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No Fear

The Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera redeems Skynyrd and the South

The Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood was hardly a typical white Alabama kid. Born on the cusp of the state's agonizing "New South" rebirth, his perceptions were skewed by the fact that his father played bass in the Muscle Shoals A-Team session band and backed up such African-American icons as Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge. While not far away Birmingham's sheriff Bull Connor was loosing the hounds on peaceful protesters, Hood's father was working in support of black musicians. It puzzled Hood then, as it does now, this conundrum he calls "the duality of the Southern thing."

Hood probes Southern schizophrenia in all its multiplicity in the Truckers' seven-years-in-the-making Southern Rock Opera. "We got to talking about the whole mythology surrounding Lynyrd Skynyrd, and what a great movie it would make and the idea of maybe writing a screenplay," Hood says in a hoarse and deeply Southern voice. "Kinda early in the conversation we decided we'd never be able to pull it off. So the way to do it would be to write a fictional story using some of the folklore and telling some of the stories under the guise of a fictional band." The fictional band would be called Betamax Guillotine, after the videotape machine that allegedly severed Ronnie Van Zant's head in Skynyrd's plane crash.

The double CD -- which is a magnum opus, by the way -- comprises two acts. Act I is less a cohesive rock opera than a song cycle about '60s and '70s Alabama. Act II chronicles the rise, ride and literal fall of a lightly fictionalized Lynyrd Skynyrd. Act II moves forward with such verve and drama that it's an enjoyable read even without the music. It's as funny as albums come in some places, as wise as they get in others, and no record in the rock tradition has such a well-developed sense of impending, unavoidable tragedy. Then there's the fact that it just plain kicks ass as a rock-and-roll record.

The Drive-By Truckers are doing everything but looking away from Dixieland.
The Drive-By Truckers are doing everything but looking away from Dixieland.
The Drive-By Truckers are doing everything but looking away from Dixieland.
The Drive-By Truckers are doing everything but looking away from Dixieland.

Just as Hood sees the South as the nation's most misunderstood region, he sees Skynyrd as the most misunderstood -- and incidentally, greatest -- rock band in America. Ronnie Van Zant "wrote songs that were pro-gun control," he says, "and was much more progressive than most so-called arena rock of that era from any geographic region."

As for the South, Hood argues that his home was, if not more progressive than the North, certainly no worse in the civil rights era. Hood was in one of the first integrated classes in Alabama public schools, and he recalls no race-related problems. "To me [African-American] kids were just other kids," he says. "You know, there was never really a big deal made of [school integration] in the town I grew up in, which is by no means a progressive town. It's Bible Belt and backwards as shit and I'm sure there's still a lot of prejudice there, but it wasn't like it seems in the movies. I remember watching the [busing] riots in Boston on TV with my grandparents when I was about in the third grade, and I remember my grandparents saying, 'Now look at this. This is Boston. They think we're nothing but a bunch of stupid dumb backwards racist rednecks down here, but we didn't act like that.' "

Hood is by no means contending that Alabama has nothing to hang its head about. In fact, Southern Rock Operaconfronts many of the state's 1960s sins head-on. The song "Ronnie and Neil" opens by addressing what is likely the most heinous of these horrors: the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young African-American girls. (The song goes on to tackle the myth that Van Zant and Neil Young hated each other; Young was in fact an honorary pallbearer at Van Zant's funeral.) In keeping with the "duality thing," though, Hood juxtaposes this act of boundless hatred with the fact that at roughly the same time his father was making music in an integrated band.

Perhaps no one man embodies Hood's theme as well as George Wallace. As Hood notes in the spoken word "The Three Icons of Alabama" (the other two: Van Zant and "Bear" Bryant), Wallace was relatively progressive until 1958, when he was defeated by a plainspoken racist in the gubernatorial election. Wallace vowed that would never happen again, and it didn't. Starting in 1962, Wallace (or his wife, Lurleen) served as governor for roughly the next quarter-century. But somewhere along the line, Wallace shed his racism.

Or did he? Although 92 percent of Alabama's African-Americans voted for Wallace in his last electoral bid, Hood believes that neither they nor he (nor apparently St. Peter) can forgive him his earlier, devilishly skilled pandering. The song "Wallace" finds Satan welcoming the governor to his eternal reward with these words: "So throw another log on the fire, boys / George Wallace is coming to stay / I know, in the end, he got the black people's votes / but I bet they'd still vote him this way."

Such a song hasn't played well in the Truckers' adopted hometown of Athens, Georgia, albeit for all the wrong reasons. As Hood says: "The first time we played it in Athens, I had people come up to us and say, 'How can you write songs defending George Wallace?' And I'm like, 'Aren't you listening? I'm not defending shit. The song was from the devil's point of view, you fuckin' moron.' "

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