This Friday on the KZYR-Zephyr, they are featuring A Day At The Rock Opera as part of the best month on the radio known locally as Rocktober. In researching some records to consider for the special day, we were reminded of one of the more obscure yet remarkable rock operas ever. A little known gem by The Drive-By Truckers-Southern Rock Opera. Originally recorded in 2001, the album nearly bankrupted the band who initially couldn’t even fill the demand for the album. The band survived, with help from friends like Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools, and stands this day as a grand piece of music that is exactly what it is called-a southern rock opera.
The 20-song masterpiece is a tale of growing up southern as seen through the eyes of legendary Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s career. It covers everything from the political scene in the mid 1970s through rock arena shows and of course the crash. We speak of the plane crash that took a few band member’s lives and nearly ended the Skynyrd’s existence and acts as a telling metaphor for this musical tragic-comedy. The record pays due homage to its subject and is dam well worth a revisit or even a first time listen if you haven’t yet.
The opus is much the brainchild of Patterson Hood and the result of his nearly six year effort to initially make and then release the record- an opera in the making itself. The band essentially came together over the concept of the record and then nearly fell apart on the burden of producing it. Sacked with financial woes, the initial release lacked the record company power needed at the time to break a new record and by the time the Internet and a solid record deal were in place, the album was yesterday’s news.
The Truckers create a fictional band poorly titled Betamax Guillotine but that’s about the only miss this record makes. It’s a twangy send off to life in the south amidst the backlash of the ethos of George Wallace, college football and religion. The songs stand well enough alone and to this day stand up to the test of time (nearly 15 years since its release), but the real significance of this release is its poignancy of lyrics about the southern lifestyle coupled with its attachment to the genre of southern rock. Nothing seems forced on this record that could be a fine addition to Skynyrd’s own catalogue.
It’s a tale of excess and alienation and though those are common themes of rock operas, with Patterson’s deft songwriting and the band’s incredible controlled playing, Southern Rock Opera covers new ground with its poor man versus rich man ethics. It explores the troubled past of southern culture through the devil disguised as George Wallace, all the while reclaiming a new appreciation for the music of Lynryd Skynyrd. (It’s probably no coincidence that five years after its release, Skynyrd was entered into the Hall of Fame). The Drive-By Truckers themselves have been through a lot even by typical rock band standards and it comes through in the song’s sincerity. This song cycle never turns cheesy though it easily could have.
This brilliant coming of age work is full of historic references from Neil Young and Bear Bryant to the racial prejudice that makes songs like ‘Birmingham” soar. And like the band it’s emulating, it’s blazing three guitar rock that for my money beats a three penny opera anytime.