Drive By Truckers

Drive By Truckers

Southern Rock Opera


Anyone who thinks the saga of Lynyrd Skynyrd (and the land that spawned them) isn’t worthy of extended observation is a fool. Their story — which, of course, is also the story of the people who cheered them on, found resonance in the music, and mourned their passing — is a tale as epic as any opera staged at La Scala. I am one of those people that this record depicts. I was a southern high school student when Skynyrd was at their peak. I was at the Fox shows that were captured on One More From the Road, and when the plane hit the trees, it marked a clean break in my listening habits. After that, I was more prone to yell “Chinese Rocks” than “Freebird.” Besides, LS always appealed to the scuzziest of folk — white trash bumpkins who flew rebel flags, drank too much, and were still pissed about the Civil War (Or as it’s known down here, “The War of Northern Aggression”). It was easy to leave it all behind and pat myself on the back for maturing to the point that three guitars and a cowboy hat no longer signified good music. Far better to buy a leather jacket and wait for Ramones shows.

I, as it so often happens, was a fool. Lynyrd Skynyrd was, at their peak, one of the greatest of musical groups to come from south, and in their genre, only the Allmans best them. The meshing of the guitars, the poetry of Ronnie, it all worked on some elemental level that only years later do I fully appreciate. Patterson Hood and the Drive By Truckers seemingly struggled with the same issues, caught between boogie and blitzkrieg — but probably not as much as I. Hood’s father is David Hood, a noted Muscle Shoals bassist, so perhaps Patterson grew up with a fuller appreciation of the southern sound. He also has wrestled with being a southerner — a heavy burden, when you come from a state (Alabama) that is most noted for George Wallace and Bear Bryant. Hood captures the grinding “almostness” that plagues youth, particularly southern youth. As he states in “Let There Be Rock”: “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd/But I sure saw Molly Hatchet.” It’s that settling for second best that helps explain so much of “That Southern Thing” — the feeling of never quite measuring up. It’s the mentality that breeds racism- the feeling that you gotta be better than somebody, anyone at all. It’s not solely a southern thing — read Invisible Man, about being black in Chicago — but once you state you’re from Georgia or Alabama, people label you as a tobacco chewing, lynching bit of trash, with all the attendant baggage. Patterson expertly examines this on “Wallace” and “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” and guitarist Mike Cooley offers his slant with “Zip City.” Rob Malone’s desolate “Moved” shows the harsh reality behind the old joke — “What’s the best thing to come out of Alabama? I-20” — “I made a valid attempt/but I can’t change my spots.”

As an opera, it has all the required elements — comedy, tragedy, and stirring music. The band’s rise and (literal) fall is drawn so precisely that it takes you back to those hot days of the ’70s, when your only concern about music was volume, and beer was cheap. On songs such as “Cassie’s Brother” (about Steve Gaines joining the band), DBT even sounds like Skynyrd, and Kelly Hogan is convincing as Cassie Gaines. By the end of the record, the themes get darker (“Shut Up and Get On the Plane” or “Angels And Fuselage”), and the mood is chilling. By the final words: “Friends in the swamp/Friends on the ground, in the trees/Angels and fuselage,” you feel the loss of the band again, and the terror, and ultimately, the resignation to the fates that they must have felt, as the plane, a left-over, poorly maintained Aerosmith reject, sank into the pines. No matter that the group as a marketing element has continued in some fashion since then — Lynyrd Skynyrd was, in 1977, possibly America’s greatest hard rock band, and that ended in those trees. The Drive By Truckers know the loss we suffered then — and how it still, 24 years later, causes grown men to wipe their eyes when the symbolic bandana is placed over an empty microphone and “Free Bird” plays. It ain’t easy being southern. Skynyrd helped us deal with the sensation by their grace, fury and pride. The Drive By Truckers should be similarly proud, because as a popular saying down here goes, “Hell no, I won’t forget”. It is by art such as Southern Rock Opera that we embrace the past at the same time we move past it. Ignoring the past won’t make it go away — it only makes you ignorant. The Drive By Truckers examine the moments of our history and perform a grand and fair accounting of what went on. By doing so — and by virtue of rocking LAMF — they have made the album of the year. Save your Confederate money boys, ’cause the south’s gonna rise again.

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