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Despite its name, Southern Rock Opera is not a rock opera in the sense of, say, the Who's Tommy, where actual dialogue is presented and a cast of characters is drawn. Rather, it's a song cycle with a loose narrative held together by Hood's liner notes.
Act One (disc one) portrays the life of a kid growing up in the South: the high school terror of road-racing games gone wrong ("Days of Graduation"), the hero-worshipping and preoccupations of a rock fan ("Ronnie and Neil"), the highways he dreams will take him away ("72"), the first tastes of life on his own ("Guitar Man Upstairs"). It then expands to views of the world around him: the spirit of a big city and its civil rights struggle ("Birmingham"), the legacy of the South ("The Southern Thing"), and life in shadows of George Wallace, Bear Bryant and Ronnie Van Zant ("The Three Great Alabama Icons").
Act Two picks up in a parallel universe of sorts, where the Skynyrd fan grows up to become a big rock star of his own, fronting a band that lives out the fate that befell Skynyrd. There's the nostalgic celebration of arena-rock greatness ("Let There Be Rock"), the symbols of touring in high style ("Road Cases"), the omens of the dangers confronted on the road ("Plastic Flowers on the Highway"), the story of the doomed new guy ("Cassie's Brother") and the band's rags-to-riches climb ("Life in the Factory"). Finally, across a three-song suite, Southern Rock Opera ends with a detailed account of the crash that killed members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. With the finale, "Angels and Fuselage," one can't help but extend the quiet terror and resignation in the lyrics ("I'm scared shitless of what's coming next ... The angels I see in the trees are waiting for me") to the victims of the recent hijackings.
At least as impressive as the album's thematic unity is its musical vision, which finds the Drive-By Truckers jumping leaps and bounds beyond the ragged country-rock of earlier records to become an actual full-powered Southern rock engine.
"When we decided we wanted to tell this story, we were all in agreement about how we wanted to tell it," Hood says. "We wanted to do it in a way that was comparable to what Lynyrd Skynyrd would have done -- sort of like One More for the Road, the live album they recorded at the Fox Theatre. We kind of instinctively knew how to set up our three-guitar thing the way they did. My guitar playing is more primitive, with more melodic lines, comparable to the role Gary Rossington played in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Cooley is very much a psycho guitar player -- he bends it a little out of tune, then he bends it a little further -- which is very much the role Allen Collins played. And Rob is definitely a more technically schooled, virtuoso guitar player, which was the role Steve Gaines played when he joined. We wanted it to play like a big arena-rock show from that era, without pandering to it."
Though it has been billed as primarily a work about Lynyrd Skynyrd, Southern Rock Opera is, more than anything, about the Drive-By Truckers. About a bunch of guys who grew up proud of where they come from, but smart and liberal-minded enough to wrestle with the problems inherent in being proud Southerners. About a band coming to terms with the ghosts of friends and former band members who died in wrecks while on tour, and of their own phobias of dying on the road. About some grown-up '70s-rock obsessives celebrating their youth by revisiting its rich folklore. About a bunch of longtime friends returning to "Buttholeville" to find that it was never really "Buttholeville" to begin with.
What Patterson Hood half-hoped might be "the moment of truth" -- meeting Skynyrd face-to-face backstage in Birmingham for some sort of Southern-rock torch passing -- ended up a total bust. It rained. The Drive-By Truckers played their set on a side stage, never coming close to breaching Lynyrd Skynyrd's elaborate set and security.
Instead, the Truckers packed up their gear, then dispersed into the crowd. But mixed in among thousands of other fans hoping to relive a little arena-rock glory -- and finding themselves surprised at how well Skynyrd could still kick ass -- maybe they managed to find their moment of truth after all.
The Drive-By Truckers play a CD release show for Southern Rock Opera Fri., Sept. 28, at the Star Bar, 437 Moreland Ave. Show time is 11 p.m. Tickets are $7. 404-681-9018.
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