which explores the “Southern Man”/“Sweet Home Alabama” dichotomy that Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant created. “72 (this highway’s mean)” and “Zip City” explore restless teenage minds, where the open road is both a prison (when you’re in the rut of driving it every day) and a release (when you finally realize that it can take you past the familiar). “The Southern Thing” bristles with anger as Hood catalogs the truths and fallacies of the Southern identity. “Hate’s the only thing my truck would want to drag”, he offers, before adding “Four generations a lot has changed / Robert E. Lee / Martin Luther King / We’ve come a long way rising from the flame”.

The first act’s centerpiece, though is “The Three Great Alabama Icons”: Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and George Wallace. Hood covers the first two pretty quickly, saving plenty of condemnation for Wallace. It’s a fairly accurate summary of the Alabama governor’s life, in which Wallace went from a progressive judge to a man who peddled hate and racism for votes and back to an old man who tried to explain it all away. The song is fair but unflinching, finally concluding, “George Wallace died back in ‘98 / And he’s in Hell now.” From there, it’s on to “Wallace”, sung from the Devil’s point of view. Genteel to the point of fixing some sweet tea for his new guest, the Devil (who’s a Southerner, you know) observes of Wallace, “Hell’s just a little bit hotter, cuz he / Played his hand so well . . . Now the Devil’s got a Wallace sticker on the back of his Cadillac.” The song ends, perversely, with a heavenly chorus of female voices singing “Oh, Alabama.”

From there, the band moves toward Act II, easing out of Act I with “Zip City” (which captures the thoughts of a frustrated seventeen-year old male with startling precision), and “Moved”, which finds the story’s hero addicted, blacklisted, and dying. His buddy’s death in the opening “Days of Graduation” ended his band before it could even get started, and his life on Disc 1 has been one of compromise, disappointment, and futile attempts at escape.

Disc 2 exists in an alternate universe where the hero’s band, Betamax Guillotine (a macabre reference to the legend that Ronnie Van Zant died when the crashing plane’s onboard VCR hit him in the head) comes to fruition. For all the band’s success, the narrator’s life is still plagued by darkness. “Let There Be Rock” exalts in the glory of catching a live rock show, while “Road Cases” equates protective instrument cases with success. Hot on its heels, though, is “Women Without Whiskey” (written by bandmember Mike Cooley, who has some of the record’s finest moments). Accepting that alcohol “doesn’t make you do a thing, it just lets you”, the narrator’s mixes flight (“when I’m six feet underground, I’ll need a drink or two”) with a need for connection (“could you read my lips if I pulled you close enough?”).

Act II feels slightly weaker than Act I, if only because the Truckers drop their dissection of their Southern heritage in favor of exploring the life of a touring band. The story becomes a hybrid of the Truckers’ own experiences and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s career. The highlights, though, are almost transcendent in their Southern rock beauty. “Women Without Whiskey” has a real sense of brooding menace. “Shut Up and Get on the Plane”—possibly the defining song of the whole set—is a full-tilt rocker that initially seems insensitive until you realize that Ronnie Van Zant wrote some pretty unflinching lyrics himself. With the Truckers’ three-guitar assault pounding away, Cooley observes, “the price of being sober’s being scared out of your mind” and “Dead is dead and it ain’t no different than / Walking around if you ain’t living / Living in fear’s just another way to die / Before your time”. After the breakneck pace of “Greenville to Baton Rouge”, the Truckers settle into the eerie “Angels and Fuselage”. Set in the last moments of the plane crash that kills him, the hero is “adding up the cost of these dreams” and observes simply, “I’m scared shitless of what’s / Coming next / Scared shitless, these angels I see / In the trees are waiting for me”.

Southern Rock Opera isn’t perfect, but its faults are easily forgivable in light of its ambition and successes. Six years in the making, and with the band perfecting a three-guitar approach to better mirror Skynyrd’s full, tasty sound, the album rumbles with anger, regret, escapism, brutal reality, and a heaping helping of frustration. Southern Rock Opera is 100% punk-fueled Southern rock, but don’t let the twang and drawl stop you from giving it a shot. It’s a literate album, full of heart, and it lives up to every bit of the hype that’s been piled on top of it. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it’s just as much about the Truckers as it is about Skynyrd, casting a keen eye on the experience of being Southern. If you grew up surrounded by humidity, grandfathers who never quite got the hang of racial equality, and if at least one non-Southerner lumped you in with Goober from The Andy Griffith Show, you’re going to identify with much of Southern Rock Opera. One album can’t be expected to fully unravel the “Southern thing”, but Hood and Cooley write songs that at least make sense of their little corners of the South.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/drivebytruckers-southern2/