Album: Drive-By Truckers

Southern Rock Opera, Lost Highway
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The Independent Culture

Once regarded as the seal of significance on any self-respecting prog-rocker's CV, the rock opera has lain dormant since punk effectively killed off such pretension. Nowadays, the only attempts to revive this most cross-gartered of pop forms are made in the guise of homages to dead personages, as with Cale & Reed's Songs for Drella.

Once regarded as the seal of significance on any self-respecting prog-rocker's CV, the rock opera has lain dormant since punk effectively killed off such pretension. Nowadays, the only attempts to revive this most cross-gartered of pop forms are made in the guise of homages to dead personages, as with Cale & Reed's Songs for Drella.

No surprise, then, that Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera – a double-album, of course – takes as its central theme the rise and (literal) fall of Southern-fried boogie merchants Lynyrd Skynyrd, several members of whom were wiped out when their knackered old tour plane plunged into a Mississippi swamp en route to a concert in October 1977. It's to the Truckers' credit that they don't rely completely on this tragedy, but use the band's Good Ol' Boy attitude as both emblematic of a "New South" generation, opposed to the racism of their forebears but proud of their rebel stance, and as the opportunity to send a fond Valentine to the arena-rock milieu of the Seventies.

"Days of Graduation" opens the album with a streak of mordant humour, a tale of a teenage car-crash with a great punchline about how, when the paramedics arrived, "Freebird" was still playing on the car stereo. "You know it's a very long song," deadpans singer/guitarist Patterson Hood, who writes the bulk of the material. "Dead, Drunk, and Naked" and "Zip City" further establish the loud, fast and incapable ways of Southern youth, as epitomised by folk-heroes such as the bootlegger-turned-racing-driver Junior Johnson: "I got 350 heads on a 305 engine/ I get ten miles to the gallon/ I ain't got no good intentions."

"Let There be Rock" and "Road Cases" eulogise the shameless excesses of Seventies rock culture, while "Ronnie and Neil" uses power chords to underscore the story of the band's friendly rivalry with Neil Young. When Young wrote the scathing "Southern Man" about the region's racism, Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant replied with "Sweet Home Alabama"; as the two parties grew to know each other, they became friends, and the song ends with Neil as honorary pall-bearer at Van Zant's funeral. Skynyrd, the Truckers suggest, were actually in the vanguard of the new, non-racist South, but didn't appreciate outsiders' opinions – an attitude anatomised in some detail in "The Southern Thing", a spoken blues explaining how it's possible to be "Proud of the glory, stare down the shame/ Duality of the Southern Thing".

Musically, the album's of a piece with its subject, using a Skynyrd-style triple-guitar line-up to flesh out the songs, and also illuminating the links between their brand of boogie-rock and Young's work with Crazy Horse, which I, for one, had never noticed before. Tragic, funny, raucous and wise, Southern Rock Opera is a remarkable, absorbing record, one which sets out to redeem the irredeemable, and all but succeeds.

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