Patterson Hood on the Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera and the true meaning of Skynyrd



By Steve Newton

It doesn’t seem likely in today’s musical climate that any band would record a 90-minute concept album about 1970s rock and southern U.S. culture, focusing on the legend of doomed Dixie rock act Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s even more unlikely that such a CD would get critical raves from the likes of the Village Voice and Rolling Stone.

But that’s what happened in 2001 when the Drive-By Truckers released Southern Rock Opera, a two-disc epic sporting tunes about Skynyrd’s misunderstood friendship with Neil Young (“Ronnie and Neil”), its being falsely judged as racist for flying the Confederate flag (“The Three Great Alabama Icons”), and the October ’77 plane crash that took the lives of, among others, vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines (“Angels and Fuselage”).

One of the weirdest things about the project was the fact that singer-guitarist and main songwriter Patterson Hood—the son of famed Muscle Shoals session bassist David Hood—didn’t even become a devoted Skynyrd fan until he was in his 30s. And he grew up in Alabama, the Sweet Home State.

“I guess it was from my rebellious nature,” relates Hood, on the line from his current residence in Athens, Georgia, “and from havin’ it shoved down my throat for so long. I think it took getting far enough away from where I was from to where I was able to kinda make up my own mind about it.”

Hood, now 38, says that the idea behind Southern Rock Opera first took form as an outline of a screenplay that will probably never get filmed.

“It started out so differently from what it became,” he explains, “and somewhere along the way it became more personal. It’s like the more I studied and really learned about Skynyrd, the more I really appreciated and kinda fell in love with their music and what they had done.

“And it’s such an incredible story,” he adds. “That’s what drew me in initially, anyway. And I was interested in what it was about the initial hoopla surrounding them that had kept me from appreciating how good they were. Because it was quite obvious when I really started listening to ’em how much it was something that I would like, you know.

“I’m always drawn to well-written songs—that’s probably where my deepest passion lies—and Ronnie Van Zant’s songwriting was amazing, you know, and in the best of ways, ’cause it was so completely non-artsy or unpretentious or whatever. I mean, he could always say the most profound things in the very most simplistic language, and I really like that.”

As well as earning praise from some of America’s top music publications, Hood and his mates got the thumbs up where it really counted: from the surviving Skynyrd members themselves. The DBTs have actually shared the stage with the current Skynyrd incarnation six times in the last year or so.

“I’m not sure if they really necessarily like the record,” Hood ponders, “’cause about the most Gary Rossington [founding guitarist of Skynyrd] would say about it was that he thought it was ‘weird’. But I think when they saw us live they figured out that our hearts were in the right place. And their fans responded real well to it. The times we’ve opened for them we’ve gotten a pretty over-the-top response.”

Although Southern Rock Opera revolves around both the facts and folklore of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story, it also serves as a memory-jogging compendium of other hard-rocking acts from the days of flared jeans and 8-track tapes. At the beginning of “Let There Be Rock”, the track that opens Act II of the “opera”, Hood sings about attending a Blue Oyster Cult concert as a teenager and getting freaked out by its laser show, a rite of passage for heavy-metal kids in the ’70s.

He goes on to reminisce about seeing Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC, before the untimely deaths of respective band members Randy Rhoads (in a bizarre plane crash) and Bon Scott (from alcohol abuse).

Considering how many musicians have died via planes, parties, and automobiles, it makes you wonder if Hood has ever worried about the hazards of the profession himself. Wouldn’t the papers have a field day playing up the irony of a tragedy befalling a southern-rock band whose latest CD was about a tragedy befalling a southern-rock band?

“That was another aspect of the record where it became a lot more personal than we thought it would,” Hood says. “Because I was definitely pretty phobic about it, and I think all the guys were, to some extent. We did over 400 cities in a two-and-a-half-year period during the time that that record was being written and recorded, and you can’t help but think about that. For a while I couldn’t even sleep in the van.”

On the Drive-By Truckers’ upcoming CD, Decoration Day, there’s a song called “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”, which kicks off with the sound of a beer can being cracked. In it, Hood alludes to a close call the band had down in Florida on Interstate 10.

“We topped a hill on I-10 and there was a car comin’ in what should have been our lane—he was heading east in the westbound passing lane,” he recalls. “Fortunately we were in the right lane and not the left lane, or else we would have been creamed. And after that it was kinda like, ‘Well, I guess our number’s not up yet.’ And it really, if anything, kind of helped. I mean, to some extent I kind of got over [the phobia] after that.”

Patterson Hood sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On why the band chose to record the obscure 1976 Lynyrd Skynyrd tune “Cry for the Bad Man” for an upcoming Skynyrd tribute album: “To me, ‘Cry for the Bad Man’ is just one of the meanest, most pissed-off songs they ever cut, which made it pretty good for us to do.”

On whether or not he expects the band’s upcoming CD, Decoration Day, to be a certified hit: “I don’t really have any pipe dreams about hearin’ it on the radio or anything, but I couldn’t be more proud or any happier with the record itself. I mean, we pretty much made the record we dreamed of makin’ as teenagers.”

On whether or not he feels the dedication in Southern Rock Opera (“to America’s greatest rock and roll band, Lynyrd Skynyrd”) will alienate fans of that other “America’s greatest” group, Aerosmith: “Oh, I hope so! I love early Aerosmith and Rocks is truly one of the great ’70s records, but I don’t think anything after Draw the Line has been very good. At least Lynyrd Skynyrd has a really good excuse for never making another great record after Street Survivors.”

To hear the full audio of my 2003 interview with Patterson Hood–and my interviews with Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell as well–subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 275 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers, 1993
Dave Brock of Hawkwind, 1990
Roger Fisher from Heart, 1985
Colin Hay of Men at Work, 1983
Mark Kelly of Marillion, 1986
Luther Allison, 1995
Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats, 2007
J. Geils from the J. Geils Band, 2006
Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, 1997
Jason Newsted of Newsted (and Metallica), 2013
Marshall Crenshaw, 2013
Dan Hartman, 1984
Sean Costello, 2006
Roger Hodgson from Supertramp, 1998
Tommy Stinson from the Replacements, 1993
Brian Blush of the Refreshments, 1997
Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, 2003
Craig Northey of Strippers Union, 2021
Melissa Etheridge, 1990
Joe Jackson, 2003
Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity, 2001
David Ellefson of Megadeth, 1992
David Lee Roth, 2003
Grant Walmsley of the Screaming Jets, 1991
John Popper of Blues Traveler, 1991
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 2012
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1993
Ellen McIlwaine, 2001
Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks, 2012
J.D. Fortune of INXS, 2006
Fernando von Arb of Krokus, 1984
Gary Holt of Exodus, 1985
Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses, 1992
Scott Ian of Anthrax, 2012
Gary Lee Conner of Screaming Trees, 1992
Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, 1985
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 2003
Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions, 1992
Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, 2001
Jeff Keith of Tesla, 1988
Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels, 1992
Marc Bonilla, 1992
Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Bill Payne of Little Feat, 2002
Robbin Crosby of Ratt, 1989
Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, 1998
Alejandro Escovedo, 1997
Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Jeff Healey, 1988
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, 1991
Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

….with hundreds more to come

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