ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 30, 2003
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.”