Tweak of my ’02 Village Voice piece. At the end I mention a song from a previous DBT album that I picked for the end of my strictly personal-use version of SRO, and a later track, young Isbell’s “Never Gonna Change,” would make a perfect finale, thematically and sonically; his “Oufit” and “Danko/Manuel” could be tucked in somewhere, ditto (from the early years; they gradually lost most of their twisted comic insight after SRO) “Buttholeville” and “Margo and Howard.” And a bunch of their others…
We all did what we could do.
Southern Rock Opera
“Bobby’s skull was split in two, my girl was partially embedded in the dashboard,” but that wasn’t enough. “The next day at graduation, everybody was saying that the paramedics could hear ‘Free Bird’ still playing on the stereo—you know, it’s a very lawwng sawwwwng.”
As you might suspect, the Drive-By Truckers (singers-writers-guitarists Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Rob Malone, often co-[de]composing with bassist Earl Hicks and drummer Brad Malone) are professional Southerners. Which, from the White House on “down,” means, of course, professional Weirdos. These ‘uns have well-connected brains behind their mirrorshades, even when working under titles like Pizza Deliverance.
The people in their songs do tend to believe in some kind of Deliverance, by pizza and/or other. On 1999’s live Alabama Ass Whuppin’, Truckers’ real-life friend “The Living Bubba” briskly advises, “Be careful of who you screw, I can’t die yet I’ve got another show to do.” On the new Southern Rock Opera, a self-described “feeble old man” is ranting to the beat of “The Guitarist Upstairs” despite hisself (he calls the cops anyway). Next morning, a white-collar rehabee’s well-scrubbed skull keeps Everclearly bouncing back (and forth) to the zesty phrase “Dead, Drunk, and Naked”—in that order. The Truckers’ characteristic gear-shifting rumble brushes by suggested afterglow/afterlife, ratt now. Even on a highway full of “heat that holds you like a mother holds her son, tighter if he runs.”
Amen. ‘Cause, down home (down here), one thing you don’t get Delivered from (only to), is Connection; for instance, urban sprawl just gets strung out thinner and thinner, never quite disappearing, ’til it’s all in your grill, and in that of a punkass backwater kid, sick of himself and his girlfriend and ever’body else, swearing one day he’ll hit the road to “Zip City” (and he will, he’ll have to. But don’t think of it as a “commute,” Buddy, just consider yourself “on tour”—’ello, ‘ooterville!). Thus, the (De-luxe) scenic route: Southern Rock Opera, two discs, 18 songs, 94 minutes, layers of reverie, association, urban legends, and other goo, sinuously/abrasively unwound from the big dippers, spilling blue skies, blue notes,banknotes, other bills, into and out of the bug-spattered POV of a nomadic indie club combo with boondocks high school parking lot etc memories of Skynyrd’s flights; in tribute, they’re named Betamax Guillotine (true LS fans will get the officially apocryphal, def apocalyptic reference: as DBT’s liner notes helpfully sum, “Video killed the radio star!”) BG’s in convoy with other contemporaries and descendants still floating in the dust of of King Tut (a/k/a Lynyrd Skynyrd), thee potentatin’ eternal traveler, still on tour, still re-re-repackaged, still workin’ for MCA.
For openers, “Ronnie and Neil” delves into the supposedly “complicated friendship” of once supposed arch-enemies Van Zant and Young (I thought their musically implied relationship went something like “Hey Hollyweird, yew thank ‘Southern Man’ equals ‘Lyncher Man’? Kiss mah Sweet Home Alabama!” “Ah. . . you’re from Florida . . . ?” “Well it’s a metty-for, Son, you a writer too, c’mon, squeal lak a peeg,” but that’s not the words to this tune). I dunno how true the song is, but it sure shows what “Ronnie” and “Neil” can mean to hot rusty voices, finally ‘llowed to testify, “Southern Man still needs them both around!” (But these Truckin’ voices, more than their picking, also remind me of the hairier geetar solos sprouting from Skyn’s carefully groomed strut.) This heated discussion resolves into a chorus of firewater strum, as inevitable as Young’s latest buckskin mudslide ride, as purposeful as purported Taskmaster RVZ marching his ornery troupers from Hell to breakfast and vice versa.
In “Birmingham,” a Neilian harmonic sliver goes spiraling through bass-generated smog, around Young/Van Zant-worthy lines like “I can’t wait to see your face/in Bir-ming-ham.” A ghostly Truckload of faith, getting a lot further (under my paleface Bombingham-native skin) than the sputtering about raceheads in “Ronnie and Neil” (just as Ronnie’s tolerance lecture “Curtis Loew,” was overcome by his posthumously released “Mr. Banker” and “Walls of Raiford”: Delta-to-gatorbowl-blues, working race/class right through if not past the graveyard shift). Although “Ronnie and Neil” ‘s “Four little black girls killed for no goddam good reason” has me wondering, “What would a good reason be?” Good question to be led into, during a war (for instance).
In related news, our tourguide (and lead Trucker) Patterson Hood has discovered, while inspecting “The Three Great Alabama Icons” (Bear Bryant, Ronnie, and George Wallace), that George is now in Hell. Not in spite of his alleged “change of heart” re race relations, which helped get him re-re-re-elected. No, because of it. That fortuitous flip-flop (actually back to his pre-gubernatorial moderation, ’twas claimed), fake or real, seals the deal, provides yer “closure.” The Devil wants to keep his homeboy close; one uncanny opportunist recognizes another.
H’mmm. Maybe George met Ronnie and the Devil, walkin’ side by side? Ronnie (somehow) knew just how to spin “Sweet Home Alabama,” for instance with that slightly blurred “boo! boo! boo!” right after “in Birmingham they love the Guv’ner.” C’est finesse! He even got an honorary lieutenant governorship—and a platinum nest egg—out of it. Also, in “Gimme Three Steps,” Ronnie made talking your way into a chance to run from a fight seem cool—it was cool,especially when presented with manly enough flair. He’d be back for more.
But that’s not why Ronnie’s in Hell (or the Other Place). I’d say it’s because, according to Trucker-talk, he succeeded all too well in selling doubting backup singer Cassie Gaines (played on several tracks by suavely-belting guest star Kelly Hogan [whose kaleidoscopic Atlanta-based art pop band The Jody Grind lost two members, and their opening act, poet Deacon Lunchbox, in a 1992 Alabama van crash])—also selling himself—on this: “When it comes your time to go, ain’t no good way to go about it, no use thinking about it, you’ll just drive yourself insane. Living in fear’s just another way of dying, so shut your mouth, and get your ass on the plane.”
The sooner they all do that, the sooner they can “give this piece of shit back to Aerosmith!”
Later there’s someone on the ground, amid “Angels and Fuselage,” calling
toward “what’s coming next.” (Here, it’s better if you burn in a Pizza Deliverance song, “Mrs. Dubose,” in which another voice, somewhat like Ronnie’s, is overheard, among ordinary afternoon sounds: “You were such a flower, now there’s dust running through your veins, when my body dies, will you remember my name?” I believe so.)
The Drive-By Truckers have just been signed to open for Lynyrd Skynyrd, on three early March dates, in Skynyrd’s own Florida. They’ll perform Southern Rock Opera, natcherly. Especially heavy because bassist Leon Wilkeson, one of the few heretofore-surviving original Skyns, recently slipped out of the blue, and into the black. See drivebytruckers.com, grassrootsmedia.com, and
skynyrd.com for more information.
(Originally published in the Village Voice
February 20 – 26, 2002 Issue 08)