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Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Success Story #1: Drive-By Truckers - Southern Rock Opera

So, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about concept album losers.  The fact is, there are some fantastic winners out there also.  I want to wrap up this series by talking about a few of them that deserve mention.  The first two won’t be ones you’ve likely heard of before, but you owe it to yourself to give them a listen.

This week, I want to talk about Drive-By Truckers’ masterful album Southern Rock Opera.

There may not be an album released in the last twenty years that was more important to me personally than this one.  Drive-By Truckers is a band that my wife and I used to see regularly when we lived in Athens, GA.  We rarely missed a show and saw them play probably twenty times or more while we lived there.  

Years later, after we moved to Southern California, we made more than one trip back to Athens to visit family and organized the visits around shows they were playing.  I have an autographed poster from one of those shows where the entire band thanked us for making the trip.  It's even signed by the artist, Wes Freed, who was playing in the opening band The Shiners.  It was given to us after a show at Tasty World in Athens.  

It was completely unexpected and meant more to us than they could possibly know.  The day I part with it will be the day it's pried from my cold, dead fingers.  

Drive-By Truckers will always be one of my favorite bands and a very big reason for that is Southern Rock Opera.  Whether you like their style of music or not, there is no denying the incredible achievement this band made when crafting this album.  It uses the story of legendary band Lynyrd Skynyrd as a framework to address the American South in general.  Songs explore topics as broad and deep as racism, religious conservatism and the conflicting feelings of the modern southern man.  That last part is what resonated with me.  It has to do with recognizing the mistakes of the past while embracing your roots unapologetically.  In other words, being proud of the deep sense of family, community and strong moral ethic, while acknowledging all of the racist and cultural shortcomings that personally make me sick to even think about. 

Southern Rock Opera tackles all of that and more by playing to the Truckers' strengths.  What this band does best is tell stories.  Their songs are character studies that do more with three verses and a chorus than many authors do with three hundred pages to work with.

For instance, take the song "Zip City".  It never once preaches to you.  The entire song is sung from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old boy who has a fast car, too much time on his hands and "no good intentions".  He's traveling to see a girl in Zip City because it's something to do.  He's been dating her despite the fact that she won't sleep with him, he doesn't love her and there's absolutely no future in what he's doing.  The song paints a picture (which the best songs always do), but this song isn't about how great it is to be in love or how awesome the party is.  This song is showing you a moment in time as this kid reflects on where he is, why he's there and what (if anything) he's going to do about it.

Almost every song on the record takes a similar approach; never preaching at you but instead just presenting the picture as it is and letting you make up your own mind about what it's trying to say.

Southern Rock Opera is a beast of an album.  It’s not apologetic, but faces the issues and flaws of its subject matter head on.  It contains a song (“The Southern Thing”) that truly encapsulates feelings I've had my entire life which had never, EVER, been properly articulated by another artist.

In short, it’s one of my all-time favorite albums and if you listen to it from beginning to end, you'll feel like you've been on an epic journey by the time Hood and guest vocalist Kelly Hogan sing "Angels and Fuselage" (a song about the plane crash that took Skynyrd down). 

One of the coolest things about Southern Rock Opera is the story of how the band brought it to market.  The Truckers had released two albums on their own label.  They knew just how ambitious releasing a double album was going to be, especially a concept album like they had in mind.  Instead of seeking a record label to foot the bill, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley put together a business plan.  They presented it to potential investors and pitched to them exactly how they would pay that investment back with touring over time.  Remember, this was happening at a time when the internet was still fairly young.  In fact, there was no model out there like Kickstarter for them to raise the funds.  They did it through presentations, e-mails and getting in front of people. 

The idea was ingenious and so well thought out that years later, Hood was invited to speak about it to a class of business students at the University of Georgia.  While that alone is impressive, you have to think about the motivation behind what they were doing.  By raising their own funds, they were able to craft their vision exactly as they saw it, with zero interference from a record label.  

In past installments, I’ve discussed how creating in a vacuum completely killed concept albums, however in this case there's one key difference.  This album was a band effort, not the vision of one songwriter with an ego to stroke.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the band put Southern Rock Opera out on their own label at first.  They toured behind it and sold copies out of the van as they went.  In less than a year, the buzz about the album was so big that Lost Highway records came calling and agreed to distribute it nationally.  The Truckers' investors were paid back with interest and it cemented the band as an American success story.  

Critically, it is hailed as a great album.  It was given 4 out of 5 stars in Rolling Stone, 5 out of 5 stars on and has been featured in dozens of books and articles as one of the best rock albums of all time.

Eight studio albums later, they are still putting out amazing music.  I literally can't point to one album and say it's not worth listening to.  If you’ve never heard it though, Southern Rock Opera is a great introduction to the band and you can find the entire album on YouTube.  Below, is a link to an animated video of “Zip City”, the song I mention above.  

Should you want to hear a different album though, I would point you toward American Band, their latest record which, while released prior to his election, became a rallying cry to those frustrated by Donald Trump’s rise and the racial tensions that bubbled up to the surface.  

Even if you don't agree with the politics, you have to admire the way they frame the issues of gun violence and police brutality in modern day America.  Below is a link to "Ever South" from that album, a song where Patterson Hood sings about how no matter where you are, if you're from the American South, you bring that with you.


Lisanne Harrington said...

While this band is not really my cuppa joe, the whole Southern thing really resonated with me. My roots are in Texas and Oklahoma, and I also feel the pull of past mistakes while being proud of my heritage.

I'd like to have heard Hood's speech. Maybe it could help give me pointers about marketing...

Eagerly awaiting your next installment.

Willy P said...

A highly effective regional piece of work. Listening to this really gave me some tendrils to be able to connect with the Southern reality. I can’t believe I listened to the whole thing. 3 to 5 songs was the prediction of how much I would get through, but this gets under your skin like a lazy hung over tick working its way into your bloodstream. Now I understand why you are a fan.

The contrast between this South and the South of California I grew up in is considerable. The temperament, issues and poetic detailing all triggered respective associations about the So-Cal region for me - what great art is supposed to do!

Being able to see a band live repeatedly is such a potentially influential thing – especially being so content rich. That is a very nice memento that you have there. The disparity between this work and the previously explored defects is appreciated very much. Thank you.

Cary Christopher said...

Willy P - I thought of you when I wrote this. Years ago, I tried to pass you their first two records and you gave them back after a couple of weeks and said, "Nope. They're just way too rough around the edges." To your credit, they really are. Like you said, I saw all of those songs being performed before they were ever recorded so I had an affinity there before the records came out. Southern Rock Opera was truly a great leap forward for them and every album since has been remarkable.

I'd highly suggest you check out at least the lyrics to one song from those first two albums though. Look up "Uncle Frank" and you'll see why I connected to their songwriting so quickly. It does so much with so little. They effectively explain the dark side of the TVA project through a character study in a little over three minutes... and it sticks with you! There's a documentary about the band called "The Secret to a Happy Ending". In it, there's a professor of history who comments that they do a better job teaching that subject in that song than all of the books he's read combined.

That's the genius of this band. Other songs on later albums like "Putting People on the Moon", "Used to Be a Cop", "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife", etc. tackle similar situations through the eyes of characters.

Also, everyone should read the lyrics to "What it Means". They actually lost some fans over that one because they took the side of Black Lives Matter.

I don't really have any heroes anymore, but Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are pretty damn close.

Gregg said...

Fantastic writing as usual. I love this album and it’s because you and Will told me to check it out. It is one of my all time favorites too. And I grew up in the northern part of the country. But I learned so much about the south from this album.

Willy P said...

I will definitely revisit this. By the time I got to the 3rd song I was saying to myself that I could totally sit down and read the lyrics to this and be very satisfied. The writing is way beyond the music, but then again, where else could you put it?

Are many people of the South this astute, or are these some rare birds? I already know the answer, so I guess it is rhetorical. I do think the insight is driven by the climate. You want to be as efficient as possible and plan every move, evaluate every situation to minimize any unnecessary suffering. Southern Efficiency.

Cary Christopher said...

Glad to hear it Gregg! I saw your post on Facebook earlier last week about "What It Means". I loved that you were getting comments from people who were saying things like, "It's so refreshing to hear a southern band sing about things like this."

There's a story to be told about the southern experience that few people tell very well. That story is about what Hood calls, "The Duality of the Southern Thing". Growing up, I never realized there was a difference between where I lived and the rest of the country. When I got older, I'd hear comedians digging on the South but still, it didn't bother me. Hell, Hee Haw did the same thing and those were "southerners" in my mind. It was only after I went into the Navy and was exposed to people who were from the North that I realized there was a real stigma to being a southerner.

There were quite a few years where I just hid it as best I could to avoid the inevitable jokes, etc. After I moved back to Athens in 1991, that all changed. I embraced it and when I moved back to California in 1993, I loved where I came from. It made me who I am and I'm proud of it. I'm not proud of all of the history of the South, but I'm blessed to have been born there and raised the way I was. I don't mean that as a slight on anyone else either. I just realize how special I had it as part of an extended, close family with more cousins than I can count, support in the darkest times and exposure to a true, small town feeling. You go back to Athens and people on the street look you in the eye and say hello when they walk by. Here in SoCal, people try hard not to make eye contact.

That's probably what I miss the most.

Cary Christopher said...

Willy-P - I would say there are more and more people who are raising their voices and showing just how astute they are. If you want to see exactly what I'm talking about, check out

That's a website with excellent writing that will turn you on to a host of great authors and artists who represent exactly what I'm talking about in the article. It's one of my favorite sites to read each week.

Willy P said...

CC, What do you consider the actual South? and is there a Faux South? I have only been briefly in AR, a couple of visits to GA, and a summer in VA. When I say the South, I mean culture and mentality specifically.

Cary Christopher said...

I'm not sure I can answer that question completely. Regionally, just going off what I always considered to be "the South", it would be Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana. Culturally, I'd say all of those states plus to a lesser degree North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and East Texas.