The Southern Thing

For Christmas 1979, one of my cousins gave me Molly Hatchet's Flirtin' With Disaster. At the time, this was a perfectly normal gift for an adolescent boy living in Virginia—which only showed how poorly my cousin knew me. Along with the Confederate flags, gun racks, and "The South Shall Rise Again" bumper stickers seen all over our town, Southern Rock was anathema to me. I perceived such totems not as proud declarations of cultural heritage but as depressing examples of hicks trying to halt the march of progress by refusing to acknowledge the loss of the Civil War.

I never played that copy of Flirtin' With Disaster. I shoved it in the back of my stereo cabinet, where it remained untouched until I sold it to drum up enough cash to buy Adam and the Ants' Kings of the Wild Frontier. By then, high school had fomented my hatred of Southern Rock.

Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, the Allman Brothers—these were the bands I heard blaring from the pickup trucks whose occupants shouted "faggot" or "Devo" as I walked down the sidewalk. "Ramblin' Man" and "Hold on Loosely" were the unchanging soundtrack accompanying the scariest kids at school, the heavy- lidded girls in ankle-length sweaters, the unshaven boys in Jack Daniel's T-shirts who smelled of stale sweat when they pushed past you—the ones who always skipped gym class and smoked cigarettes in the parking lot.

The worst was Lynyrd Skynyrd. You couldn't make it through a talent show in that county without at least one group of pimply rock-star aspirants lurching through an endless rendition of "Freebird." The Pavlovian response that song incited in audiences represented everything I despised about Virginia, and the South in general, and would for many years.

Yet here I sit, whiling away Christmas 2001 listening to a two-CD concept album inspired by the mythology and music of Lynyrd Skynyrd: Southern Rock Opera (on SDR) by Athens, Ga., quintet Drive-by Truckers. And enjoying it immensely. The irony is not lost on me.

Although originally conceived as a movie screenplay, Southern Rock Opera doesn't follow a strict narrative. But the loose story about fictitious band Betamax Guillotine isn't as important as the spirit that inspired it. In his liner notes, Trucker Patterson Hood explains how he disregarded the music of Skynyrd and their ilk while growing up in north Alabama and only later grew to appreciate it. Over the course of the five-plus years in which Drive-by Truckers collected these songs, "the album became less literal in story and more about modern Southern mythology"—hence several successive songs in Act I addressing topics like segregation, infamous Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and, most importantly, the duality of "the Southern thing" (on the lengthy "The Three Great Alabama Icons").

The first disc details the adolescence of our hero, growing up in a small Southern burg in the 1970s; here the protagonist suffers through the usual indignities of teens in the sticks and undergoes such familiar rites of passage as high-school classmates dying in car accidents just before graduation. As I nodded my head in recognition, I was simultaneously getting pumped up by the Drive-by's triple-guitar assault. I began to think that I had more in common with the scary kids who'd originally put me off this music than I ever realized.

Less cohesive than the first half, Act II starts with three songs following the turbulent rise of our hero's band, Betamax Guillotine, including the fist-pumping "Let There Be Rock." But then, after the intensely personal "Plastic Flowers on the Highway" (inspired by the accidental death of a DBT colleague), the album veers into a quintet of tunes recounting the last days of Skynyrd. (The only song in Act I that's an obvious homage is "Ronnie and Neil," about the misunderstood relationship between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young; oddly enough, Hood bears a strong vocal semblance to Young.) Chicago powerhouse Kelly Hogan plays the role of backup singer Cassie Gaines, sister of guitarist Steve Gaines—two of the three members (along with Van Zant) killed in the plane crash that ended the original lineup—on "Cassie's Brother" and the final "Angels and Fuselage," a ditty so eerie and heart-wrenching that hopefully it will someday overtake "Freebird" at those aforementioned talent shows.

Despite its title, Southern Rock Opera has more in common with concept discs like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Southern Accents and Randy Newman's Good Old Boys than Tommy or Quadrophenia. It manages to take something I once found profoundly offensive and render it magical. Do not question how or why—it's just the duality of the Southern thing.

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