Southern Men

Georgia-based Drive-By Truckers create an acclaimed 'rock opera' inspired by the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The Drive-By Truckers are inspiring.

This five-man rock 'n' roll band has three guitarists and the shared desire to inhabit a dream. It also has the talent and hard-working discipline to make it happen.

But life isn't a fairy tale, and everything comes at a cost, the group has found.

"We played 400 gigs in two and a half years and I got divorced," singer, songwriter and guitarist Patterson Hood said via e-mail.

"I put everything I own in storage, and I'm literally living on the road. But I have made a ton of great friends all over the country, seen some amazing shit and learned more than my first 30 years combined. It's really living a dream, but I'm very aware of the cost and sometimes it's flat-out brutal," Hood said

As brutal as life on the road is, the DBTs' efforts aren't all for naught. The group has been covered by high profile publications such as Newsday, the New York Times and the Village Voice, and it recently was featured on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition.

Rolling Stone awarded four stars (out of five) to the band's 2001 release, Southern Rock Opera, and two of its critics listed the two-CD album among their top-10 picks for the year.

The self-released Southern Rock Opera is the DBTs' fourth album in as many years.

Dedicated to the legendary band Lynyrd Skynyrd, it was originally meant to be a screenplay based on Skynyrd's history--a narrative about the band's rise to fame and the October 1977 plane crash that ended the lives of front-man Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister and back-up singer Cassie Gaines.

Fortunately for music fans, the Truckers realized they neither had the means nor the knowledge to make a movie and the project shifted to a musical one.

In the works since 1995--a year before the band even formed--Southern Rock Opera tells the story of fictional band Betamax Guillotine. The band's name, coined by DBTs bassist Earl Hicks, acknowledges the urban legend that Van Zant died of a blow to the head from the crashing plane's errant VCR.

Act 1 opens in the late 1970s, with a car wreck after the hero's high-school graduation. The album goes on to explore the misunderstood relationship between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant (remember the feud that fueled Young's "Southern Man" and Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama"?), the desire to get out of a dead-end home town and the stereotypes that dog the South.

Hood refers to "the duality of the Southern thing" to describe the juxtaposition of traditional Southern hospitality and an infamous lack of tolerance among some Southerners.

That duality is the main theme of Act 1. The song "Ronnie and Neil" counters the blowing up of a black Birmingham church with the fact that Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin came to Sheffield, Ala., "to record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound."

Although based in Athens, Ga., the Truckers hold close to their hearts the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and the classic school of R&B music to which it gave its name. They ought to; most of the band hails from northern Alabama.

On a personal level, Hood is very familiar with the Muscle Shoals sound. His father, David Hood, was the bassist in the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, the four members of which opened the recording studio in 1969 and have worked with such great artists as Franklin, Pickett, Willie Nelson, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Act 2 picks up with the hero--now in his dream band and having hit the big time--preparing to get on stage. This act's songs detail life on the road, as well as that lifestyle's dangers. The album ends with the protagonist realizing the band's plane is crashing and adding up the cost of his dreams. He's "scared shitless of what's coming next. I'm scared shitless, these angels I see in the trees are waiting for me," according to the lyrics.

Hood said during the NPR interview that the hero's dreams had come true, but that he had lost something along the way and is left wondering if it was all worth it. "I certainly would like to think it was all for something," Hood said.

For the band's fans, the DBTs' efforts are most definitely worth something.

Seeing the band play live is something else. It's a real rock experience. The members seem to have fun playing loud, and their songs are catchy.

The three-guitar lineup--Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell join Hood on axes--beefs up the rockin'. Isbell is a recent addition, as longtime member Rob Malone left the band mid-tour this past fall.

The Truckers have a great momentum going, and it is heart-warming to know that they have done it all without the backing of a label.

Jenn Bryant, DBTs Web designer, chalks it up to the simple fact that the band enjoys playing music.

"Y'know, I've known these guys for years and they have paid their dues, that's one thing," she said.

"But really," Bryant continued, "I give most of the credit to the fact that they love what they do. You can't go to a show without seeing it; you can hear it in the recordings. That kind of energy and happiness--to be there with a guitar in their hands, singing and playing their asses off--is one of the very few things that can make a band exceptional, and it can't be purchased for any amount of money. Musicianship and talent aside, the band just flat-out charms the pants off of everyone."