Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera

Southern Rock Opera (2001)


1. Days Of Graduation 2. Ronnie And Neil 3. 72 (This Highway’s Mean) 4. Dead, Drunk, And Naked 5. Guitar Man Upstairs 6. Birmingham 7. The Southern Thing 8. The Three Great Alabama Icons 9. Wallace 10. Zip City 11. Moved 12. Let There Be Rock 13. Road Cases 14. Women Without Whiskey 15. Plastic Flowers On The Highway 16. Cassie’s Brother 17. Life In The Factory 18. Shut Up And Get On The Plane 19. Greenville To Baton Rouge 20. Angels And Fuselage


Well, folks, here it is: Southern Rock Opera. It is many things, but you’ll have to trust me when I say that one thing it ain’t is a gimmick. Well, it is, but only in the way that, like, craft beers with wacky names are gimmicks. “Dirty Bastard? Shit yeah! Lemme drink some o’ that! I’m a dirty bastard! I once had anal! I’m so dirty!” You know, and that’s what you think to yourself when you see it on the drink menu. And then you taste it… and it’s fucking great. You start to wonder why all the idiots around you are mindlessly downing piss-quality Bud Lights when there’s this great fucking beer just waiting for them – even though you know you would never have tried it if it weren’t for that dumb name.

And therein lies the flipside of the gimmicky title and premise. Sure, when the album came out, many virgin listeners saw the title Southern Rock Opera and heard that it was a rock opera based on Lynyrd Skynyrd and thought, “how silly! Might be good for a laugh.” And then “Days Of Graduation” starts out with the world’s most foreboding power chord and they were like, “oh…. OH… HOLY SHIT DUDE.” But there were many others who heard about the same stuff and dismissed the album, and DBT themselves, as a brain dead 70s rehash. Even many the glowing reviews the record got when it came out made mention of how it would make you want to pull out all your old Skynyrd LPs to hear the real thing, or something to that effect. This is a heinously incorrect attitude. And like I said, it’s one that takes about five second of listening to correct. Nonetheless, the “Skynyrd tribute band” stigma stuck around for awhile, and only faded away as a result of the longevity that the band has displayed in the decade plus since the release of SRO.

Whatever the perception may be, the reality is that this is where the Drive-By Truckers really became the Drive-By Truckers as we know them today (“or maybe just DBT,” as the song goes). This is where they first introduced to the fold three of their most lasting characteristics: their trademark three-guitar lineup (achieved with Rob Malone moving over to third guitar and Earl Hicks taking his place on bass); their now-longtime producer, David Barbe; and brilliant cover art by Virginia-based Wes Freed, which may be just as crucial to establishing the band’s identity than anything musical. This is also where they discovered that putting an insane, greatest hits collection-level concentration of butt-pummeling classic rock anthems on one album is a pretty good formula for success. What they didn’t do with SRO, though, is write twenty songs about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yes, “Ronnie And Neil” is about the famous Skynyrd/Neil Young feud, and “Life In The Factory” is essentially “the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd in four minutes.” And yes, the album loosely follows the travails of a fictional Skynyrd stand-in called Betamax Guillotine (though the only way to pick up on that is by reading the liner notes, since they’re never mentioned in any of the songs). And yes, the record ends with a plane crash just like the one that killed poor Ronnie Van Zandt, clearing the way for his douchebag brother to turn Skynyrd into a sad right-wing parody of itself. Nonetheless, Southern Rock Opera is not an opera about Southern rock… it’s a rock opera about the South. Or, more accurately, “the duality of the Southern thing.” And more than that, it’s about how rock ‘n roll can save your life – and just as easily take it away.

To tell these stories as clearly has possible, then, they had no choice but to, in a sense, travel back in time to the 70s. The 21st Century is a much more cynical, offish era in terms of music; the whole idea of arena rock and its life-affirming qualities is but a relic of the distant past – along with the 90 minute double LPs that came along with it. But the arena rock era is when Hood and Cooley came of age and it meant something to them. It’s a point of view they share with their friends and tourmates the Hold Steady, but not many other comparable bands of their era. And it comes through loud and clear on one of the record’s several key thematic tracks, “Let There Be Rock.” Over an entirely appropriate guitar squall, Patterson recounts his wild and crazy teenage years, dropping acid and passing out face down in toilets, and how the only thing keeping him from going completely off the rails and winding up in a ditch somewhere was the redemptive power of rock ‘n roll. Blue Oyster Cult, .38 Special, AC/DC, and of course Skynyrd all get name-dropped, among others, and the band subsequently demonstrates that they’ve absorbed those influences well with a shrieking three-guitar solo coda that’s about as 70s arena hero-sounding as it gets. Nobody attempts, much less pulls off, that kind of massive “majesty of rock” guitar crunch anymore; the reason it works so well on “Let There Be Rock” and all of these other songs is because it’s being used like an era-appropriate wardrobe in a movie – as a means of telling a story. If you wanna make a film that takes place in the 70s and have it be convincing, you gotta put on the wigs and the bellbottoms. And if you wanna make an album about coming of age in the 70s, you gotta make it sound like it could’ve been played in high school parking lots in the 70s. It’s all just part of setting the scene.

On the other hand, Cooley’s “Zip City” doesn’t have anything to do with arena rock lyrically, and doesn’t even particular sound like arena rock, but I think it’s about pretty much the same thing as “Let There Be Rock,” just from a completely different perspective. Yup, SRO proves that there’s not just a duality to the Southern thing (which I’ll get to soon), there’s also a duality to the DBT thing, and it takes the form of Hood and Cooley. They just seem to have an uncanny knack for writing songs about the exact same thing, just with completely opposite approaches. The way they handle the plane crash on this album is one example. Patterson’s “Angels And Fuselage” is a stark but graceful elegy, complete with angels waiting in the trees. Cooley’s take, on the other hand, is a roaring boogie called “Shut Up And Get On The Plane,” featuring hilarious lines like, “Screaming engines, shooting flame/Dirty needles and cheap cocaine/Some gal’s old man with a gun/To me it’s all the same.”

Then there’s “Let There Be Rock” and “Zip City,” which are both pulled directly from their respective songwriters’ teenage years. The former is focused on the idea that if Patterson had never gotten into rock ‘n roll, he’d still be at home in Muscle Shoals flipping burgers – or dead. “Zip City,” on the hand, doesn’t mention the music at all – that part’s implicit, considering the fact that Cooley is even singing this song in the first place; we know that music became his means of escaping a go-nowhere existence. Instead, the song gives us a glimpse into the small town drama and teen angst Cooley had to deal with when he when 17 – namely, girlfriends that don’t put out and their mean Church of Christ preacher daddies. It gives us a glimpse into an alternate universe of what might’ve happened had Cooley never picked up the guitar in the first place, where he would’ve had to “put up with this shit” his whole life. But goddamn, whatever it is you may take from “Zip City” in the thematic context of SRO, as a standalone song, it may very well be the ultimate musical expression of the plight of the bored and horny teenager ever laid down. Like all the best DBT songs, the geographical and cultural references may be very specific to one particular region of the American South, but the sentiment is universal. And for these reasons, as far as I’m concerned, anytime one of those “Greatest Rock Songs of All Time” lists comes out and “Zip City” isn’t on them, it’s a travesty. It’s just as good as that same old stuff that always does appear on those lists.

Well, except for “Margaritaville,” of course. Nothing is better than “Margaritaville.”

Now there’s that whole “Southern thing” to deal with. Where to start? Well, the centerpiece of SRO is, in a lot of ways, “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” I hate to even describe it, because it’s such an experience that I’d hate to ruin the ride for someone who’s never heard it. But I can say that the triad of figures that the title refers to are George Wallace, Bear Bryant, and Ronnie Van Zandt. And with these three icons sort of looming over the entire proceedings, it becomes easy to appreciate SRO as a rumination on what it means to be a Southerner from a political, cultural, and musical standpoint. To be honest, being a Northeast metropolitan pinko commie liberal elitist by birth (yup, that’s me!), had I never heard this album (or, admittedly, had family in Virginia), it’s quite possible I would hold the same attitude about the South that so many others of my ilk do – namely, that it’s just a worthless shithole filled with nothing but ignorant, racist, gay bashing tea partiers who actually enjoy listening to Toby Keith. Okay, yeah, there’s more of that stuff down there that there is up in New York, but the South doesn’t have fucking alternate street side parking so let’s call it a wash.

In all seriousness, those shitty aspects of the South do very much exist; they did back in the 70s when George Wallace was the governor of Alabama, and they still exist in full force today, no matter how much Republicans insist that racism doesn’t exist anymore now that black people can drink from the same water fountains as white people. And so it’s understandable why some people have certain biases against folks with the Southern accents. I mean, how could count up all those votes that were cast for George Wallace and Strom Thurmond (and George W. Bush and Ted Cruz, for that matter) over the years without assuming that everybody in that region are, at best, idiots, and, at worst, hateful pieces of human shit? How could anyone justify Lynyrd Skynyrd strutting around on stage playing “Sweet Home Alabama” with giant Confederate flags cascading behind them and calling it mere “tradition,” a designation more suited to describing what you do for Christmas every year than a painful symbol of hundreds of years of injustice and oppression?

Put simply, you can’t do any of that, but you can try to realize that the history of bigotry and ignorance is only one of many parts of what the South is all about and that “there’s a lot of good folks down there.” And that’s what “The Southern Thing” and “Ronnie And Neil” and this album in general is about. About how choosing to see a Southerner only through the restrictive “God and guns” prism is a similar brand of ignorance to the one that leads some people to assume that every black guy in a hoodie is a gangbanger who’s out to get them. And that’s what “the duality of Southern thing” is all about… how it’s possible for a Southerner to be proud of where they came from while being ashamed of the “bad shit that went down.” How it’s possible—and in fact, should be a goddamn requirement for any serious rock fan—to like both Neil Young, peacenik Canadian, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, macho Alabaman guitar army. Like Patterson says, “us Southern men still need both of them around.” Shit, if nothing else, you gotta realize that rock ‘n roll, along with the blues and country that spawned it, are Southern inventions in the first place, so when you dismiss the South, you might as well be dismissing rock ‘n roll itself. And not only does “Ronnie And Neil” detail that sacred musical history, but it does so set to a walloping guitar riff that can tear the roof off any joint; one that Ronnie, and Neil, and every rock legend that fed into the lineage of the song and DBT would be and should be proud of. That includes David Hood, Patterson’s dad, who played with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka the Swampers, a legendary backup band that invented “that Muscle Shoals sound” and resultantly got name-dropped in none other than “Sweet Home Alabama.” Talk about coming full circle.

So what’s the deal? With so many classic songs its ridiculous (shit, I haven’t even mentioned “Women Without Whiskey”! I mean, goddamn, that’s an incredible song!), along with a brilliant thematic premise that tackles some of America’s epochal cultural and socio-political issues in a really meaningful way, why only an A-? Well, that’s because SRO falls into the same trap as some of the 70s double albums it’s modeled after – namely, being really long and inevitably hitting some dry patches here and there. The two Rob Malone songs certainly don’t help, and by the middle of disc 2, some of Patterson’s riffs start to sound a little samey. But despite these detractions, there’s one thing that we can all be sure of: this review was way too goddamn long.

One Comment

  1. victoid wrote:

    Right fine revelation here Mr Etc. You make the case for The Truckers as the creators of a new musical form: Southern Historiculturock. If not unique to them, certainly no one does it better and a listener can learn much about the history and culture of the lower region right here in one convenient location. With the added bonus of some ass kickin hard grindin rock as the vehicle. Tough to beat anywhere.
    Not to cut too fine, but George Wallace was actually governor of Alabama for four terms, spanning the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. He presided during the prime of Neil Young, then Skynyrd, and finally the proto-Truckers. How glaringly appropriate.
    Also, while blues and country are surely progeny of the South, and the indisputable parents of
    Rock n Roll, it’s birthplace is not so clearly defined. Bill Haley(Michigan) and Chuck Berry(St. Louis) both had hits predating Elvis, the Rock n Roll Inn of New Jersey was the first music venue devoted to the genre, and Alan Freed was the first DJ to broadcast it- from Cleveland. Surprised as knowledgeable a musical historian as yourself would overlook this.

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