Exhuming the ghosts of Southern rock

With their ambitious new opus, the Drive-By Truckers explore the folklore of Lynyrd Skynyrd and their sweet home, Alabama

Patterson Hood knows a little something about what he likes to call "the duality of the Southern thing."

It's an idea that consumes much of the music and imagery surrounding his Athens-based rock band, the Drive-By Truckers. In particular, it's a major theme of the group's latest release, the sprawling double-CD effort Southern Rock Opera. On one level, the record tells the story of the rise and tragic fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Southern rock's most characteristic band. As much as anything, it's an ass-kicking re-enactment of Southern rock's glory days, screaming triple guitars and all. More broadly, it's about growing up a product of the New South and all its contradictions.

Hood knows about duality because he lives it. His scruffy, uneven beard, trucker cap and goofy grin almost scream, "You can take the boy out of Alabama, but you can't take Alabama out of the boy." The 37-year-old songwriter is at home — a wood-paneled, three-room apartment down a dead-end road outside Athens — where he's flopping temporarily before going on tour again. The discussion turns to growing up in Alabama's relatively isolated northwest corner, the quad-cities of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, Florence and Muscle Shoals. It's a poor, largely industrial area where the KKK and TVA once roamed, where Jesus and legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant still reign, and where, to this day, you have to drive 40 minutes out of town to reach a major interstate.

But as with northwest Alabama itself, what you see at first is only half the story on Patterson Hood. He hated football growing up and considered himself, in spirit if not looks, a punk rocker. Today, his music is rich in detail and metaphor, full of articulate insights and Southern gothic poetry. All of which has culminated in Southern Rock Opera, a stunning work that's as much a postmodernist critique as it is an adaptation of regional folklore.

Take, for instance, the album's original title, "Betamax Guillotine," ultimately deemed too tasteless and graphic but still the album's central conceit. On one level, it refers to a bit of Skynyrd folklore surrounding the 1977 plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and two others. According to legend, Van Zant died before impact, from a blow to the head by a VCR that had come loose in the cabin. On another level, "Betamax Guillotine" echoes the idea that "video killed the radio star" — that the rise of MTV in the early '80s spelled the death of Skynyrd's brand of "real man" rock, the kind made by hairy, unkempt folks deemed insufficiently telegenic for the video age. The kind made by the Drive-By Truckers today.

Hood may look the part of a textbook redneck, but his level of self-awareness and artistic sophistication makes him, at the very least, a redneck savant, a roughened but enlightened bard who understands the world from which he came.

"What's more contradictory than us as a place and a people?" says Hood of the South. "We're known supposedly for our manners, and yet we're known for our meanness. And there are the brutal chapters in our history in regards to the race thing. But at the same time, a lot of race relations are better in the South than other parts of the country. There were riots in Boston when they first started bussing. All the things that are so convenient to label being Southern have happened everywhere."

To understand Hood, it's important to know that — as much as he's a product of the working-class Deep South that surrounded him in northwest Alabama — he's also a son of that area's great soul-music legacy. Patterson's father, David Hood, was the bassist in the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. David laid the distinctive low-end bounce on classic R&B records by Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, the Staple Singers and others. Later, when the rhythm section opened its own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, David Hood and his partners hosted rock acts hoping to bask in whatever residual soul was to be found in the area. Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, even the Rolling Stones recorded there. It's also where Lynyrd Skynyrd made its first demos.

So while most kids played football and had parents who worked in factories, David's kid got to play with Bob Dylan's son (while their dads worked in the studio) and had a parent whose career involved collaborating with black folks. Such is the duality of Patterson Hood.

"I was just a freak," Hood remembers of childhood. "There was nothing in the kids in my school's background to give them any kind of understanding. But I learned pretty early not to come to school and talk about Dad hanging out with the Rolling Stones. Ninety percent of the kids would go, 'Who?' And the one who didn't would think I was bragging. I pretty much got beat up every day until sixth grade."

Though they formed in Athens six years ago, the Drive-By Truckers are, in many ways, an Alabama band. Three of Hood's four current bandmates also hail from the Muscle Shoals area. One, guitarist Rob Malone, recently moved to Birmingham, where the band recorded Southern Rock Opera earlier this year. The Truckers even fly the Alabama flag on stage during shows.

Earlier this month, while awaiting finished copies of Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers went to Birmingham to play what was potentially their most significant gig ever: opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Of course, this was no longer the same Skynyrd the Truckers celebrate in song — only two original members still play in the reformed classic-rock troupe. Still, here was a band coming face to face with the object (or the closest thing to it) of its mythologizing. Did Skynyrd know about the record? Would they be flattered? Humbled? Or would they sic their lawyers on the Truckers' unauthorized representation of the band?

"I'm as curious as anybody," Hood said the day before the show. "If I end up in a one-on-one conversation with [founding Skynyrd guitarist] Gary Rossington and it's going pretty good, I'd definitely like to put [the CD] in his hands and say, 'Here's what we did in tribute to y'all. Thanks for the rock.'"

Ironically, Hood — along with his fellow Truckers — grew up rejecting Lynyrd Skynyrd as too emblematic of redneck culture. Says Truckers guitarist and co-founder Mike Cooley, "It was what all those redneck assholes listened to — the ones who popped me on the side of the head with their class ring every day. So why wouldn't I turn against it? You grow up around that stuff, and everything gets shoved down your throat — God, momma, country and Lynyrd Skynyrd. You gotta rebel against something, and there it was."

For Hood, the rejection was even more personal. After all, he associated Skynyrd with his dad — and that sometimes left a bitter taste. "I didn't necessarily see my dad a lot as a kid," Hood says. "He was almost like a cool older brother who was doing this real cool thing somewhere else. I'd see him and ask him about it, and he would give me a two-word answer and kind of move on. It was a source of some animosity from me growing up. I took it like, 'Why's he wanting to keep me away from all the cool stuff?'"

Instead of the stuff played in the high-school parking lot, Hood gravitated toward newer, more alien music. He got a job at the local record shop, read magazines like Trouser Press religiously, and schooled himself in the songs of the Clash, XTC and the Replacements.

Hood met Cooley in the early '80s at the University of North Alabama. The two formed a bond around their shared musical taste and desire to escape northern Alabama. In 1985, they founded Adam's House Cat, an alt-rock band that gained a regional following despite its conscious effort not to be a Southern rock band.

Adam's House Cat nearly hit the big time when it won Musician magazine's unsigned band contest in 1988 and began fielding label offers. But when deal after deal fell through, the group was left with an unreleased record and a whole lot of lost momentum. By 1991, they'd disbanded.

Hood and Cooley stuck together, though. As they had been singing in "Buttholeville" — an old Adam's House Cat song that has become a Drive-By Truckers favorite — "one day I'm gonna get out of Buttholeville." Finally, they did. First they moved to Memphis and hated it. Then to Auburn, back in Alabama. They occasionally gigged as the duo Virgil Cane, trying to assemble new bands. But nothing lasted.

After a falling out with Cooley, Hood migrated to Athens in 1995 to live with his girlfriend, whom he'd later marry and, later still, divorce. As he moved further from home, the things he'd been trying to escape began to seem less worth running from. As he came to understand the preconceptions outsiders had of the South, the dichotomy of Hood's upbringing became more and more a source of fascination to him, his own Southernness inspiring a font of material to write about.

Upon arriving in north Georgia, Hood discovered he wasn't alone. By 1995, the so-called Redneck Underground had been long established in the Atlanta/Athens music scene. Acts like Slim Chance and the Convicts, the Diggers, Deacon Lunchbox and Redneck GReece Deluxe offered a do-it-yourself stew of old-time country and Southern rock 'n' roll styles that skewered the negative stereotypes of the South while revering homegrown music, redneck style and proud regionalism.

"I guess we sort of made it cool to be country," says Slim Chance (who contributes to CL under his real name, James Kelly). "The Convicts and our circle of friends were all educated, professional people who lived in the city but loved NASCAR, classic country music and the South, without the ignorance and racism that most people associate with rednecks."

Hood began to develop his own spin on the spirit that birthed the Redneck Underground. He combined the proud redneck sensibilities of the bands that preceded him, but with a more sinister veneer that looked outside the subculture for inspiration. By then, he'd patched things up with Cooley and, along with some Athens scenesters, they formed the Drive-By Truckers, naming their debut CD Gangstabilly.

"I always liked gangsta rap, and I was like, 'This is kind of a country equivalent,'" Hood says. "It's kind of in-your-face and blunt and belligerent. Approaching with a rap group's militancy — or a punk band's — something that normally was approached in softer tones. When we came around, the big bands in the alt-country scene were, like, Son Volt and Wilco, and we certainly were way more belligerent than they were."

Even as the Redneck Underground scene began to decline in the late '90s, the Truckers' reputation grew, first in Georgia and Alabama, then as far north as New York City, where they earned favorable notices in the Village Voice and even The New York Times. With 1998's Gangstabilly and 1999's Pizza Deliverance, the Drive-By Truckers offered songs drenched in Southern culture — sometimes as a matter of shtick. But more often, they were creepily matter-of-fact ("Bulldozers and Dirt," "Tales Facing Up") or touchingly humanistic ("The Living Bubba," "Uncle Frank").

Where early lineups featured a stand-up bass and pedal steel, and leaned more toward a country sound, personnel changes and the difficulties of touring with those instruments helped the group evolve into one of the harder-rocking bands to emerge from the alt-country sphere. As Athens musicians fell by the wayside, more often than not they'd be replaced by old Muscle Shoals friends, including Rob Malone — who joined to play bass but has since become the band's third guitarist — and Earl Hicks, who helped produce Pizza Deliverance and last year's live album (Alabama Ass Whuppin'), and recently came aboard as bassist.

By the time the Truckers recorded Southern Rock Opera, they'd made — in sound, membership and vision — an almost complete return to their sweet home, Alabama.

For all the fun the Redneck Underground had with Southern iconography, musical references were mostly limited to country music and rockabilly. Few had stooped low enough to deal with the Southern rock of the '70s, as defined by the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and .38 Special. In the '90s, Southern rock enjoyed a virtually non- existent level of cultural currency — and for the most part, that's still the case today.

"When I came to Athens, there was no Skynyrd on the radio," Hood says. "If anyone yelled 'Free Bird' at the club, they were being very ironic and it was very much a joke."

But if the idea of Southern rock as nostalgia still lies far below the radar of popular culture, then the Drive-By Truckers might just be shock troops on the front lines of what cultural anthropologists call "structures of feeling," or the slowly shifting individual perceptions that bring styles and ideas into public currency. In fact, the idea for Southern Rock Opera has been brewing since before the band itself existed.

As Earl Hicks recalls, it first came up back in 1995, when Hood helped him move from Muscle Shoals to Athens. On a trip back to Alabama to pick up another load, Hicks says, "We started talking about a lot of the themes that ended up being on the record. How we didn't really listen to a lot of Skynyrd when we were in high school because that was what the jocks were listening to. But then, when we moved away and actually started listening to it again, we really rediscovered it and became amazed at how misunderstood it was, like the way much of the South was misunderstood."

They first discussed writing a screenplay that depicted the dramatic rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd's original incarnation, but as they realized they had no clue how to go about getting a movie made, Hood's thinking gravitated toward music. Soon, Cooley and Rob Malone were involved in brainstorming ideas for what they termed their "rock opera." The three songwriters contributed pre-written songs that fit the themes of the story, and they also split up the chores of writing new songs that told parts of the narrative. Over the course of years, the project developed on the slow track until they'd built a critical mass of material to put it all in place.

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.??