Drive-By Truckers: The Devil is a Southerner

What is 'that Southern duality thing'? What really killed Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zandt? And isn't it about time someone wrote a rock opera on the subject? The Drive-By Truckers have all the answers. Nick Coleman is all ears
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The Independent Culture

How stirring it is to know we are living in the golden age of rock opera. Rock opera has been around since the Sixties, of course, achieving a kind of apotheosis in the first half of the following decade, which in turn gave rise to punk and the rebirth of the three-minute pop song, not to mention Spinal Tap. Rock opera is an engine of progress in popular music comparable with sonata form.

How stirring it is to know we are living in the golden age of rock opera. Rock opera has been around since the Sixties, of course, achieving a kind of apotheosis in the first half of the following decade, which in turn gave rise to punk and the rebirth of the three-minute pop song, not to mention Spinal Tap. Rock opera is an engine of progress in popular music comparable with sonata form.

So it is a pleasure to report that the best rock opera ever is a product of our own century. Southern Rock Opera, like all rock operas, is a vast, unruly suite of rock songs expressing a deal of anxiety about what constitute real values in a society polluted by racism, generational misunderstanding, cultural prejudice, violence, death and asshole behaviour of every description. But there the similarity to Bat Out of Hell ends. You may not engage with the plight of individual protagonists much, not in the way you do in Don Giovanni, but it has a great premise, it is keenly intelligent, it has much to say that is both funny and moving and it rocks. Also, it requires the deployment of three guitars.

It begins, naturally enough, with a lot of cavernous amplifier reverb and a car crash, in which a teenage Alabama tear-ass loses control of his car on a curve, hits a telegraph pole, splits his own skull in two and embeds his girlfriend's in the dashboard. There is much sluggish pedal-pointing and knelling of minor chords. You sense the upturned car's wheels spinning in thickening southern air. The narrator drawls impassively through a loud-hailer, vowels attenuated like crushed metal. "In a little while the ambulance came and the sound of the siren mixed with the screaming of the girl and the spinning wheel... But when the story was told the next day at the graduation ceremony, 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."

The truth of it is that Southern Rock Opera is an attempt to explicate the moral and spiritual ambiguities of the "Southern" mindset – "the Southern duality thing" – through the mythology surrounding the career of that greatest of all Seventies boogie bands, Lynyrd Skynyrd; a band that rehearsed in a swamp and, in the case of three of its members, died in one too, when the 1947 Convair Turbo Prop conveying them to Baton Rouge crashed following catastrophic engine failure.

Drive-By Truckers is the name of the group responsible for this cherishable concept. Patterson Hood is their spokesman. He is a wearily polite, possibly hung-over 38-year-old with curly hair and a beard that hasn't seen a scythe in weeks. It is his Alabamian drawl you hear through the loud-hailer. He was not always a Skynyrd fan.

Being a "pussy boy" of liberal upbringing and hating football (his dad is David Hood, the bassist with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section), he cut an alienated figure in the school parking lot, in which "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" competed with jock banter and V8 engineering for the attention of girls. So he took up punk as a 14-year-old and turned his back on long guitar solos for good, or so he thought.

To cut a long story of teenage angst short, it was only when he moved to Athens, Georgia that he discovered that Lynyrd Skynyrd "were considered universally uncool. And that made me look at it all a different way". Inspired by Minneapolitan punks The Replacements, he dropped out of college and formed his own punk band, to embark on the 17-year minor-league rock odyssey that would climax with the signing, this year, to the new-Americana label, Lost Highway, and the formal release of Southern Rock Opera. Rock Opera has ensured the Truckers' status has been transformed from that of parochial alt.country also-rans to the object of much head-scratching in the parlours of American rock literati.

"The Skynyrd story," Hood insists, "is such a good story, and I love good stories. I mean, if you were to make it up you'd be chastised for the neatness of it. The circumstantial, coincidental aspects of it; the band themselves: the fact that they made all their decisions by fighting – the last one standing always got his way, even if it was only a debate about how a song should be played. Ingenious. I wish our band could work things out like that."

Two figures bestride Rock Opera with colossal ambiguity. One is George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama from 1962 to 1986, a man "most famous as the belligerent racist voice of the segregationist South", who bought himself political success by betraying his own "progressive" legal track record for votes. Wallace's fate in Rock Opera is comparable with Don Giovanni's. He is fast-tracked to the hot place, where he is gratified to discover that, wouldn't you know it, the Devil is a Southerner too.

The other colossus is Ronnie Van Zandt, the hard-nut voice of the Skynyrd, who died in the plane crash in 1977, the year of Elvis's death. He has arguably been the subject of even more parking-lot mythologising in the South than the King himself. A particular favourite is the one that says that Van Zandt, the ultimate live-music ideologue and sworn enemy of video culture, actually met his maker when the plummeting Convair's VCR came adrift and landed on his head.

"Well, Ronnie," drawls Hood. " Yeah, he comes off as a heroic figure on the album, but that's because the record is actually more about the mythology than the real life. I guess I was attracted to the fact that he was a street kid, and the odds against any of those guys doing what they did were astronomical. They were poor white-trash, ghetto street punks from Jacksonville, which is just about as far as you can get from a musical Mecca. And Ronnie was pretty much the guiding force behind it all. Y'know, he didn't take shit off anyone and he wrote great songs. And I mean great songs. There was more to him than meets the eye."

As to "the duality of the Southern thing", Hood is all talked out on the subject. "Uh," he gasps. "Y'know, I've found I really don't know how to answer questions about it. A coupla reviews have taken me to task that the song 'The Southern Thing' actually contradicts itself. Well, THAT'S THE POINT. No two people from the South have the same take on it. The only thing Southerners have in common is that they don't agree. That's the essence: contradiction."

In the same way that Lynyrd Skynyrd will be forever hoist, in the eyes of Philistines, with the petard that was "Free Bird" (which, let's face it, is way too long), so the Drive-By Truckers may live to regret their breakthrough album being a rock opera. But they shouldn't. "Three guitars and bad aviation" don't tell half the story. It's a great record, fashioned passionately and without cheap irony, to help listeners get to grips with the ways of the Devil, much as Milton set out to do in the 17th century without the benefit of Gibson Les Pauls. Rock Opera will make you laugh, weep, think, rock. In fact, the only ironical thing about it is that it isn't a rock opera at all. Formally speaking, it has more in common with the St Matthew Passion. It is, in fact, a rock oratorio.

Drive-By Truckers play the Garage, London N1 (020-7607 1818) on 21 Nov

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