The Drive-by Truckers and the Southern Rock Opera


Part of TGRI Goes Country Week at TGRIOnline.com.

I’ll admit it. The idea of a country music week on TGRIOnline took the form that many ideas on this site do: entirely out of left field, counter-zeitgeist, yet totally necessary. We’re all music snobs to some degree, and if you answer “what type of music do you listen to?” with “everything… but classical/rap/country,” that’s a deal-breaker. So, with my musical depth of country music knowledge in the shallow end of the pool, I decided to let a band that understands country music to do the heavy lifting.

The Drive-By Truckers released The Southern Rock Opera on September 12, 2001, when Ground Zero was still an open-wound on the American psyche. Ironically, the album’s dramatic arc focuses on a plane crash that happened nearly 25 years earlier: the October 20, 1977 crash of Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s charter in Gillsburg , Mississippi. The album is a meditation on Southern history, culture, mythology and music: a meta concept album very much of the 2000s but heavily rooted in the generations preceding it.

The Truckers are based in Athens, Georgia, but most of its members hail from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a place where some truly classic soul, R&B, and country rock music was made. The Shoals even show up in “Sweet Home Alabama:” “Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers, and they’ve been known to pick a song or two.” And since band leader Patterson Hood is the son of Swamper bassist David Hood, the Alabama-Skynyrd -Truckers connection is deeper than any concept record gimmick. Call them alt-country, call them southern-rock, but the Drive-by Truckers haven’t just lived the Southern, country music experience – they’re a part of it.

Like many great concept albums, The Southern Rock Opera tells a familiar story: the rise-and-fall of a band called Betamax Guillotine (a stand-in for Skynyrd), formed through Hood’s life experiences. Act I is about a Southern kid growing up in Alabama, trying to reconcile his love of the South and Southern rock with the ghosts of the South. In Act II, the kid grows up and gets to be like the rock stars he idolized, with the same bad decisions and tragic consequences.

The music is a modern take on the Skynyrd tradition: a three-guitar attack that lays down crunchy riffs and soaring solos. Hood’s vocals have the gravelly, whiskey-washed tone of classic country, not the pop-twang of anything on CMT . And when he’s not singing, Hood’s spoken words literally narrate the story. The lyrics hit the traditional cultural touchstones: hard living and hard drinking, joy riding with loose women. But the greater story is an honest look at class and poverty that informs the Southern experience, laid out as the “duality of the Southern Thing:” the pride and shame of a region (and country) still feeling the repercussions of centuries of racism. “The Southern Thing” is Southern Rock Opera’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” paying tribute to rock operas past, and can be summed up in one lyric: “To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same.”

If Lynyrd Skynyrd / Betamax Guillotine are the heroes of the opera, the villain is George Wallace, Alabama’s governor for life who will forever be known for his work for the segregationist cause. Wallace’s eponymous song is a bluesy number, narrated by the Devil (a fellow Southerner, according to Hood), who welcomes him to Hell, not for his political record, but for his blind ambition and for being a pawn for most of his life. Hood knows that racism will forever be associated with the South because of men like Wallace; for this, he cannot be forgiven.

The album is filled with musical and lyrical references to the greats of the arena rock era, before it got silly and bloated and turned into cock rock and hair metal. “Ronnie and Neil” explores the controversy between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young (another look into the duality of the South). And while the narrator never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd , he saw .38 Special, AC/DC, Molly Hatchet, Ozzie Osbourne (with Randi Rhodes), and dropped acid at a Blue Oyster Cult show. A life both saved and doomed by rock and roll.

The final three songs of Act II, “Shut Up and Get On the Plane,” “Greenville to Baton Rouge,” and “Angels and Fuselage” find Betamax Guillotine following the path of their idols to the logical conclusion. When life is “dirty needles and cheap cocaine / some gal’s old man with a gun,” death is a cold bitch right around the corner, and there’s no use fighting it. So as the engines start failing, our narrator can only think of “smoking by the gym door, practicing my rock-star attitude,” and how for a Southern man, your dreams can only take you so far.

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