15 Years Ago: Drive-By Truckers Explore Widescreen Themes With ‘Southern Rock Opera’
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Drive-By Truckers released Southern Rock Opera on Sept. 12, 2001, but the idea actually traces back to their earliest days as a band. Formed at the University of North Alabama in 1996 by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the Drive-By Truckers hurtled to wider attention with this hard-eyed, politically astute double album based loosely on the Lynyrd Skynyrd saga. But how they got there, and what came next, may be just as interesting as anything inside this epic release.
“Southern Rock Opera was recorded in Birmingham, upstairs in a uniform shop during an early September heat wave, with no air-conditioning,” Hood told Creative Loafing in 2003. “We had to turn the fans off when we were recording, and we worked from 6PM to 6AM. So Southern Rock Opera was fun to write, but we had a miserable time making it.”
Their concept, however, went beyond simply retelling the soaring successes and devastating losses associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd. They wanted to use this familiar narrative to get at deeper truths about what it means to grow up in the South today – to live in an entirely new world, while surrounded by the context of an old one.
Hood began ruminating about it on a road trip with early Drive-By Truckers bassist Earl Hicks. “We got into this conversation about the misunderstood South and people’s misconceptions,” Hood told Pop Matters in 2001. “And in the course of the conversation, we started talking about Lynyrd Skynyrd and what an incredible story that is – even from a kind of literary point of view – and, from a cinematic point of view, how it would make a great film.”
At first, they considered turning it into a screen play. “And then we sobered up,” Hood admitted, with a laugh. “Around that time, I started putting together what would become the Drive-By Truckers and, I don’t know, that story just kind of morphed into the idea of doing a rock opera.”
Holding the concept together was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that Hood had actually long avoided as a youngster. Long after he left Alabama for Athens, Ga., he says he gained some perspective. “It’s like the more I studied and really learned about Skynyrd,” Hood told Eye of Newt in 2015, “the more I really appreciated and kinda fell in love with their music and what they had done.”
Listen to Drive-By Truckers Perform ‘Three Great Alabama Icons’
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Today, Skynyrd represent “the ultimate underdogs-come-from-nothing-and-become-this-huge-great-thing,” Hood told Pop Matters. “And then the tragic ending and even the coincidences of the story. If you made that s— up; no one would believe it. The fact that they rehearsed for years in a swamp, and then their plane crashed into a swamp. Plus, the story was so full of contradictions, as was the South. It became such a perfect metaphor for exploring the South and its contradictions.”
DBT went on to release two studio albums (1998’s Gangstabilly and 1999’s Pizza Deliverance) and a live project (2000’s Alabama Ass Whuppin’), all while Southern Rock Opera germinated. Along the way, Hood, Cooley and Rob Malone continued setting asides songs for their semi-autobiographical project. What they hadn’t planned on, as sessions continued for their magnum opus, was running out of money.
So, they came up with an inventive concept in which the band solicited outside investors to pay for manufacturing and distribution. Spreading the word to fans via an online news group and through word of mouth, the Drive-By Truckers raised enough money to produce 5,000 copies of Southern Rock Opera and to mount a regional support tour. Dave Schools, bassist for Widespread Panic, was among those who reportedly donated.
As the album took off, however, the Drive-By Truckers were caught short again. Demand was outpacing their ability to fund and press Southern Rock Opera themselves. Ultimately, the band signed a world-wide distribution deal with Lost Highway, who reissued the project on July 16, 2002.
“It was really incredible when we put out Southern Rock Opera ourselves and it got all the attention and press, but it was also frustrating because people couldn’t find it,” Hood told Creative Loafing. “One thing we couldn’t handle well ourselves was distribution. Like, we lost 1,000 records that we never got paid for, and we had to do a second pressing before we were ready. We needed money for that, and Lost Highway made the best offer at the time. They were able to get the record out, even did a vinyl release, so it was in stores.”
That struggle, and their unwillingness to let a great idea go, echoes throughout Southern Rock Opera, too. “The central theme of this record is not living in fear,” Hood told Pop Matters. “It’s about not letting your fears stop you from doing whatever it is you feel like you’re put here to do.”
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