Drive-By Truckers 'Southern Rock Opera' 20th Anniversary Review
The Anniversary

Southern Rock Opera Turns 20

Soul Dump
2001
Soul Dump
2001

On Jan. 14, 1963, newly elected Gov. George Wallace stepped to the podium in Montgomery, Alabama and gave an inaugural address that included a phrase — “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” — that stands as one of the most putrid rallying cries ever spoken by a public official against racial equality in America.

The same year, FAME Studios settled into its new digs just 200 miles northwest in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where months later the studio produced its first hit with a longing-filled take on “Steal Away” from soul man Jimmy Hughes. By the middle of the decade, the studio would become one of the hotbeds of America’s thriving soul music scene, attracting the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett and other prominent Black artists who sought to record with the musically malleable members of the studio’s all-white house band. One of those players, bassist David Hood, fathered a son, Patterson, who was born in Muscle Shoals on March 24, 1964.

Though located in the same state where Wallace delivered his caustic inaugural address, the racial equity on display within FAME made it seem as if the space existed on an entirely different planet — a gulf a grown-up Patterson Hood would attempt to reconcile on Southern Rock Opera, the breakout third album from his progressive Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers.

“It’s about growing up in the South and people’s misconceptions of that,” Hood told The Birmingham News in 2001. “You know, thinking everyone here is like George Wallace, and the TV footage of police dogs and the schoolhouse steps. But there was the whole Muscle Shoals music scene going on at the same time, with white musicians backing up people like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.”

Originally intended for self-release on Soul Dump Records on Sept. 11, 2001, the sprawling double album was delayed a day when the printer closed early following that day’s terrorist attacks. As a result, the band sold its first copies of Southern Rock Opera during a concert in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on Sept. 12. A year later, after the musicians had moved an initial 10,000 units on their own, the album was reissued by Lost Highway Records, the Nashville-based Universal subsidiary that was quickly becoming a standard-bearer in the so-called “alt-country” scene via releases from the likes of Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, and Robert Earl Keen.

In the most general terms, the wildly ambitious, consistently thought-provoking, occasionally overreaching album is structured as a two-part rock opera. Act I explories life in the South in the aftermath of the Civil Rights era, while Act II presents the coming-of-age story of a group of young musicians who grow up to become rock stars. The band, dubbed Betamax Guillotine, serves as a lightly fictionalized version of Hood and his Truckers mates, and the group’s rise and fall is welded to the tragic true tale of “Freebird” rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Within this loose framework the Truckers also manage to address, among other things, the brutal legacy of racism in the South, Gov. Wallace’s opportunistic politics, the inherent dangers of speeding, the going exchange rate for used road cases, things about the South that Neil Young got wrong, the generally shoddy disposition of US Route 72, and the myriad challenges inherent in attempting to come to terms with one’s roots. Structurally, the album, which clocks in at a tick over 94 minutes, calls to mind similarly ambitious releases such as Quadrophenia by the Who, though Patterson Hood has more often credited the influence of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, which he once termed the “original Southern rock opera.”

Although based in Athens, Georgia, Drive-By Truckers — which at that point consisted of Hood plus Mike Cooley, Earl Hicks, Rob Malone, and Brad Morgan — returned to Hood and Cooley’s native Alabama to record Southern Rock Opera in a warehouse in downtown Birmingham. The weight of the city’s past hangs heavy over the first half of the album, particularly on the song “Birmingham,” which opens with references to Public Safety Commissioner Bull Conor ordering the city’s fire hoses turned on Civil Rights protesters. The music matches the weight of the moment here, with the Truckers tamping down the Skynyrd-inspired three-guitar attack present elsewhere on the record and adopting a more subdued, wearied tempo.

Throughout the album, Hood returns repeatedly to a concept he terms “the duality of the Southern thing,” his way of attempting to balance pride in his home with the worst parts of the region’s troubled history. By his own admission, Hood wasn’t always successful in this, which is part of the reason the band now rarely plays Opera track “The Southern Thing” in concert. “The song was written to express the contradictions of Southern identity,” Hood wrote in a 2015 essay for The New York Times Magazine, penned to advocate for the removal of the Confederate Flag, which the musician labeled a symbol of hate that had been embraced by everyone from the Ku Klux Klan to convicted South Carolina church killer Dylan Roof (and more recently the Trump-fueled insurrectionists that stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021). “Instead, people were treating it as a rallying cry.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why some Rebel flag-toting fans flocked to this particular song, which finds a defiant Hood singing in his back roads drawl about “guts and glory and Rebel stands” as the guitars swing and cut like scythes. “Stay out the way of the Southern thing,” Hood commands as the song builds to a close, a battle cry some listeners could have reasonably adopted as a means to dismiss any criticisms lobbed at the region, even those holding merit.

Elsewhere on Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers address the South’s brutal legacy with impressive nuance, particularly on songs such as “The Three Alabama Icons,” a spoken word number that weaves together the lives and legacies of Gov. Wallace, Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant, and University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Wallace, in particular, is eviscerated by Hood, not just for his racist track record, but also for his naked opportunism, with the singer positing that the governor’s anti-Civil Rights lurch was, at least in part, cold political calculus. Wallace, Hood suggests, overlooked the suffering of Black Americans in a damning quest for power.

Twenty years later, little has changed. The fear and hatred of the “other” that fueled Wallace’s rise simmers anew within those in leadership positions across the country, as well as in those competing for power. In Ohio, for one, walking 8kun comment Josh Mandel is currently engaged in a game of hard-right one-upmanship with Peter Thiel-funded bootstrap advocate J.D. Vance in the race to be the state’s next senator. As Hood rightly notes on “Alabama Icons,” and as history has consistently reiterated, racism is and remains a worldwide problem, even if it’s still more convenient to play it with a Southern accent.

Over the course of two decades-plus as a band, the Truckers have never shied from calling out these ills, consistently peeling back the nation’s polished facade to examine the rot underneath — “There’s a lotta bad wood underneath the veneer,” Hood sang on “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” off of DBT’s 2003 album Decoration Day — and it’s easy to trace that through line to the moment on Southern Rock Opera when the musicians pry the lid back on Wallace’s casket to shed fresh light on his damaging social and political legacy.

While most of Hood’s Act I contributions take a big-picture view, Cooley dials up a series of richly detailed, blue-collar character studies, which he delivers in a blunt, unfussy manner befitting his last name. The best of these are “Zip City” and “72 (This Highway’s Mean),” both of which center in some form on how challenging it can be to pull free of one’s roots. “Mean old highway/ Stuck to the ground in Mississippi,” Cooley sings on the latter. “It’s the one’ll set me free/ It’s the same one that I see/ Being ripped up off the ground and wrapped around me.”

Fellow Act I songs “Dead, Drunk And Naked” and “Guitar Man Upstairs” appear to present competing but equally depressing pictures of life for those unable to pull free of this asphalt embrace. The former ends with a funeral service and the latter with its narrator, an embittered old man, living an increasingly lonely existence surrounded by young neighbors still imbued with the types of hopes and dreams that have long since evaporated within him.

When the album shifts into Act II and the narrative moves more heavily into the album’s coming-of-age tale, the pace revs and the band frees itself from these highway entrapments. On “Let There Be Rock,” a joyously rowdy arena rock burner that remains to this day a lighter-igniting encore for the band, Hood retraces his history with music, which involves, among other exploits, dropping acid prior to seeing Blue Oyster Cult in concert at age 14. One song later, Hood pictures himself joining those arena ranks, daydreaming about purchasing road cases of his own. “Paint our name on them road cases/ Stencil and white spray paint,” he sings. “Drive-By Truckers on every one/ Or maybe just DBT.”

As the Truckers’ tale continues to unfold, the musicians also begin a more straightforward telling of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story, elements of which appear in Act I (“Ronnie And Neil,” for one, tracks the mutual respect that existed between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant despite outward tensions), but which dominates the second half of Act II. “Cassie’s Brother,” with Kelly Hogan standing in for Cassie Gaines, essentially recounts how her brother, Steve Gaines, came to join Skynyrd, while “Life In The Factory” sets listeners inside of Hell House, a wood cabin a few miles outside of Jacksonville, Florida where Skynyrd wrote a bulk of its first two albums.

The tempo of the music on Rock Opera becomes more breathless as Skynyrd’s star continues to rise, the Truckers’ sound mirroring the breakneck pace at which the ’70s rockers toured. Witness whiplash-inducing turns such as “Shut Up And Get On The Plane,” where Cooley casually brushes aside fears of death (“Living in fear’s just another way of dying before your time”), and “Greenville To Baton Rouge,” which positions listeners aside Skynyrd on the band’s doomed final flight.

“Greenville To Baton Rouge” continues to surge even as the plane falters, its engines sparking while the pilots dump fuel in a failed attempt to avert disaster. Yet even in that moment, Hood’s words cling to a future that’ll never come. “Can’t die now got a show to do,” he sings as the plane loses altitude, his words harking back to one of DBT’s best early songs, “The Living Bubba,” about musician Gregory Dean Smalley, who toured up until the moment he died of AIDS because what else was he supposed to do?

The tempo finally decelerates as the members of Skynyrd speed toward their untimely end, the plane coming to rest in a swamp near Gillsburg, Mississippi on the elegiacal, eight-minute “Angels And Fuselage.” Here, strapped inside the projectile, the narrator’s life begins to flash before his eyes, some combination of fear and acceptance gradually settling in. “These angels I see in the trees are waiting for me,” Hood sings, stretching out the final word like a man holding tight to the last few moments of life.

For Hood, the reality that life on the road could end in death had an impact that carried beyond the making of the record. “We did over 400 cities in a two-and-a-half-year period during the time that that record was being written and recorded, and you can’t help but think about that,” he told The Georgia Straight in 2003. “For a while I couldn’t even sleep in the van.”

While it goes unsaid in the interview, one can assume Hood eventually overcame these fears, a human adaptability acknowledged on the song “Plastic Flowers On The Highway,” where a roadside memorial to a someone lost in a crash causes the passing driver to slow his speed for a few minutes before again pressing down on the accelerator. After all, living in fear’s just another way of dying before your time; better to focus on those things you can control.

As musicians and artists, Hood and Co. have done just that for the entirety of their still-thriving career, filling their increasingly deep, rich catalog with songs about folks managing on the fringes of society, the unrealized potential of America, the rot of white supremacy, the damage wrought by capitalistic forces, and those politicians who use fear and othering as a means to seize control, whether Wallace before or Trump in more recent times. Ultimately, this is a large part of Southern Rock Opera‘s enduring power. While the album might be rooted in events of the past, the lessons at its core are as relevant to these times as they were back then. Maybe in time we as a society will actually heed them.

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