Southern Rock Opera
First Appeared at The Music Box, November 2002, Volume 9, #11
Written by T.J. Simon
>Southern Rock isn’t pretty, and nowhere is this more evident than in the music of the Athens, Georgia-based Dixie rockers Drive-By Truckers. Band members perform in flannel shirts with scraggly facial hair, and front man Patterson Hood’s voice often sounds as if he’s been gargling with rural-route road gravel. The band’s previous albums (Pizza Deliverance, Gangstabilly, and Alabama Ass Whuppin') were all tongue-in-cheek celebrations of the southern sound, filled with screeching guitars and solidly written songs. In the group’s most recent outing — a double disc concept album titled Southern Rock Opera — Drive-By Truckers up the volume while exploring the heritage, pride, and rock music of America’s southland.
Southern Rock Opera has songs about George Wallace, arena rock, racism, God, and glory. But the thread that holds it all together — however loosely — is the rise, fall, and cultural significance of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The opening track Days of Graduation tells the tale of a teenage boy who died when his hot rod hit a telephone pole in the middle of the night. When the ambulance finally arrived, the paramedics could still hear Free Bird playing on the stereo because, "You know it’s a very long song." From that point, the so-called feud between Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young is set straight in Ronnie and Neil. The history of Steve Gaines’ entry into the band is chronicled in Cassie’s Brother (Kelly Hogan sings the Cassie Gaines role), and the backdrop of Skynyrd’s rise from the Florida swamps into rock superstardom is laid bare in Life in the Factory. And, of course, you know how the story ends, as detailed on Shut Up and Get on the Plane and Angels and Fuselage.
Rather than attempting an actual rock opera with a linear story line (á la The Who’s Tommy), however, the Skynyrd story occupies less than half of the tracks on Southern Rock Opera. The best cuts on this release (The Southern Thing, The Three Great Alabama Icons, and LetThere Be Rock) explore what it means to grow up in the poor, rural South, and the songwriting kicks all of the baggage and negative stereotypes to the curbside. Yet, Drive-By Truckers realizes that this rural homeland is not a perfect place — therein lies what the band refers to as the "duality of the Southern thing."
Throughout Southern Rock Opera, Drive-By Truckers takes its lyrical writing to the next level, and the three-guitar assault employed in its songs perfectly captures the sound of 1970s Southern arena rock without ever sounding derivative or mocking. There is a great album among the 20 songs here, but unfortunately there’s just not enough great material to span two discs. After ninety minutes, Hood’s rough voice gets a little hard on the ears. And, the discs are splattered with songs — such as Zip City, Road Cases, Women Without Whiskey — that distinctly feel like they had been sitting around and were simply utilized to add bulk to the "rock opera."
Too many elitist critics and fans see Southern rock as a punch line rather than a movement to be celebrated and enjoyed. In response, Drive-By Truckers has put together a beautifully packaged song series that successfully pays homage to the bands who paved the way for many of today’s finest artists. Southern Rock Opera is an indisputably ambitious project that most indie groups wouldn’t dare attempt. Yet, the generous length of the release works to the detriment of the listening experience. Nevertheless, there are enough great moments contained on Southern Rock Opera that with a little programming of one’s CD player, it’s possible to reveal a masterpiece. ˝
Southern Rock Opera is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box