This is gonna be a long one…
Out of the ashes of a band known as Adam’s House Cat, who formed around Muscle Shoals, Alabama, rose the Drive-By Truckers. Headed up by principle songwriters Patterson Hood (son of David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Swampers fame) and Mike Cooley, they were to be a loose aggregation of musicians who played gigs and maybe made a few records. If you could show up for a gig/session then show up, if you can’t no biggie.
They played gigs and made some records, 3 albums, “Gangstabilly”, “Pizza Deliverance” and the live “Alabama Ass Whuppin’ “. But Patterson had a long standing idea, a “rock opera” about the South and its contradictions all wrapped up in the story of his life and his band and the myth of Lynyrd Skynyrd. He’d talk about it it to anyone that would listen and invited many of them to contribute, someday.
Then during a 100 degree heatwave in the summer of 2000 with their personal relationships fraying badly, the Drive-By Truckers set up a makeshift studio in the warehouse of a uniform factory in downtown Birmingham, Alabama to start recording their “Southern Rock Opera”.
After punting the album and their vision for it (a double LP in a lavish tri-fold sleeve with extensive sleeve notes) around record companies large and small they were rejected by all of them. So they decided to do it themselves. They came up with the idea of selling “shares” in the record to fans before it was released. They invented the idea of Kickstarter. And although they raised $20,000 to release their record as they wanted it, they likely should have patented the funding idea and become billionaires with a side hustle in rock ‘n’ roll !
“Southern Rock Opera” proved to be the Truckers breakthrough record. It takes you on a journey through their South over 3 sides (almost). It starts the night before graduation with a car wreck and “Freebird” (“you know it’s a very long song”), the myth of Skynyrd right from the off. The rest of side one sets a scene; the relationship between Skynyrd’s Ronnie van Zandt and Neil Young is obviously what “Ronnie And Neil” is concerned with; Cooley’s “72 (This Highway’s Mean)” is a classic road song about the highway that runs through Alabama and right by Muscle Shoals; “Dead Drunk And Naked” and “Guitar Man Upstairs” start to explain to us a certain type of Southern man who drinks too much and annoys his neighbours, thoughtless all the time.
Side 2 lays out the “duality of the Southern thing”, one of the Truckers defining phrases. “Birmingham” tells of the good and bad of Alabama’s State capital; and then we arrive at what could be this albums pivotal song “The Southern Thing”. Set to a big fat and funky guitar riff Patterson Hood lays out his visions of the South, both homely ("It ain't rained in weeks, but the weather sure feels damp") and politically (“Ain't about the races, the crying shame, To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same”). The second chorus introduces the lyric “duality of the Southern thing”, the confusion between how the South is perceived and how it sees itself. The final verse is the story of Hood’s Great-Great Grandad who joined the Confederate army not because he believed in protecting slavery (“He didn’t believe in slavery, thought that all men should be free“) but because Union soldiers raided his farm and he wanted to protect what was his. It’s a quite brilliant song and I urge you to click the link at the bottom of this piece.
This is followed by Hood talking us through the why’s and wherefore’s of “The Three Great Alabama Icons”, Skynyrd singer Ronnie van Zandt, Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and politician George Wallace in order to set us up for “Wallace” a song sung from the Devil’s point of view as the former Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, arrives in Hell. Cooley writes another killer in “Zip City” a song about not settling for the hand you are dealt and featuring the most devastating put down line in rock ’n’ roll
“Keep your drawers on, girl, it ain't worth the fight, By the time you drop them I'll be gone, And you'll be right where they fall the rest of your life”
Most of Side 3 is filled with songs about the Truckers. They are a Rock band from the South, does that make them a Southern Rock band ? This ain’t no Allman Brothers album, the Truckers are fans but are equally fans of REM, Punk Rock and AC/DC. In “Let There Be Rock” Patterson sings how “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw AC/DC, With Bon Scott singing…” among other teenage booze and dope addled adventures; “Road Cases” finds Hood dreaming of stardom and eventually paying off his coke dealer and then Cooley delivers his third instalment in the songs about a certain type of Southern man in “Women Without Whiskey”. The guy in this song struggling with his addictions and again Cooley delivers the killer line “You know the bottle ain't to blame and I ain't trying to, It don't make you do a thing it just lets you”, another of my Truckers favourites.
The last track on Side 3 “Cassie’s Brother” begins the final act, the story (or myth) of Skynyrd. Cassie Gaines was one of Skynyrd’s backing singers, The Honkettes, who talked her brother Steve into the band around the time of their final album “Street Survivors” and this is sung from her point of view by Kelly Hogan, one of those that Patterson had talked to about his Southern rock opera years before and invited to take part, eventually. Over on Side 4 we are walked through the Skynyrd legend in “Life In The Factory”. Everything starts rocking more, everything speeding up now, hurtling toward an inevitable end. Cooley’s “Shut Up And Get On The Plane” is how it starts to end for Skynyrd, boarding the plane that they knew had problems as they had to do a show the next day. It rattles along with the last line of the last verse being “Living in fear's just another way of dying before your time”, yet another Colley lyrical masterclass. The flight they had to take was from “Greenville To Baton Rouge” with “One more night, one more show, four down, eighty-four to go, This ain't no time for moving slow” being the reason they all boarded that plane, including Cassie Gaines who had a ticket for a commercial flight she so distrusted the bands plane. Cassie got on it anyway and didn’t survive the flight.
And then it all comes crashing down, literally, as “Angels And Fuselage” comes as almost a relief after the 3 previous full on rockers. It’s a haunting, gorgeous lament with a definite booze fog about it, describing the scene inside Skynyrd’s plane as it crashes down into the swamps of Mississippi. Everyone on board knew what was happening “And I'm scared shitless of what's coming next, I’m scared shitless, These angels I see in the trees, Are waitin’ for me…”. It’s a beautiful song describing a tragic and ugly scene.
“Southern Rock Opera” at its heart is on a mission to present the South as it was, as it is and as it could be if it could ever get over lying to itself, “the duality of the Southern thing”. If you ever get chance to read Stephen Deusner’s writings on the album in his book “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” he goes into far more detail than I can.
I first came across the Drive-By Truckers and “Southern Rock Opera” around 20 years ago, a couple of years after its original release. I was instantly hooked and I guess that this and another of their records “The Dirty South” I have played more than most in that time (although I have no way of counting). They are at the head of a “scene” that includes bands like Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires who I am totally tuned in to. To me they represent a side of America that I know is there but has been hidden away in recent years when Southern politicians seem more akin to George Wallace at his segregationist worst. The Truckers and others open a door to another America that I much prefer and one day hope to visit.
The Southern Thing - https://youtu.be/Ho7i1sdeJL8