Home Read Classic Album Review: Drive-By Truckers | Southern Rock Opera

Classic Album Review: Drive-By Truckers | Southern Rock Opera

The Alabama rockers raise the bar with an epic concept piece on Southern duality.

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This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Everybody over 30 knows where they were when John Lennon got gunned down. But how about when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed?

Based on Southern Rock Opera, you might expect that Patterson Hood knows. And as a child of the ’70s whose bassist father David Hood co-founded Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals studio, where everyone from Aretha Franklin to, yes, Skynyrd tracked — you might expect Patterson knows a lot more about Ronnie Van Zant and co.

Now, as singer, songwriter and guitarist of Alabama’s Drive-By Truckers, he’s used that knowledge to make the most ambitious album of his career. The two-CD Southern Rock Opera (DBT’s fourth disc) is a sprawling ’70s rock epic that braids three tales — Skynyrd’s bio, Hood’s own youth, and the story of the fictional rock band — into a loose, 95-minute concept album about “the duality of the Southern thing, putting your life on the line for your dreams, three guitars and bad aviation.”

That sort of pithy line is Hood’s stock in trade, and he does a booming business on this 20-track offering, spinning Springsteen-like sagas in his sandy rasp — think Don Henley with a sore throat — about everyone from hard rock heroes to high school chums. Many are filtered through the prism of Skynyrd: Haunting opener Days of Graduation relates the car-crash death of a teen whose stereo is still blasting Free Bird when paramedics pull him from the wreck (“You know, it’s a very long song,” Hood intones drily). The anthemic Ronnie and Neil probes the supposed feud between Young and Van Zant, who wrote Sweet Home Alabama in response to Southern Man (“To my way of thinking, us Southern men need both of them around,” Patterson concludes). Let There Be Rock finds Hood sifting through his old concert ticket stubs, tallying up the fallen idols and confessing a surprising secret: “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he admits. “But I sure saw AC/DC / With Bon Scott singing Let There Be Rock.

Not all the songs are totally Skynyrd-centric. On the trilogy Southern Thing, The Three Great Alabama Icons and Wallace, Hood defends his roots (“Ain’t about no foolish pride, ain’t about no flag / Hate’s the only thing that my truck would want to drag”) and delivers a politically astute analysis of the segregationist governor — then wraps up with a ditty about the Devil welcoming him to hell (“Throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is coming to stay”).

Southern Rock Opera’s most serious, fully realized and inspired moments, however, come in the five-song finale, which chronicles the rise and literal fall of Skynyrd with a stunning combination of passion, reverence and sheer sonic wallop. Cassie’s Brother (a slow-rolling funk by guitarist Rob Malone) and Life in the Factory trace the group’s early days; Shut up and Get on the Plane (by second singer-guitarist Mike Cooley) is a clear-eyed, no-nonsense view of road life; the blistering Greenville to Baton Rouge and the mournful Angels and Fuselage recreate Skynyrd’s doomed flight in harrowing detail (“The engines have stopped now / We all know we are going down … And I’m scared s—tless of what’s coming next … Friends in the swamp / Friends on the ground, in the trees”). Taken together, it’s powerful, moving stuff.

Thankfully, the Truckers spend more time trying to put a smile on your face than a tear in your eye. Musically, Southern Rock Opera deftly toes the line between classic rock, ’90s post-grunge and contemporary roots-rock. Utilizing the classic southern-rock three-guitar lineup to recreate the slide-blues, boogie-rock and harmonized leads that the Truckers likely have encoded on their DNA, the band crafts a sound that is fiercely original, yet displays enough musical touchstones to satisfy Skynyrd fans of old.

Sure, there are problems — the narrative never quite gels into a coherent story, Hood never wraps up his whole Southern thesis convincingly, the home-studio production leaves a bit to be desired, and some songs by the other guys can’t measure up to Hood’s remarkable craftsmanship. Still, that’s OK. Most of these problems are the result of a band’s reach exceeding its grasp, not laziness. And when you consider these guys wrote, arranged, recorded and produced this whole damn thing independently, the quibbles seem petty in comparison to the impressive achievements of Southern Rock Opera.

And hey — if it’s raw, unfocused and inconsistent, well, so were Skynyrd.