The Duality Of The Southern Thing: Southern Rock Opera Turns 20

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Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera

Released September 25th, 2001 on Soul Dump Records

Produced by Dick Cooper, David Barbe, and Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers, formed at the University of Alabama in the mid-Nineties, were for their first two albums largely an alt-country band that leaned seriously toward the country end of the spectrum, writing songs that were far less serious than contemporaries like Wilco. They gathered a pretty fair following and released a live album that showed off the rockier side of their sound, becoming something like a neo-Southern rock band. Touring behind these records contributed to this change; they became a much tighter group capable of doing more than writing mostly-jokey country songs like “18 Wheels Of Love.”

They turned their efforts toward making a real album. That’s not to say that Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance weren’t ‘real’ albums, but they wanted to make something a little more serious – something they could point to one day and say “this was it, this was our magnum opus.” It wouldn’t be, but only because The Dirty South and Brighter Than Creations Dark exist (OK, maybe English Oceans too). The impetus for the album came from an idea that Patterson Hood and Earl Hicks had before DBT formed, a screenplay about growing up in the South that revolved around the plane crash that killed off the heart of Lynyrd Skynyrd. From this eventually came a sprawling, 2-album song cycle full of incisive observations on the ‘duality of the southern thing’ – the pride and glory of the South, balanced carefully with its ongoing history of racism, poverty, and hypocrisy. Album one details a kid growing up in the South, wrestling with his conflicted feelings about his home and worshipping Lynyrd Skynyrd as one of the Three Great Alabama Icons. Album two follows that kid as he finds his own southern rock glory on the road, becoming a star before dying in a fiery plane crash just like Skynyrd. George Wallace guests, as one of the other Alabama icons whom the devil welcomes to hell with a batch of sweet tea and some Southern hospitality.

The album was recorded in miserable conditions, upstairs from a uniform shop with no AC during an early autumn heat wave. It was also hard to finance, at first. Lacking the money and means to do everything themselves, the band turned to the fairly large online fanbase they had cultivated. They offered 15% interest on loans from fans to fund the recording and production of the album, and managed to raise $23,000. It was a very early example of how the internet could be used to get around traditional label gatekeeping on the early end of a band’s career. With the money, they printed 5,000 copies of the album and bought a better used van than the one they were touring in at the time. As it turned out, that wasn’t nearly enough. The album got a big word-of-mouth following, and after Rolling Stone gave the album a four-star review it became obvious that more records were needed. They signed a deal with Lost Highway Records for distribution and never looked back.

Perhaps more impactful was the trouble they ran into during the tour behind the album. Guitarist Rob Malone left the band in late 2001, which left them reduced to two guitars in a three-guitar setup. In order to fix this, they asked fellow Alabama scenester Jason Isbell to join the tour. He would, of course, begin making contributions and join the band until 2007, contributing a number of stellar songs including what is arguably DBT’s most well-known song, “Goddamn Lonely Love.”

The band has eclipsed Southern Rock Opera since its release, but it’s still a great double album well worth the listen, especially if you’ve ever loved bands like Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, or .38 Special. It rocks, and it rocks hard. It marks the moment the band got their shit together and made something lasting – a mode they’ve been in for twenty years now.

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