Video killed the radio star. Literally. According to an urban legend, when the plane carrying Southern-rock sensations Lynyrd Skynyrd was going down on that fateful day in October 1977, singer Ronnie Van Zandt was killed instantly when a VCR came crashing down on the back of his head (hey those things were big back in the day). So its perfectly fitting that modern day Southern-rock sensations Drive-by Truckers name their fictional band Betamax Guillotine in reference to the event which in most likelihood is false on their mammoth concept-album styled release Southern Rock Opera
. Yet false or not, such a story provides yet one of the several contradictions that dominate this album, an album that had been in the works for roughly 6 years before being released in 2002. It presents that long-standing argument of “music these days" vs. the “glory days of rock n’roll."
But there’s more to it than just music and the lads in DBT wish to make it a regional issue as well.
I wouldn’t blame the band either for taking such a position. Let’s face it: No one likes the South. But it’s not their fault. Most of the world’s perceptions upon that region are bloated with negative associations and stereotypes whether it be stupid incestuous trailer-trash on Springer
, fat-ass NASCAR dads, or the systematic racism that was wonderfully captured by the work of Harper Lee. And of course there is that dreaded “S" word that will never escape the region: Slavery. Few people remember or understand that despite all this, the American South has historically and socially remained an epicentre of progressive attitudes. Though racism was certainly prevalent in the South, some American historians and sociologists would be eager to tell you that many Southern states repealed this process in a manner faster than most of the so-called “liberal" Northern states. But politics aside, the South isn’t an all bad place to be and Drive-by Truckers want to make that notion damn well known.
I mean would you rather be in Europe? They like warm beer and Kraftwerk over there. How gay is that?
Southern Rock Opera
can be considered a concept album if you will. There’s a storyline, the album is divided into two separate “Acts", and there is an array of somewhat recognizable characters as the lyricism assumes a variety of perspectives. However, looming over this are a set of themes each inalienable to each other. Despite their thick Alabama roots, Drive-by Truckers have been one of the most critically-acclaimed bands of the past few years, most of their recognition hinging not only upon their vicious 3-axe attack a la Skynyrd but also their wonderfully powerful lyrics that provide some of the most profound observational detail and storytelling that hasn’t been seen since Springsteen decided to put his ass
on an album cover.
In contrast, the cover art to Southern Rock Opera
is a dark and surreal painting done by Virginian Wes Freed and it certainly underscores the bleak and distressing attitudes found within the album’s contents. Themes of alienation, regrettable actions, dead-end living, and self-loathing are prevalent in this album, yet the songwriting trio of guitarists/vocalists Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Rob Malone demonstrate a sort of “duality" in opposition to such stark themes and avoid turning a bitter album into one that is bittersweet and enthralling. Closure—both political and individual—the yearning to escape, and a recollection of rock’s golden age of the 1970s make this album a beautiful musical tightrope walk in which the band’s “duality of the Southern thing" is the nature of the beast. As the songwriting of Drive-by Truckers suggest, they do not stand by the horrendous past of the South at all, yet at the same time they illustrate that escaping such a past is impossible and that the growing bi-polarities of social attitudes between the “progressive North" and the “backwards South".
Such frustrations are captured perfectly in this album through its raw and rugged sonic template that makes the entire performance sound like it was recorded in an abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere or on amateur night in a desolate bar. Guitar feedback is everywhere, raw muted notes poke in hear and there and the everything has this wonderful dose of reverb and natural delay applied to it. All in all, this album is as raw as they come.
The album opens with Days of Graduation
, a brooding piece of music in which Hood tells a dark and gruesome story of youthful tragedy over muddy reverberated guitar and the desolate droning of feedback. Hood’s wonderfully acute observations of the “3/4 moon illuminated the rain-soaked streets like a candy wrapper" and a spinning wheel amidst the screams of young girl trapped in a car wreck give the song a genuine bone-chilling feel. The next song, Ronnie and Neil
is a full-out rocker unlike its predecessor and provides a strong hint as to the mammoth 3-guitar sound that the band is capable of producing despite the simplicity of the riff employed. More importantly though is the song’s lyrical content which attempts to deconstruct the so-called “feud" between Lynyrd Skynyrd (specifically Ronnie Van Zandt) and Neil Young. Through this, Hood weaves in several unmistakable Southern references such as Wilson Pickett, the Muscle Shoals studio band (of which Hood’s father was the bassist), and the tragedies of Birmingham, Alabama. The result is a wondrous and powerful portrait of the American South in the 1970s. 72 (This Highway’s Mean)
is the first track on the album to feature Mike Cooley, the other major songwriting figure in the band. The song touches on the notion of escape, one that will permeate several other songs on this album to a great effect. Additionally, roads—both metaphoric and physical—are the conduits for such feelings and Cooley captures this feeling of being stuck perfectly with his subtle crooning and bluesy guitar licks. At the opposite end of this, Cooley’s Guitar Man Upstairs
is a raucous rock number that kinda sounds like Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps" at a more intense pace. The hectic mood of the song perfectly captures the frustration of the disillusion old coot that the perspective is taken from in the lyrics that are rife with anger and disillusionment.And man, this song demonstrates that these guys can play. The blazing guitar solos are raw and sloppy as hell, but the tone is impeccable and is chockfull of cathartic sonic glory.
On the opposite end is Birmingham
on that deals focuses on the tragedies in Birmingham, Alabama, in which 4 young black girls were killed in a politically-charged bombing, but also pins down a sense of impenetrable guilt, remorse and helplessness at the hands of Segregationist governor George Wallace. Hood’s grieving vocals work wonderfully with a guitar solo that is as depressing as it is graceful.
The Southern Thing
is one of the album’s highlights. Hood takes a tough and proud stance on his Southern heritage by encompassing his gruff vocals around a series of churning riffs and warbling feedback that recalls as much Neil Young as Lynyrd Skynyrd. But despite his pride, Hood makes it a concern to not fall into the same "rebel flag-lovin’ yokel" territory that so often many people from Alabama are commonly stereotyped for. The lyrics displace this bizarre “duality" that he mentions so often throughout the song:
Ain't about my pistol
Ain't about my boots
Ain't about no northern drives
Ain't about my southern roots
Ain't about my guitars, ain't about my big old amps
"It ain't rained in weeks, but the weather sure feels damp"
Ain't about excuses or alibis
Ain't about no cotton fields or cotton picking lies
Ain't about the races, the crying shame
To the ***ing rich man all poor people look the same
In relation to this, the nearly 7-minute, mostly spoken-word piece The Three Great Alabama Icons
is a perfect accompaniment to the previous track. Over a simple but dark riff complete with lots of reverb and feedback, Hood attempts to deconstruct every notion that has haunted the South: Lynyrd Skynyd, George Wallace, and the civil rights movement. The result is a set of lyrics that is part-history lesson, part-personal and emotional catharsis as Hood details his own changing perceptions with himself. I wish I could post all the lyrics, but hell, there are a lot of them. Hood on one hand expresses shame for his state’s continued support of Wallace and the high-strung patriotism of Skynyrd fans who couldn’t look “beyond the Rebel flag" on one hand and on the other defends his heritage by highlighting his new found appreciation of Alabama and in particular, the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd:
And bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to show another side of the South…
One that certainly exists, but few saw beyond the rebel flag…
And this applies not only to their critics and detractors, but also from their fans and followers.
So for a while, when Neil Young would come to town, he’d get death-threats down in Alabama
Definitely deep stuff for a lack of better words.
is the first to feature now-defunct member Rob Malone, who provides a dark little boogie featuring some wonderful sultry female backing vocals as he assumes the perspective of the Devil preparing to greet the now deceased Governor George Wallace as he approaches the Gates of Hell. Zip City
meanwhile provides one of the emotional climaxes of Act I. Zip City, Alabama got its name during the prohibition era of the 1920s when cars would “zip" through in order to reach booze on the other side of the Alabama-Tennessee border. In roughly the same nature, this track deal heavily with a constant desire to find relief through the act of leaving as the inevitable failure of youthful love and a sense of being stuck com back to torment the author. The lyrics show such feelings perfectly as they shamelessly deal with such sensitive issues:
Your Daddy is a deacon down at the Salem Church of Christ
And He makes good money as long as Reynolds Wrap keeps everything wrapped up tight
Your Mama's as good a wife and Mama as she can be
And your Sister's puttin' that sweet stuff on everybody in town but me
Your Brother was the first-born, got ten fingers and ten toes
And it's a damn good thing cause He needs all twenty to keep the closet door closed
The blazing guitar solos that poke through the verses are pure heaven in all its molten bluesy glory. Act I closes with Moved
, a track that features Malone’s bluesy wailing with nothing but a heavily-reverberated electric guitar that gives a perfect sense of emptiness. Sublime and simple, it is just a purely wonderful and inspiring track.
Act II of the album opens on a high note with the upbeat youth rock number Let There Be Rock
. Its not the song by AC/DC but in the same manner it seeks to honor the same attitude that was captured by the youth of the 1970s. Over nothing but a kick drum, Hood details a reckless experience of his own young days with charming detail:
Dropped acid, Blue Oyster Cult concert, fourteen years old,
And I thought them lasers were a spider chasing me.
On my way home, got pulled over in Rogersville Alabama, with a half-ounce of weed and a case of Sterling Big Mouth.
My buddy Gene was driving, he just barely turned sixteen.
And I'd like to say, "I'm sorry", but we lived to tell about it
And we lived to do a whole lot more crazy, stupid, shIt.
The songs opens right up to a beautiful and momentous riff that provides a great sense of momentum in recalling the “good ol’ days" of rock", especially as Hood yells “Let there be rock" repeatedly over a blazing set of dual guitar soloing. On the other side, Plastic Flowers on the Highway
is a bleak number that deals explicitly with loss at the hands of the road. Hood’s imagery is bone-chilling to say the least as he croons over a fragile guitar riff and a light but stable rhythm section.
Act II in general furthers the concept of the fictional band Betamax Guillotine even more but does so by reflecting the glories of Lynyrd Skynyrd (who the band is obviously based on) as songs like Road Cases
and Cassie’s Brother
deal with this rise of fame and the nature of handling such a beast despite all the freedoms and routes of escape it could bring. Life in the Factory
through its chronicling of Lynyrd Skynyrd reflect these new found expressions of happiness and freedom perfectly. Over an extremely toe-tapping and upbeat guitar riff that sounds even better due to the fact that its done with 3 guitars, Hood reflects upon the achievements of the great Southern rock band.
The last 3 songs on the album deal with the ill-fated plane flight that was the end of almost half of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Shut Up and Get on the Plane
is paranoid and energetic hard rock-boogie number that takes the incident from the perspective of the road manager, unaware of the tragedy that will soon develop. The song is full of plenty of ass
-kicking solos. Sweet.
Greenville to Baton Rouge
reflects this events in a similar manner but with a bizarre sense of invulnerability. The climatic end of the song features intense drum rolls, ringing power chords and best of all a searing set of dual guitar solos that go higher and higher and higher and then break loose into a twisted pile of bluesy licks and screaming feedback.
The final track Angels and Fuselage
is undeniably one of the most gorgeous and heart-breaking songs on the album. At 8 minutes long, it details the last moments of the plane going down from the perspective of the passenger inside. The results are purely chilling to say the least. Hood’s lyrics that reflect upon the past and a inevitable fate are more than enough to send shivers down one’s spine with little to no effort:
Strapped to this projectile, just a blink ago I was back in school.
Smoking by the gym door, practicing my rock-star attitude
And I'm scared shitless of what's coming next.
I'm scared shItless, these angels I see in the trees are waiting for me.
The song is nothing but majestic in the way in which it builds up to a surprising sonic crescendo from its start as a simple empty-sounding riff to a thunderous harmony of raw guitar solos, white noise, graceful piano, and angelic female vocals. And like the album began with a tragic accident, it ends with one bringing the story full circle in a surprisingly subtle manner.
Of course, I’m sure that this album isn’t for everybody. For one thing, many people may find it hard to tolerate the vocals. Hood’s southern accent is thick as hell and Cooley’s country-fried crooning maybe a little “too country" for many rock listeners tastes. Malone’s vocals and contributions, though sporadic, are a little over-emphatic on an album that seems to strive for more humbler performances despite the solid degree of full-out rocking that appear on it. Additionally, the affair seems to be a more Hood-dominated one as he pens 12 of the albums 20 tracks as opposed to more recent output by the band which attempts to take a more equal set of contributions from the songwriters in the band.
In general, this is simply just a great rock record
. Yes, the narratives and lyrics are gorgeous, so much that some may charge that such songwriting is too good to be found on of all things, a Southern rock record. But in all cases, this can be seen as a album that seeks to change such perceptions. In the liner notes, Drive-by Truckers dedicate this profound work to Lynyrd Skynyrd, “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band." Through their eyes that may certainly be true, but in an equal manner, the album should be a living testament to the band itself for producing such a profound work of art that rocks equally hard in a carefree manner…if that makes any sense at all.
But I guess like that album constantly says, that could just be the “duality of the Southern thing."
“The Southern Thing"
“The Three Great Alabama Icons"
“Let There be Rock"
“Life in the Factory"
“Angels and Fuselage"