Southern Rock Opera is a 2001 double album from the Drive-By Truckers. Covering an ambitious range of subject matter from the politics of race to 70s stadium rock, Southern Rock Opera either imagines, or filters, every topic through the context of legendary Southern band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Alternatively known as an alt-country band or a jam band, the Drive-by Truckers are from northern Alabama but based in Athens, Georgia. Southern Rock Opera was the band's third studio album and was originally self-released on Soul Dump Records. It was re-released on July 16, 2002 by Lost Highway Records. Known for its do-it-yourself funding, Southern Rock Opera was financed by issuing promissory notes in exchange for loans from fans, family and friends of the band.
In the style of an opera, in the classical sense, Southern Rock Opera is a bildungsroman. It contains an opening overture called "Days of Graduation" which sets the album's dark mood, and provides narrative foreshadowing in the form of a fatal car crash.
Like any good opera, the album has its fair share of both humor and tragedy. Variations on the chord progressions of the opening riff of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" serve as the album's leitmotif. The album's packaging even includes a libretto penned by Drive-By Truckers' frontman, Patterson Hood.
The album has three intertwined themes running through it. These are probably best articulated in the first three songs written for the album, "Let There Be Rock", "Wallace", and "Angels and Fuselage". Patterson Hood wrote these songs in mid-September of 1998, shortly after the death of Alabama's most famous and controversial governor, George Wallace. "I knew that I had three ingredients for the foundation of this record, for the structure of the record, so after that, it became more of a matter of filling in blanks", Hood said.
In "Let There Be Rock", Hood tells a mostly autobiographical story about a Southern man and his experiences at Southern rock and Arena rock concerts and his alcohol and drug-induced escapades as a young man. The song also details Hood's embitterment over a cancelled and rescheduled 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd concert that was supposed to take place at The Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The band would never get the chance to make up the date due to the plane crash that killed three of its members only a few months later on October 20, 1977. The song explores just what it's like to be a young, blue-collar, Southerner pining for something bigger; fame and stardom; or an escape, at the very least.
"Wallace" is a song that's "told from the devil's point of view" as he welcomes George Wallace to his new home in hell. "Wallace" best exemplifies the album's second theme, that of Southern segregationist and "Dixiecrat" politics. Southern Rock Opera argues, quite effectively, that Southern demagogues holding high office, like George Wallace and Bull Connor, have proliferated the Southern stereotypes of ignorance and racism through the bigotry and violence they themselves have created through their politics. A whole new level is added on to the theory when Hood reminds everyone that George Wallace wasn't actually a firm believer in segregation. In fact, Wallace only did and said the things he did to appease his constituency. In doing this, "Wallace" also addresses the album's main idea, that being "the duality of 'the Southern thing'". In the spoken word recitative that precedes "Wallace", called "The Three Great Alabama Icons", Patterson Hood explains that Wallace finds himself in hell "not because he's a racist... but because of his blind ambition and his hunger for votes, he turned a blind eye to the sufferering of black America, and he became a pawn in the fight against the civil rights cause". Hood goes into great detail on the subject of George Wallace and, more specifically, the Southern racist stereotype.
Though Patterson Hood penned the song, "Wallace", now-departed Trucker guitarist, Rob Malone, sings lead vocals for the album version of the song.
On October 27, 2005, Drive-By Truckers performed the song in Auburn, Alabama (with Hood back on lead vocals) in memory of the late civil rights pioneer, Rosa Parks who died three days earlier on October 24.
"Angels and Fuselage" depicts the final minutes of the fictional band, Betamax Guillotine, based almost exclusively on Lynyrd Skynyrd. The narrator is "adding up the cost of these dreams" as the plane carrying him and his band is crashing into a Southern Mississippi swamp.
The name, "Betamax Guillotine", is a reference to a long standing urban legend in which video literally killed the radio star. According to the legend, Skynyrd's lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant, was actually killed by blunt force trauma during the band's infamous plane crash when, upon impact, the plane's on-board VCR became dislodged, striking Van Zant in the back of the head and killing him instantly. Though the rumor probably isn't true, that's a moot point in the context of this album that points out that, in the case of Skynyrd, "legend overshadows the songs and the band".
Lynyrd Skynyrd, and this kind of mythology that surrounds them, is Southern Rock Opera's most prominent theme. "It's the ultimate underdogs-come-from-nothing-and-become-this-huge-great-thing. And then the tragic ending and even the coincidences of the story. If you made that shit up, no one would believe it. The fact that they rehearsed for years in a swamp, and then their plane crashed into a swamp. Plus, the story was so full of contradictions, as was the South. It became such a perfect metaphor for exploring the South and its contradictions" said Hood. "Bands like Lynryd Skynyrd attempted to show another side of the South. One that certainly exists. But Few saw beyond the rebel flag", says Hood in "Three Great Alabama Icons", "and this applies not only to their critics and detractors, but also from their fans and followers". Hood, again, brings up the idea of duality. Even though Lynyrd Skynyrd did their best to be the representatives of the good side of the Southern story, they were largely misunderstood and the bad side started showing up at their concerts.
Lynyrd Skynyrd's famous feud with Neil Young also comes into play during the course of the album. In the song "Ronnie and Neil", Hood sings of even more duality. Though Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young's feud is one of the most famous in rock history, the two were actually friends, and very respectful of each others' work.
One of Southern Rock Opera's biggest implications is that to be Southern is to want to leave the South; the urge to get away from George Wallace, Bear Bryant, your girlfriend's dad, and the "Plastic Flowers on the Highway". Some make it out and go on to bigger things, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, and, indeed Patterson Hood himself, only to have a new-found appreciation of their region after they've left it. Others, like the narrator of the song, "Dead, Drunk, and Naked" end up hanging around their hometowns forever. Along the way they pick up drug habits, alcoholism, and a lot of bitterness, sadness, and regret. Even for those that do make it out, the way out of the South isn't easy.
This concept is probably best explored by DBT co-founder Mike Cooley's songs, "72 (This Highway's Mean)" and "Zip City". In both songs, Cooley comments on the roads, both literal and figurative, out of small town Alabama. One verse, in particular, sums up "72": Mean old highway/ Stuck to the ground in Mississippi/ It's the one'll set me free/ It's the same one that I see/ Being ripped up off the ground and wrapped around me/ Don't let it fool you this highway's mean." In one of the most memorable, and brilliant, lines of the entire album, during "Zip City", Cooley's narrator tells his girlfriend to "Keep your drawers on girl/ It ain't worth the fight/ By the time you drop 'em, I'll be gone/ And you'll be right where they fall the rest of your life." Even those who make it out, can still end up as nothing more than "Plastic Flowers on the Highway". That's the duality of "The Southern Thing".
Southern Rock Opera, once again, asks the age old question: "Is it better to burn out or fade away?" Is it better to sell the road cases for drugs, or let them go down with you when your band's world tour plane crashes? Drive-By Truckers have intentionally left this an open question.
In a 2006 contributed article for MSN Music regarding Lynyrd Skynyrd's recent induction into The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, Patterson Hood had this to say regarding the album's genesis:
Soon after this discussion, Patterson Hood formed Drive-By Truckers. The Truckers recorded two studio albums and one live album during the four years between their formation and the actual recording of Southern Rock Opera. During these years, Drive-By's principal songwriters Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Rob Malone continued to contribute songs to "The Rock Opera", as they'd come to calling it.
After the release of their live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin', Drive-By Truckers began recording what they hoped to be their magnum opus: Southern Rock Opera. According to Patterson Hood, "(the album) was recorded in Birmingham, upstairs in a uniform shop during an early September heat wave, with no air-conditioning. We had to turn the fans off when we were recording, and we worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. So Southern Rock Opera was fun to write, but we had a miserable time making it."
After the album was finished, however, the troubles continued for The Truckers when they ran out of funding for the immense project. To resolve the problem, and to avoid "any fine print crap", as Hood put it, the band took a very non-traditional approach. The Truckers made a prospectus, and solicited investors, with a promise of 15% interest, to pay for the manufacturing and distribution of Southern Rock Opera. The approach worked. Through their fan-based online news group and by sheer word of mouth, The Truckers were able to raise approximately $15,000. This allowed them to print about 5,000 copies of the album, and buy a new, used, van for touring. Most notably included in the group, dubbed "The DBT Investors", was Widespread Panic bassist, and fellow Athenian, David Schools.