The Mouth of the South

Lynyrd Skynyrd singer decapitated in drive-by truckers rock opera

The Southern fascination with the Southern perception of the Southern condition is as tiresome as it is reductive as it is inexhaustible. To hear them Rebels tell it, every facet of their experience is not just peculiar but unique, not just an institution but a frickin' monument. As if Dixie monopolized creepy social paradoxes. As if Northern lynchings never existed. As if industrial growth hadn't crushed agricultural concerns other than plantations. As if whispering families of New England Brahmins were not equally chilled by ghosts of their own hypocrisies.

But Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood has a distinctive approach to the obvious--what else you gonna call your two-disc Southern rock opera but Southern Rock Opera (drivebytruckers.com)? And what better way to plumb the Southern psyche than positing Lynyrd Skynyrd as "America's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band"? Of course, just to complexificate things, the mythic band followed in this opera is sometimes dubbed Betamax Guillotine (after an apocryphal rumor that Skynyrd's Floridian frontman Ronnie Van Zandt was decapitated by a VCR when his plane crashed), and sometimes dubbed the Drive-By Truckers. Unreliable? Hell, our narrator may not even be the same dude from song to song. But you know what Hood means, right? Well, depends how you define Greatest. And Rock 'n' Roll. And, yep, as always, America.

Captive on a carousel of time? Drive-By Truckers
David Wilds
Captive on a carousel of time? Drive-By Truckers

While high school gloomsters of all ages intone glibly on the dark underside to American life, Hood wisely locates weirdness right on the everyday surface. The first track here reclaims the gothic ethos from British brooding and poorly applied eyeliner, telling of a friend's fatal car accident. Draped in imagery such as "the 3/4 moon illuminated the streets like a candy wrapper," "Days of Graduation" grins with the grim menace of a campfire ghost story even before its payoff: When the medics arrive, "Freebird" still blasts on the car stereo. Deadpans Hood: "You know, it's a very, very long song."

Having crucially established that non-famous people die, too, Hood spends the rest of "Act I" unsuccessfully going home again to Alabama. He intriguingly puzzles the dialectic between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zandt, but George Wallace's inescapable iconic status clotheslines him. After explaining that not all Southerners are rednecks and not all rednecks are racists, Hood ships the celebrated demagogue to hell--for spineless pandering, not for racism. But then somebody elected Wallace. And though Hood doesn't really admit it, the less damnable regionalist defiance of "Sweet Home Alabama" wasn't always that far from its more malignant, racist relative.

"Act II," however, tosses those social complexities into the band's "Road Cases," hollers "Shut Up and Get On the Plane," and spirals into the swamps in a smoky curl of "Angels and Fuselage." Forget Betamax Guillotine. Forget the Drive-By Truckers, too. This is biography placed truly behind the music, the hoary life-in-a-band clichés reinvigorated by a gripping, fatalist drive. In the process, Lynyrd Skynyrd becomes not just the quintessential Southern rock band, but the epitome of arena rock itself. You know, America's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band.

Which is where the guitars come in. Always more alt than country, Drive-By Truckers, who started out as Athenian indie punks Adam's House Cat, flirt skittishly with Southern Rock, worrying about living up to Skynyrd's surface toughness rather than capturing their underlying lilt. Shaggy guitars lope into shambling approximations of "Pictures of Matchstick Men," their leaden shuffle more Crazy Horse than Skynyrd. "I never seen Lynyrd Skynyrd," the born-too-late narrator explains on "Let There Be Rock," before going on to suggest the genealogy of hard-rock acts that owe a debt to Skynyrd. The most convincing evidence of this family tree comes as Hood, Mike Cooley, and Rob Malone celebrate the simple joy of lining up three guitars, all in a row.

Yes, the South is truly a fulcrum of oddities, Southern Rock Opera implies--but only because that region is particularly, even excessively American. After all, Ronnie Van Zandt's home state contorted its electoral process in the service of our current president. Those regions most often flush with defiant Confederate flags are now the biggest bastions of the patriotic upsurge. And on an R&B station near you, a proudly backwater black man named Petey Pablo calls for us to wave the U.S. flag in the air like a helicopter. Somebody oughta write theyselves an opera about all that.

 
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