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A Southern Man in Full

 

Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera

Lost Highway, 2002

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: August 18, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Hailing from the American South brings with it a whole set of complicated baggage. Whether you're an Alabama good ole' boy, a vivacious Georgia Peach or an Atlanta-bred Southern Gentleman, your identity comes wrapped in a sense of place, and of history, totally unique to the rest of the United States. True, other regions of the country trigger their own associations -- "West Coast" conjures images of callow, well-tanned Hollywood types or surfers; the "Midwest" evokes a beefy heartiness and a plainspoken earthiness connected to the soil and endless fields of grain. Heck, even New York and "Jersey" (the latter thanks to Bruce Springsteen) come stamped with particular impressions.

But the South...well, the South is a different animal altogether. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, from crooked politics to Creole cuisine, from Delta Blues to the twangy, "y'all"-dotted patois that is the "Southern drawl," the South comes with its own indelible touchstones, its own rich background, a sense of heritage unmatched in the continental U.S. Cross the Mason-Dixon line and you're entering a world apart, a land as steeped in fertile myth as Ireland or Scotland or any other locale whose name means so much more than just a point on a map.

Patterson Hood, main songwriter and scratchy-throated singer for the Athens, Georgia-based Drive-By Truckers, understands all of this quite well, understands the South's fecundity of legend and legacy in a way that only a man who's felt ashamed of and overwhelmed by that legacy, only to revisit and accept it on his own terms, can. As a result, Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers' fourth album (originally released in 2001, recently snatched up for wider distribution by the twangy boutique label Lost Highway), stands as an impressive and ambitious document steeped in the complexities of what Hood refers to as "the Southern Thing."

Southern Rock Opera could best be described as a sort of concept album about a fictional Southern Rock band named Betamax Guillotine (the name refers to the rural myth that Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant was killed by a videotape forcibly ejected from its player during the tragic plane crash that claimed his life -- but more on that later). But it's also an oddly amorphous roman a clef that incorporates Hood's own youthful recollections and, ultimately, the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- "America's Greatest Rock and Roll Band," as DBT defiantly declares in the album's liner notes.

Act 1, the first half of the album's two-disc set, comes with a page's worth of backstory about "our hero," a young man from Northern Alabama who comes of age in the turbulent 1970s, weaned on the classic rock of Skynyrd, the Stones, Neil Young, Black Sabbath and countless other bands before moving away and becoming a punk rocker. It's something of a drawback that listening to the first act, by far the musically and thematically stronger of the two discs, is an incomplete experience without this prologue, but that's part of the inherent nature of concept records, and at least Southern Rock Opera gives you more history to chew on than, say, KISS's (Music From) The Elder. Act 1 is packed with arresting songs delivered with a sturdy loose-meat authority by the surprisingly accomplished Truckers, rendered in gloriously ragged Southern Rock style complete with classic three-guitar attack. (Hood comes by his musical and songwriting talent, as well as his familiarity with the Southern Rock idiom, honestly; his father was a session musician at Alabama's famed Muscle Shoals studio, where artists like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin came to soak up its famous sound, as Hood mentions in "Ronnie and Neil.")

The opening "Days of Graduation" sets the tone with a monologue about the car-related death of the narrator's best friend the night before High School graduation; Hood's neighborly delivery is highlighted by the wicked sense of humor he displays in the song's final moments: "Everyone said that when the ambulance came the paramedics could hear 'Free Bird' still playing on the stereo...you know it's a very long song."

From there, Hood launches full-throttle into "Ronnie and Neil," a spiked exploration of the musical rivalry between Skynyrd vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, set against the backdrop of racial violence in Birmingham (from which sprang Young's "Southern Man" and "Alabama," and thus Skynyrd's anthemic rebuke "Sweet Home Alabama"). Soon afterward, he paints a wistful portrait of Birmingham before launching into the act's -- and the album's -- three-cornered centerpiece. "The Southern Thing" rides a snarling guitar riff, with Hood proclaiming the South's rebellious rise above its own stereotypes in a downright ornery admonition to "stay out the way of the Southern thing." The spoken-word "The Three Great Alabama Icons" examines Ronnie Van Zant, famed college football coach Bear Bryant and cantankerous Alabama governor George Wallace, sketching a portrait of the region's fundamental foundations -- rock music, football and the onerous nexus of politics and racism -- fleshed out by Hood's (or his character's) relation to each. And "Wallace" imagines the welcome that onetime staunch advocate of segregation received in Hell, as told from the point of view of the Devil: "I know 'all should be forgiven,' but he did what he done so well/ so throw another log on the fire, boys/ George Wallace is a'coming..."

It should be noted here that while Hood's stamp dominates Southern Rock Opera, it's not a one-man show. Fellow founding Trucker Mike Cooley pitches in with a couple of smartly-executed songs on the first disc, most notably the atmospheric "72 (this highway's mean)," a dusty snapshot of the resignation and despair of stagnant Southern living: "Don't know why they even bother putting this highway on a map," he sings; "everybody that's ever been on it knows exactly where they're at/ Hell's on both ends of it/ and nowhere's in between/ this highway's mean."

Act 2, in which the increasingly blurry protagonist forms his own band and hits the road, kicks off with another of the album's high points, the blazing rocker "Let There Be Rock," which details the narrator's childhood as a fan of Blue Oyster Cult, Molly Hatchet and AC/DC, and eerily links the tragic Skynyrd plane crash with the one that claimed the life of Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads. Cooley's "Women Without Whiskey," which seems to have very little to do with the album's ongoing story, is nonetheless another effectively affecting ballad strengthened by the singer's gravelly rasp. But from there, the album's cohesion dissipates into a shimmering road-haze blur, as the final five songs turn their attention to Lynyrd Skynyrd. "Cassie's Brother," which details guitarist Steve Gaines' addition to the band, is a bizarre non sequitur, followed by "Life in the Factory," a brief rundown of the band's roots. The final triptych -- "Shut Up and Get on the Plane," "Greenville to Baton Rouge" and "Angels and Fuselage" -- deal, of course, with the climactic crash that killed Van Zant, Gaines and his sister Cassie, a back-up singer. While the latter proves a capably haunting (if overlong) closer, the abrupt abandoning of Hood's metafictional journey is just too jarring, eroding the narrative effectiveness and visceral and intellectual impact of the album's first half, or even first three-fourths.

Had the entire affair been condensed to a single disc, taking most of its meat from this half, Southern Rock Opera might have been a true five-point masterpiece. Still, even with the occasional lags and the ultimate swerve away from memoir/story into what sounds like the finale of a Lynyrd Skynyrd stage musical, Opera proves a bracing and rewarding listen, full of triumphantly ringing guitar riffs and steeped in the rich historical, social and musical atmosphere of the South. As a fully-realized concept, it falls a bit short. But as a document on growing up in the shadow of the South and its musical and historical legacies, it provides as much food for thought as it does fodder for brash air-guitar workouts, at once a rollicking slice of Southern hard rock and a thought-provoking manifesto-as-memoir. As Hood himself states: Such is the duality of the Southern thing.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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