Southern Rock Opera

Drive-By Truckers

Lost Highway, 2002

REVIEW BY: Phil Jones


This album couldn’t be more Southern rock if it was wrapped in the Confederate flag and whistled “I Wish I Lived In Dixie” as the box opened. 

This is the third offering from Drive-By Truckers based around the writing partnership of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, and it is a sprawling double-disc concept album loosely looking at perceptions of the South, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a fictional band, Betamax Guillotine (whose career path copies Skynard’s).

The first thing to say is that this record should be played loud, as it is guitar riff central, many of which feel familiar. Track one, “Days Of Graduation,” sets the scene with the hero of the album’s best friend dying in a car crash, with the stereo still playing “Free Bird” when the paramedics arrive as Hood drawls “You know it’s a very long song.”

This kicks immediately into “Ronnie & Neil,” which looks at the relationship between Ronnie Van Zant and the liberal Neil Young who, after initially clashing, became life- long friends. This perception of the South and the reality is revisited on a number of occasions in Act 1 of the opera, especially on “The Three Great Alabama Icons” where Hood doesn’t sing but narrates about Bear Bryant, Van Zant, and mainly Governor George Wallace, whom he portrays as somebody who compromised his politics and adopted racist segregationist policy’s to ensure his success at the polls yet by the ‘70s is repealing those laws and receiving the biggest share of the black vote. However, they don’t let him get off in “Wallace,” where the Devil, a Southern gentleman, welcomes him to hell: “I guess Hell’s just the place for kiss ass politicians who pander to assholes / So throw another log on the fire, boys/ George Wallace is coming to stay.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The rest of Act 1 includes the rockabilly “Guitar Man Upstairs,” which belts through at 100 miles an hour, and three inter changeable rockers: “Dead Drunk Naked,” “Birmingham,” and “Zip City.” It concludes with a passionate desert rocker, “Moved,” with Western-sounding guitars and a distorted vocal.

Act II opens with the best song of the opera, “Let There Be Rock.” With a monster beat, it tells the tale of not getting to see Lynyrd Skynyrd (although having tickets to the fateful “Streets Survivors Tour”) but many other rock bands – Molly Hatchet, Ozzy Osbourne, 38 Special, and AC/DC – with Hood screaming “With Bon Scott singing let there be rock!” before the guitar solos for the remaining minute of the track.

This is followed by three songs which just keep up the feel of the record without adding or detracting: “Road Cases,” which looks a band dreaming of their future (“Gonna get ourselves a big tour bus, maybe even an airplane”), “Women Without Whiskey,” and “Plastic Flowers On The Highway.”

For “Cassie’s Brother,” DBT are joined on vocals by Kelly Hogan, who oozes seduction for a ‘70s rhythm and blues torch song and shows Patterson Hoods’ heritage;  his father Dave was bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm section.

“Life In The Factory” is a tribute to Skynyrd, featuring the line “Sold-out shows and platinum records / New York critics and redneckers / Bunch of boys from Florida had them eating from their hands.”

The last three songs blur the line between the Betamax Guillotine,  Lynyrd Skynyrd, and DBT, all around the fatal plane flight, firstly with up-tempo numbers “Shut Up And Get On The Plane” and “Greenville To Baton Rouge.” Then, things close with a lament, “Angels And Fuselage,” about the last few moments before the plane crashes, including a haunting harmonica as he sings, “Scared shitless, these angels I see in the trees / Waiting for me.”

While the record wouldn’t miss one or two songs and with the right track list would be a dynamite single disc, you have to take your hats off to any band with the guts this century to pull together a double-disc concept album. So pour that can of Sterling Bigmouth (don’t know what it is, but it sounds great) or glass of Jack Daniels and sit back to bask in the glory of the Drive-By Truckers.

Rating: B+

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