The Drive-by Truckers: Southern Rock Opera

Drive-By Truckers
Southern Rock Opera
Soul Dump

Back in 1985, Patterson Hood met Mike Cooley at the University of North Alabama and the two formed Adam’s Housecat, a rootsy punk band that won Musician‘s “Best Unsigned Band” award in 1988 and recorded an album that was never released. AHC lasted until 1991-and didn’t play any Lynyrd Skynyrd either, a band these two Alabamans heard enough of growing up.

Time, however, has a way of recasting the past, and one day, an older, wiser Patterson Hood found some Skynyrd records in a sale bin. After re-hearing his musical past, he understood its greatness.

Hood, son of David Hood, a key session player in the original Muscle Shoals scene, got the idea for the Drive-by Truckers in 1996. After some personnel changes, the band evolved into Hood (vocals, guitar), Cooley (vocals, guitar), Rob Malone (vocals, guitar), Earl Hicks (bass), and Brad Morgan (drums). The Truckers’ music is rowdy and loud while their vision is redneck through and through, but never losing sight of social and political realities.

Hood does most of the writing and singing, his gravelly voice an isolated, worn dirt road that’s not easily traveled: a tire doesn’t stand a chance against some of those rocks — and you’ve got plenty of time to think about it while putting on the spare. But you also know that you wouldn’t be anywhere else if you could because the road less-traveled always leads to the best destinations. Cooley’s sound is more conventionally punk, albeit with a southern twist. The two play off each other well.

The Drive-by Truckers are part of the Atlanta/Athens “Redneck Underground”, a musical subculture that emerged in the 1980s with the music of founders Greg Dean Smalley, Deacon Lunchbox, and Slim Chance and the Convicts. At a time when the mainstream was exploiting the tasteless humor of Jeff Foxworthy and the “redneck chic” of Alan Jackson to recuperate the notion of “redneck”, the Redneck Underground focused on the point being obscured: class discrimination.

Like the Redneck Underground, the Drive-by Truckers are defiant — like setting a trailer house in the rich part of town.

They’ve released three albums, Gangstabilly (1998), Pizza Deliverance (1999), and a live recording, Alabama Ass Whuppin’, and are known for tunes like “The Living Bubba”, “18 Wheels of Love”, “Panties in Your Purse”, “Bulldozers & Dirt”, “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)”, and “Steve McQueen”.

But even before these albums were released, the Truckers had begun writing and re-writing a project that would overshadow the others, Southern Rock Opera.

Creating a Rock Opera

In a nutshell, the album is a two-CD fictionalization of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story. A young man grows up in Alabama during the 1970s and struggles with its social and political realities. Eventually, he leaves home and becomes a rock star in Betamax Guillotine, though at the height of their glory, the singer and some of the band are killed in a plane crash. But Southern Rock Opera is more than this; it confronts essential questions of what it means to be from the South. (It’s worth noting, too, that the band funded the project by soliciting investors to pay about $15,000.00 to cover manufacturing, distribution, and a new used van.)

Patterson Hood explained in a recent interview that the rock opera began during a road trip as a long, rambling discussion with Earl Hicks. According to Hood, “We got into this conversation about the misunderstood South and people’s misconceptions….And in the course of the conversation, we started talking about Lynyrd Skynyrd and what an incredible story that is, even from a kind of literary point of view and from a cinematic point of view how it would make a great film”.

Neither Hood, a self-described “movie fanatic”, nor Hicks had much faith in Hollywood, though, and at that point, they began discussing writing a screenplay: “And then we sobered up”, Hood laughs. The idea, however, remained.

“Around that time, I started putting together what would become the Drive-by Truckers”, Hood says, “and, I don’t know, that story just kind of morphed into the idea of doing a rock opera”.

So why Lynyrd Skynyrd, and why a rock opera?

“The Lynyrd Skynyrd story, that’s tragic”, Hood explains. “It’s the ultimate underdogs-come-from-nothing-and-become-this-huge-great-thing. And then the tragic ending and even the coincidences of the story. If you made that shit up, no one would believe it. The fact that they rehearsed for years in a swamp, and then their plane crashed into a swamp. Plus, the story was so full of contradictions, as was the South. It became such a perfect metaphor for exploring the South and its contradictions”.

Giving Southern Rock Opera much of its thematic and musical skeleton were three songs Hood wrote in one evening after the project had been underway for about a year and a half. In fact, Hood says, “It was, like, the day after [George] Wallace died”. He first wrote “Let There Be Rock”, an autobiographical piece about a teenager who was saved by arena rock acts like Molly Hatchet, Ozzy Osbourne, and AC/DC.

From there, things moved quickly. Hood remembers, “It was almost like as soon as I finished writing it, the idea for writing the ‘Wallace’ song popped into my head. I don’t know if it was the AC/DC Highway to Hell reference or what. But it was like immediately, I thought, This ‘Wallace’ song should be written from the devil’s point of view as he welcomes [Wallace] into hell. And then it just kind of seemed natural that the devil be a Southerner”.

But the muse hadn’t finished with Patterson Hood. “And right after writing that”, Hood recalls, “I dunno, I think I fixed another drink, and my brain was already drifting in that direction, so I just kind of ran with the wave I was on. ‘Angels and Fuselage’ pretty much wrote itself”. (The song remains virtually unchanged from its first draft.)

“So then”, Hood says, “I knew that I had three ingredients for the foundation of this record, for the structure of the record, so after that, it became more of a matter of filling in blanks”.

The influences for Southern Rock Opera were many, most obviously the music and story of Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as a variety of arena rock bands and the Truckers’ own experiences. However, they also spent a lot of time listening not to Tommy or Quadrophenia but instead to Randy Newman’s 1971 Good Ol’ Boys, a disc on which, Hood says, Newman “got it right”. He adds, “It was kind of like a lesson from the master”.

The Truckers fixed on a “rock opera” largely because it was consistent with ’70s arena rock and became one of the clichés of the era, so the tone is a bit tongue-in-cheek. According to Hood, “The whole notion of that kind of thing [a rock opera] always struck me as a little pretentious. That became part of the story we were telling”. Hood says, “I think that the character in the record in the story, at that time, the fictitious rock star, would have grown up and done a rock opera”. The form was also in keeping with the project’s cinematic roots: “I think that stayed part of it all the way through”, Hood says. “The record is structured like a weirdly structured film”.

But if you’re doing a rock opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd, you’ve got to have that three-guitar sound down, something the Truckers worked on. Hood says of the experience, “It was really hard, but it was really fun. The challenging part is not to have it be cluttered. And really for that, we looked to the master. We went back to Skynyrd. We don’t sound anything like Skynyrd — none of our players play anything like any of their players — but there were some fundamental things that they did that you can follow…for each guitar player to have their own space to work within”. Hood likens the sound to “walking into a fight really, really well armed” and adds that it “definitely captures your attention”.

Singer Kelly Hogan’s involvement was also part of the project since its early stages. For some time, Hood has known Hogan, a self-confessed Skynyrd enthusiast, who told him, “If y’all ever do that rock opera and need Cassie Gaines, I’m your girl”, an idea met with enthusiasm. As Hood puts it, “What a joy to have her come in and sing”. Her performances on “Cassie’s Brother” and “Angels and Fuselage”, he says, “blew away anything any of us had heard in our heads prior to her walking to the room”.

Also planned from the beginning was the album’s artwork, provided primarily by longtime friend and Richmond artist Wed Freed, who was one of the first to hear the music — his wife, Jyl, is a back-up singer. Hood says that they wanted to distinguish the rock opera visually from their other records; the artwork and linernotes are more elaborate. “[Freed’s] artwork tends to tell stories anyway”, Hood says, so the art “illustrates [the album] like it was a book or storyboards for a film”. Southern Rock Opera‘s cover sets a dark, gothic mood; a red-eyed owl flying above Highway 72 serves as the visual focus with an eerie, almost apocalyptic, blend of light and dark colors surrounding it.

Southern Rock Opera

To return to an earlier metaphor, the Drive-by Truckers are like setting a trailer in the rich part of town, a point that’s never been clearer than on Southern Rock Opera.

The rock opera is an appropriation of formal opera, a musical form rooted in classic Greek theater that tells the ultimate stories of a culture, its gods and goddesses, through extravagant music, drama, and costuming — it’s also reserved for the cultural elite. Rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia question who is a “hero”, what constitutes “tragedy”, and what is “great music” — indeed, who should control an art form.

Southern Rock Opera works in that tradition, but this time, the god is a blue-collar Southerner, a Ronnie Van Zant figure. In “The Southern Thing”, Hood sings, “To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same”. The Drive-by Truckers force the rich man to see poor, white guitar players as heroes. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music has long been placed in a second-class category; now, the Truckers are reclaiming its status as art while exploring “the duality of the South”.

Their parody also appropriates elements of classic opera: it opens with “Days of Graduation”, an overture to set the mood and foreshadow the narrative; “The Three Great Alabama Icons” is a recitative, talking over music that furthers the narrative; there’s an evil villain, “Wallace”; and the story ends with the hero’s tragic death in “Angels and Fuselage”. There’s even a leitmotiv, a signature melody given to a character or place; in this case, throughout the album, the guitar chord progressions evoke a variation of the “Sweet Home Alabama” opening chord riff.

Southern Rock Opera is a complex work, a cohesive text that functions as a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story; as an exploration of cultural issues that have defined the South; as an autobiography of the Drive-by Truckers; and as a reclaiming of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legend and music. In effect, it’s a potent homebrew made from a recipe that’s been in the family for generations.

“The central theme of this record is not living in fear”, Hood says. “It’s about not letting your fears stop you from doing whatever it is you feel like you’re put here to do”. But the Truckers repeatedly illustrate the dangers that accompany living, whether you’re a kid trying to survive growing up, or a rock band pursuing a dream. The record begins with a fatal car accident in “Days of Graduation”; “Plastic Flowers on the Highway” describes another wreck; and it ends, of course, with the tragic Skynyrd plane crash.

Southern Rock Opera‘s two discs are labeled “Act I” and “Act II”: the first is an exploration of a young man’s growing up in the South while the second recasts the Skynyrd story with him as the lead singer. In the album’s second song, “Ronnie and Neil”, Hood juxtaposes the music and lives of Van Zant and Young, commenting on their supposed rivalry and using them as vehicles for raising central social issues: “‘Southern Man’ and “Alabama’ certainly told some truth / But there’s a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young wasn’t around”. There are references, too, to the great soul music coming out of Muscle Shoals. Also clear from the opening riff is that the Truckers have Skynyrd’s three-guitar sound down cold.

From there, the album explores the protagonist’s cultural environment. With “72 (This Highway’s Mean)”, Cooley articulates how hard it is to leave: there’s only one road out of town, and it’s dangerous. In Hood’s “Dead, Drunk, and Naked” and Cooley’s “Guitar Man Upstairs”, the Truckers make clear what will happen if the protagonist doesn’t leave: both are songs of alienation, the former a portrait of someone trapped by substance abuse; the latter, a first-person account of a bitter man enraged by the rock band practicing downstairs.

Then the perspective changes as the protagonist, presumably having left the South, re-examines his home and comes to terms with its history. “Birmingham” is an examination of the center of racial tension (and it’s fitting that the record was recorded there). As Hood explains, “To some extent, racial prejudice was a cop out from actually accepting the fact that there were actually other factors holding people down — it became easier to blame it on racism than to actually address the problem of poor people in the South”. “The Southern Thing” wears its Southern roots proudly — “Proud of the glory, stare down the shame / Duality of the Southern Thing” — as the protagonist defiantly comes to terms with himself and his home.

Hood’s recitative, “The Three Great Alabama Icons”, describes his own adolescence and understanding of Bear Bryant, Ronnie Van Zant, and George Wallace, three figures the protagonist must reconcile as well. (This track also ties “Wallace” into the rest of the album and clarifies that song’s persona.)

“Wallace” is wickedly ironic as the Devil “throws a log on the fire” for the new arrival, but only tragedy waits in the visions of hell that close “Act I”: “Zip City” and “Moved”.

With “Act II”, the tone of Southern Rock Opera changes. The disc opens with “Let There Be Rock” before moving to “Road Cases”, an album highlight. Here, road cases — those costly, indestructible boxes with a band’s name stenciled on them — serve as a metaphor for commercial success. The rock sound is as big as the star’s confidence, and when Hood sings, “Got them pretty road cases, throw them out of an airplane, and they’ll just bounce”, he foreshadows the coming plane crash as well as the singer’s naïveté. “Women Without Whiskey” and “Plastic Flowers on the Highway” examine the kinds of problems most often associated with rock stars, addiction and accidents — damage a road case can’t prevent.

From there, the Lynyrd Skynyrd story dominates. “Cassie’s Brother” features a smokin’ Kelly Hogan duet with Rob Malone as she asks the band to listen to her brother’s guitar playing, and the skeptical musicians are stunned by his talent. Similarly, “Life in the Factory”, fast and loud like Skynyrd’s career, tells the story of their rise to stardom.

The next two songs are frenzied as the now-successful band finds itself caught in an intoxicating chaos of fame and touring. There’s simply no time to stop. Cooley’s “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” makes reference to the legend of Cassie Gaines’ fear of the 1947 Convair Turbo Prop. Here, Cooley articulates the album’s central theme: “Living in fear’s just another way of dying before your time”. The frenzy continues in “Greenville to Baton Rouge” as Hood describes the final flight while the song’s hectic pace enhances the unreality of the situation as the band members watch the airplane disintegrate around them. After all, these guys are Guitar Gods: this can’t happen to them.

That it has happened becomes clear in the album’s final track, “Angels and Fuselage”, a moment of contemplation as the singer, resigned, watches his life flash before his eyes. This happens as he is “[a]dding up the cost of these dreams”, acknowledging, even though he never says it, that all the road cases in the world can’t save him. There’s no guitar swagger — only a very human vulnerability in the song’s slow, stark arrangement and Hood’s barren voice. As the plane crashes in a swamp, heard in Kelly Hogan’s backing vocal is Cassie Gaines’ transformation into an angel, emerging from a strangely ethereal guitar solo, separating the living from the dead.

Southern Rock Opera ends with the guitars having faded while a piano makes out the final chords; then, silence overwhelms all that has gone before it. The legend has both ended and begun.