A Southern Thing

The Drive By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera and Contemporary Southern Identity

This essay was originally written, but never published, in November 2009. While I struggle to articulate why this essay came rushing back to me as I spend the week in Washington, DC, I suppose there is no better reason for this dose of academic nostalgia than the reconciliation of my own rather turbulent past few years shuttling around the South on a particularly racially-charged campaign and my present placelessness. - Mike McCollum (Jan 2017) 

Drive-by Truckers. Southern Rock Opera, New West Records, 2001.

Drive-by Truckers. Southern Rock Opera, New West Records, 2001.

Southern theorist C. Vann Woodward’s Burden of Southern History addresses whether by 1950 there was any usefulness in a southerner calling oneself southern. He answered that the collective historical experiences of the South where generations of scarcity and want, a pessimism in its social outlook and moral philosophy, and a deep historical consciousness all contribute to this distinct region.[1]

Contemporary southern artists are still coming to grips with their southern heritage. In 2001, the Drive-by Truckers—an Athens, Georgia, rock band—released the two-disc, Southern Rock Opera, with accompanying album art by Southern folk artists Wes Freed. The double album uses the story of a young man growing up in Alabama during the 1970s as a metaphor for the rise and fall of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The songs tell tales of drunks, churchgoers, George Wallace, widespread poverty, the Devil, Martin Luther King, stubborn good ol' boys and other relics of Southern pride and despair. By exploring the contradictions of Southern heritage Southern Rock Opera follows in the footsteps of Southern Renaissance writers, like William Faulkner, who sought to reconcile the region’s turbulent past with its present.

Howard W. Odum describes the Southern Renaissance as a literary world created from ashes of the antebellum South in his 1953 essay, “On Southern Literature and Southern Cultures.” “Both the old and the new culture abounded in sharp contrasts and logical paradoxes. There were many Souths, yet the South,” he says. “The South was American and un-American, righteous and wicked, Christian and barbaric. It was a South getting better, a South getting worse. It was strong and it was weak, it was white and it was black, it was rich and it was poor…” Odum adds that in Southern literature there is an “unequaled combination of blending what is usually called an ‘imaginary locale’ with a powerful reality of situation,” he says. “I have been close enough to Faulkner’s quicksands to sense something of their terrors and have often imagined, behind the cedars and columned houses, that anything could happen there.”[2] Indeed, gothic tropes abound in both Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi and the Drive-by Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera, reflecting the artists’ struggle to represent a holistic view of the South.

This essay seeks to examine the content and form of Southern Rock Opera to assert that the Drive-by Truckers’ version of Southern distinctiveness closely resembles the literary traditions of Southern Renaissance writers. The album also illustrates the concept of Southern identity as theorized by Woodward, and in so doing, Southern Rock Opera confronts essential questions of what it means to be from the South at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The seeds for what became the Drive-by Truckers band were planted in 1985 when Patterson Hood met Mike Cooley at the University of North Alabama and the two formed Adam’s Housecat, a punk band that won Musician Magazine’s“Best Unsigned Band” award in 1988. Adam’s Housecat evolved into The Drive-by Truckers by 1996 when Hood and Cooley were joined by Rob Malone (vocals, guitar), Earl Hicks (bass), and Brad Morgan (drums).[3]  While employed as a sound engineer during the mid-1990s at the High Hat—a small music club in Athens, Georgia—Hood began to immerse himself in the “Redneck Underground,” a musical subculture based in Atlanta/Athens, Georgia that emerged in the 1980s with the music of Greg Dean Smalley, Deacon Lunchbox, and Slim Chance and the Convicts.  Smalley, who died of AIDS in 1996, founded “Bubbapalooza,” a parody of the Lollapalooza alternative rock festival with a focus on southern roots rock. Hood wrote in a 2007 article for Paste magazine that Smalley’s band, The Diggers, were instrumental in shaping the early sound of the Drive-by Truckers. “They were everything I needed at the time...rude and loud and very belligerent,” Hood says. S. Renee Dechert and George H. Lewis say in their essay, “The Drive-by Truckers and the Redneck Underground,” that bands from the Redneck Underground made perhaps the greatest social statement in music since the 1970s punk movement. “Underneath the redneck trappings that some may find funny or offensive, the issues with the Truckers call attention are important but too often ignored—and the music is never less than first-rate,” Dechert and Lewis say.

Hood memorialized Smalley in a song, “The Living Bubba,” which appeared on the Drive-by Truckers’ debut album, Gangstabilly (1998).[4] The band subsequently released Pizza Deliverance (1999) and a live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin’ (2000), prior to Southern Rock Opera (2001). Dechert notes that the first three records in the Drive-by Truckers catalogue emerged at a time when southern mainstream culture was advancing the redneck aesthetics of Jeff Foxworthy and country music artist Alan Jackson. Dechert and Lewis say that despite dramatizing every redneck stereotype in the book, “what becomes clear is that the band isn’t exploiting the stereotype; instead, they’re calling attention to it and to the socioeconomic issues it often obscures.”[5] While the pick up truck on blocks may be a humorous staple of Foxworthy’s You Might Be A Redneck If… shtick, Dechert and Lewis stress that the “issues to which it points—poverty and the literal inability to leave, to change one’s situation—are not particularly funny.”[6] These dire circumstances often leads to desperation, and Paste magazine music critic Stephen M. Deusner notes, “The Truckers are at their best singing about people at their worst.”[7]

The lyrical tone of “The Living Bubba” poignantly shows this chasm in southern identity between the Redneck Underground and those promoting an idyllic, carefree South, represented in Jackson’s song “Chattahoochee.” In Dechert’s essay, “Setting a Trailer House in the Rich Part of Town,” he says, “to recuperate the notion of ‘redneck,’ the Redneck Underground focused on the point being obscured: class discrimination.”[8] Jackson sings, “Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee/It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie/We laid rubber on the Georgia asphalt/We got a little crazy but we never got caught.”[9] In contrast to Jackson’s leisurely protagonist, Hood memorializes Smalley’s fight against AIDS. “I wake up tired and I wake up pissed/wonder how I ended up like this/I wonder why things happen like they do/but I don't wonder long cuz I got a show to do,” Hood sings.[10] Dechert and Lewis say, “The issues Hood discusses here are real, the physical impact and financial burdens that comprise the reality of those with AIDS as well as the importance of safe sex.”[11] The Living Bubba’ is an affecting portrait of Greg Dean Smalley, shaking his fist in the face of fate, flattening the establishment’s redneck stereotypes.

The Drive-by Truckers was a consistent presence in the Redneck Underground by 1999, but the theme of class-consciousness—not southern distinctiveness—typified the band’s lyrics in songs such as “18 Wheels of Love,” which tells the true story of his mother’s marriage to Chester, a truck driver, in Dollywood by a Porter Waggoner lookalike. Hood sings, “She can quit her job and be his little bride/He can get a local route and stay home by her side.”[12] Dechert and Lewis say that despite the redneck kitsch in the song, “closer inspection reveals that this is the story of two people living in an uncertain world (with unstable jobs) who manage to find each other, to give each other a sense of security and home.”[13] Southern stereotypes emerge across the band’s first three albums, but as “18 Wheels of Love” demonstrates, class-consciousness cuts through regional barriers, like Chester’s Peterbilt semi hurtling across the country. An awakening of southern identity would soon emerge in the band’s output, exhibited in the 2001 album, Southern Rock Opera. With the release of the double album, the band begins to examine the paradox of its relationship with the South—a love-hate relationship that follows a tradition back to William Faulkner and the Southern Renaissance.

Southern Rock Opera is a bildungsroman of a young man in Alabama that reflects the rise and fall of 1970s rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The iconic southern band was formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1973. On October 20, 1977, three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd—lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines—were killed instantly when their chartered plane crashed eight miles short of a runway in McComb, Mississippi. [14] In describing the tragedy of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story, Hood notes it’s the ultimate “underdogs-come-from nothing-and-become-this-huge-great-thing. And then the tragic ending and even the coincidences of the story. If you made that shit up, no one would believe it. The fact that they rehearsed for years in a swamp, and then their plane crashed into a swamp. Plus, the story was so full of contradictions, as was the South. It became such a perfect metaphor for exploring the South and its contradictions.”[15] Hood, who has writing credits for 13 of the album’s 20 tracks, said that the idea for the rock opera began early in the Drive-by Truckers’ inception during a late night discussion between himself and bassist Earl Hicks during a long road trip. According to Hood:

We got into this conversation about the misunderstood South and people’s misconceptions…And in the course of the conversation, we started talking about Lynyrd Skynyrd and what an incredible story that is, even from a kind of literary point of view and from a cinematic point of view how it would make a great film.[16] 

Unable to fund the ambitious film project, the Drive-by Truckers settled on a rock opera to tell the story.

In Southern Rock Opera, the unnamed protagonist forms the fictional band, Betamax Guillotine, an outfit that takes its name from the myth that a VCR decapitated Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Van Zant when the chartered plane hit the ground. After leaving home, the hero becomes a rock star, but at the height of his glory, the young man and some of the band are killed in a plane crash.

In a 2001 interview with journalist Sarah Lee, Hood says that many see Lynyrd Skynyrd as a paragon of the backwardness of Southern life, but he asserts the Drive-by Truckers have no qualms about honoring a band he calls “largely misunderstood.” In fact, he says the Drive-by Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera was meant to dispel some of the common misconceptions associated with the band that brought the world the Southern anthem “Free Bird.” “There’s a big part of the story that no one knows,” Hood says. “In the case of ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ a lot of people thought that song was pro-(George) Wallace (Alabama’s governor who is best remembered for his use of excessive police force in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement). But if you read the lyrics, it’s a different story.”

Rolling Stone magazine music journalist David Fricke notes the difficulty in writing a rock opera in his review of Southern Rock Opera. Fricke, who gave the album four out of five stars, said the Drive-by Truckers captured the essence of Lynyrd Skynyrd in their album. “The rock opera isn't dead; it just smells funny—in this case, like whiskey breath, tour-van stink and the smoking wreckage of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1977 plane crash,” he says. Dechert reiterates Fricke’s assessment of the album as a proper tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd.  He adds that in regards to form, Southern Rock Opera is the appropriate of formal opera, thus highlighting the classical tragedy of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story. Dechert notes that opera is a “musical form rooted in classic Greek theater that tells the ultimate stories of a culture, its gods and goddesses, through extravagant music, drama and costuming.” Dechert says that rock operas, such as The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia co-opt opera from the cultural elite and ultimately question, “who is a ‘hero,’ what constitutes ‘tragedy,’ and what is ‘great music’—indeed, who should control an art form.” Southern Rock Opera works in this classical tradition, but Dechert stresses that in this tragedy, “God is a blue-collar Southerner, a Ronnie Van Zant figure.” In “The Southern Thing,” Hood sings, “To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same.” Dechert says the band forces the rich man to see the poor, white guitar players as heroes. “Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music has long been placed in a second-class category; now, the Truckers are reclaiming its status as art while exploring the ‘duality of the South.’” [17] This notion of recuperation of history from myth and the cultural elite is an important element in linking the Drive-by Truckers with the Southern Renaissance.

In the introduction to The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley dissects the oft-quoted exchange between Quentin Compson and his roommate in Absalom, Absalom! Curious about the unknown region beyond the Ohio River, Shreve McCannon, Quentin’s Canadian-born roommate at Harvard, asks the Mississippi native to “Tell about the South.” “What’s it like there?” he asks. “What do they do there?” Where do they live there? Why do they live at all?” And Quentin, whose background Cowley likens to Faulkner’s, answers, “You can’t understand it. You would have to be born there.” Nevertheless, he tells a long and violent story that Cowley says reveals something essential in the history of the Deep South—which is not so much a region as it is, in Quentin’s mind, an incomplete and frustrated nation trying to relive its legendary past.[18] Cobb says McCannon represents the “intensely curious, instinctively critical North,” led by the firebrand H.L. Mencken, whose antagonism pushed Southern writers toward an “acute self-consciousness” and the “intense awareness of being southern.”[19]  Cobb suggests that by the late 1970s, the improving southern economy left southern writers with few adversaries to respond to, but the Drive-by Truckers show that contemporary artists continue to have a “rage to explain.”

The young guitar hero of Southern Rock Opera stands in for Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, just as the young man’s Alabama stands in for Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. It was a South of paradoxes that Hood chronicled in the album’s second track, “Ronnie and Neal.” Hood sings:

Church blew up in Birmingham/Four little black girls killed for no goddamn good reason/All this hate and violence can’t come to no good end/A stain on the good names. A whole lot of good people dragged through the blood and glass/Blood stains on their good names and all of us take the blame.[20]

Hood says he wrote the song to tell of the misunderstood friendship between Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and Canadian folk rocker Neil Young, who were widely believed to be bitter adversaries. Facilitating the misperception was Young’s songs “Southern Man,” and “Alabama,” damning portraits of white Southerners during the Civil Rights Movement. Hood notes that the two men were in truth very good friends and mutual admirers. “I also used it as a personal way of writing for the first time about my hometown's musical and cultural legacy,” Hood says of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. During the height of the civil rights movement in the 60s, he notes that Muscle Shoals was a place were where many of the finest Rhythm and Blues records and Soul records were created, with whites and blacks working together. One of those musicians was Hood’s father, who recorded with such greats as Aretha Franklin, Bob Seeger and Willie Nelson.[21] “’Southern’ Man” and ‘Alabama’ certain told some truth/But there were a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young just wasn’t around,” Hood sings in “Ronnie and Neil.” In describing contemporary Southern distinctness, Hood sees the South slowly homogenizing with the rest of the United States, but he notes this isn’t a bad thing. “It’s a trade off and it’s up to all of us to try to retain as many of the good things as possible,” says Hood, who notes there are certainly many ways the South is better today than in times past, including improved race relations. “We get Wal Mart, but we also have a black President (although many a Southerner voted against him).”[22]

As “Absalom, Absalom! demonstrates, when southerners are “forced to consider both [the South’s] strengths and weakness simultaneously, they often develop a somewhat schizophrenic, ‘love-hate’ relationship with their native culture,” Cobb says.[23] Despite the horrors Quentin described to McCannon, the Mississippian can’t turn his back on the South, for in doing so, he’d be turning his back to his own childhood, home and history. “I don’t. I don’t hate it! I don’t hate!” he says.

Paul M. Gaston says the South’s defeat in the Civil War and humiliation in the Reconstruction that followed “provided an atmosphere for the growth of two images of the South,” he says. One image was that of the noble, romantic Old South and the cult of the Lost Cause. “No amount of nostalgia, however, could gainsay the fact that the South in the generation after Appomattox was desperately poor, alternately despised, ridiculed, or pitied and saddle with many unwelcome burdens,” says Gaston, who notes Southerners like Henry Grady and Richard Edmonds sought new schemes to enrich the region. “The term ‘New South’ in their lexicon bespoke harmonious reconciliation of sectional differences, racial peace and a new economic and social order based on industry…”[24] Cobb adds, “Espousing a powerful mixture of myths about the past, illusions about the present, and fantasies about the future, New South spokesman succeeded in creating a new and enduring regional identity.” Woodward says, “The threat of becoming ‘indistinguishable,’ of being submerged under a national steamroller, has haunted the mind of the South for a long time,” but the Southern experience is “…too deeply embedded in their memory to be wiped out by a business boom.”

 In Mencken’s scathing “Sahara of the Bozart” essay, he mocks this “New South” that “for all the progress it babbles of” was “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert…”[25] Heeding Mencken’s antagonistic pontifications, Cobb says post-World War I Southern writers, such as Faulkner, sought to unravel the “tangle of myth and contradiction that lay at the heart of the New South Creed.” In doing so, the leading literary contributors to the Renaissance were creating“such a stir by holding the New South’s vision of a glorious past up for inspection against the glaring light of contemporary injustice, poverty, and depravity,” he said. Gaston notes the creed wasn’t limited to the South’s post-civil war generation, for the phrase has been co-opted by many southerners hoping for a coming golden age. Gaston says:

In it’s most recent incarnation, ‘New South’ has implied a region thoroughly transformed and so totally discontinuous with its troubled past that it would in reality be not so much a ‘New South’ as what George Washington Cable referred to as a ‘No South.’ [26]

Woodward notes in The Future of the Past that the best of Southern novelists also never set out to defend the errors of any particular age. Woodward says:

It is true that their books are often filled with tales of horror and lust and betrayal and degradation. But they have not paused to reckon the popularity in attacking the values of their own age or any other. They have not set up as defenders of a cause, either one lost or one still sought.[27]

Both the Drive-by Truckers and Faulkner seem propelled by what Cowley describes as the “faculty of conscious between good and evil.” “They are haunted, obsessed, driven forward by some inner necessity,” he says. “It is not something they have chosen by an act of will, but something that has taken possession of them…the total situation always present in the his mind as a pattern of the South.” [28] Like Woodward’s notion of the burden of Southern history—pride and shame, good and evil—Southerners are often driven to explore these contradictions.

Hood too doesn’t seek to defend the values or prejudices of the South, but he is looking to set the record straight in the same manner that the “Redneck Underground” attempted to co-opt representations of working class southerners from Foxworthy, and the way Faulkner and other Southern Renaissance writers answered the “New South Creed.” In “Ronnie and Neal,” Hood sings of the blood stained hands of good people who are burdened with the sins of the South, while in “Birmingham,” Hood sings, “No man should ever have to feel he don’t belong in Birmingham.” Rather than focusing on the genteel aristocracy of the Old South, Hood seeks to enfranchise the region’s everyman.

In “The Southern Thing,” Hood tackles Woodward’s notion of a Southerner’s pride and regret head on as he sings, “Don’t get me wrong. It just ain’t right/May not look strong, but I ain’t afraid to fight/If you want to live another day/Stay out of the way of the Southern Thing.” As the song progresses, Hood defines what the “Southern Thing” is not. It’s not about his pistol, his boots, excuses, alibis, cotton fields or the races.  It’s about being, “Proud of the glory/stare down the shame/Duality of the Southern Thing.”[29] Hood’s South is rife with paradoxes. “It wasn't till years later after leavin' the South for a while that I came to appreciate and understand the whole Skynyrd thing and its misunderstood glory,” Hood says later in the song. “I left the South and learned how different people's perceptions of the ‘Southern Thing’ was from what I'd seen in my life.”[30] In Southern Rock Opera Hood seeks to rectify southern stereotypes with reality of life in the South, as he witnessed it.

Southern Rock Opera’s “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” is spoken by Hood, rather than sung, and illustrates the singer’s understanding of Bear Bryant, Ronnie Van Zant, and George Wallace—three figures the opera’s protagonist must confront as well. Hood describes this song as the most personal on the album and calls Wallace the belligerent, racist voice of the segregationist South. But a paradox exists in Wallace’s political rise. “Wallace had started out as a lawyer and a judge with a very progressive and humanitarian track record for a man of his time,” Hood says. “But he lost his first bid for governor in 1958 by hedging on the race issue, against a man who spoke out against integration.” Later in the song, Hood says:

When I first ventured out of the South, I was shocked at how strongly Wallace was associated with Alabama and its people/Ya know racism is a worldwide problem and it's been since the beginning of recorded history/and it ain't just white and black/But thanks to George Wallace, it's always a little more convenient to play it with a Southern accent.[31]

Defending the glory, but staring down the shame, Hood proudly extols the virtues of the “Southern Thing.”

Dechert says that Southern Rock Opera follows the structural progression of traditional opera. The album opens with “Days of Graduation,” an overture that sets the mood and foreshadows the narrative. The song describes a fatal car wreck of two high school lovers along a rural, country road. Hood sings, “In a little while the ambulance came and the sound of its siren mixed with the screaming girl and the spinning wheel/But when the story was told the next day at the graduation ceremony/Everyone said that when the ambulance came/The paramedics could hear (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s) ‘Free Bird’ on the stereo.”[32] The album’s eighth track, “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” is a recitative, a rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech that is used for dialogue and narrative in operas.[33] Similar to most operas, Southern Rock Opera has an evil villain:  former Alabama Governor and independent Presidential candidate George Wallace. In the song “Wallace” —set in Hell, September 1998—Hood, as the devil, sings, “Throw another long on the fire boys, George Wallace is coming to stay/When he met St. Peter at the pearly gates, I’d like to think that a black man stood in the way.”[34] The opera ends with the hero’s tragic death in “Angels and Fuselage.” Dechert says there is even a leitmotiv—an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation—in Southern Rock Opera.[35] “In this case, throughout the album, the guitar chord progressions evoke a variation of (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s) “Sweet Home Alabama” opening chord riff,” he says.[36] The leitmotiv is evident as the two young lovers die trapped in the wreckage of an Oldsmobile 442 with “Freebird” wafting through the night in “Days of Graduation.” Silence falls as the album skips to track two where a three-guitar attack blasts a Skynyrd-like intro riff in “Ronnie and Neil.”

Forging another close tie to theatre, Southern Rock Opera’s two discs are labeled “Act 1” and “Act II,” rather than the more traditional “A” and “B” sides. The first act is set in the late 1970s. “Our hero is growing up in a small southern town and dreaming of being a big Rock Star,” Hood says. “In the meantime he has to deal with the mundane shit that most teenagers deal with. As he grows up and leaves the South, he is shocked at how different people's perceptions of his home were from what he remembered.” [37]  In the second act, Hood says, “Our hero has now become the big Rock Star that he always fantasized about being, but it's somehow nothing like he thought it would be…Is anything ever?”[38] As a two-disc album, there is no Act III, where drama critic Jonathan Dorf notes characters either receive what they aspired for in Act II, or they fail. However, the “three-act structure doesn’t mean that all plays literally have three acts,” he says. “It just means they have a beginning, middle and end.”[39] Southern Rock Opera clearly has this three-part structure as the young man struggles to achieve his rock star dreams, but once realized, he dies in a fiery plane crash.

Throughout Southern Rock Opera, the protagonist struggles to understand his relationship with the South. As cited earlier, Hood says that Lynyrd Skynyrd is a perfect metaphor for the contradictions of the South. Charles Joyner says in Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture, “the most conspicuous efforts have traditionally sought to find southern identity in the social and political behaviors of the region’s dominant white males,” he says. “No longer can any interpretation of the South be taken seriously without the historical dimension. Still, the region’s history can be only partly understood in isolation form culture within which it was experienced.”[40] In the introduction to Act I in Southern Rock Opera’s liner notes, the hero disavows his southern roots by getting a trendy haircut and hides his tell-tell signifier of southerness, his accent, “like so many well-meaning southern people who try to talk down their southern accents for fear of sounding ‘too-southern.’” As the years pass, the protagonist begins to dream about his youth. “Perhaps he’s being visited by spirits from his past. Now he wants to remember, he wants to re-connect with whom he once was and what he used to dream.” When analyzing Southern Rock Opera’s lyrics, it is clear that songwriters Hood, Cooley and Malone are exploring much more than the Lynyrd Skynyrd story. George Wallace shares time with Martin Luther King. The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is addressed, as is University of Alabama football coaching icon, Bear Bryant. Steeped in history, the album substantiates Joyner’s argument that the region’s history has endowed its men and women with a rich folk culture, a culture that does not belong solely to elite whites. This folk culture is “shared by all Southerners…[and] finds its unity in the region’s racial, class, and ethnic diversity.” [41] Thus, Joyner says the relation of history to folk culture would seem to be an essential starting point for any effort to understand the South.

Woodward suggests that the Southern Renaissance began in 1929, the year that saw the publication of Tomas’ Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, He asserts that the Renaissance was the product of the creative tension between the Southern past and the pressures of the modern world.[42] Although Woodward didn’t live to see the rise of the Drive-by Truckers, he may not have been initially inclined to associate the band with the Renaissance. Woodward notes in The Future of the Past that the Southern Renaissance was a movement that was strictly limited to the literary arts—poetry, fiction and drama. “It did not spill over to any significant degree to the visual or performing arts,” says Woodward, who maintains that there was no Southern Renaissance in music, painting, sculpture or architecture. But in A Southern Renaissance, Richard H. King questions Woodward’s assertion that the Renaissance was limited to the literary arts. “[The Southern Renaissance] was certainly that; but it also represented an outpouring of history, sociology, political analysis, autobiography, and innovative forms of journalism,” he says. Although not speaking explicitly about the Southern Renaissance, Joyner argues in his essay, “The Sounds of Southern Culture: Blues, Country, Jazz and Rock,” that music indeed plays an important role in the exploration of southern identity, which is a feature of Faulkner’s writing. “Music is not, of course, the only element of Southern culture,” he says. “But the transformation of Southern music may serve as a model for explaining other elements of cultural change across the South…”[43] Joyner suggests that music could be a lens through which the region’s social progress could be viewed.

Other Southern scholars have wrestled with describing the Renaissance as well. Bruce Clayton describes the Southern Renaissance as a struggle to “wrest Southern History from the hands of the ex-Confederates and lady writers.” James C. Cobb says it was a movement to penetrate the exceedingly dense layer of mythology and romanticism that they and other post-bellum writers and orators had so speedily and successfully laid down.” Cobb adds that the leading literary contributors to the Southern Renaissance “were creating such a stir by holding the New South’s vision of a glorious past up for inspection against the glaring light of contemporary injustice, poverty, and depravity.”[44] Fred Hobson points out in Tell About the South that “Faulkner and the great fiction writers of the (Southern) Renaissance had written…with the assumption that the South was defeated, guilt-ridden, backward-looking, and tragic: much of the power of their fiction came from that assumption.” But Woodward makes a more optimistic assessment of Southern renaissance writers, noting that they “have helped us penetrate the romantic haze of an older generation as well as the cynical stereotypes of our own. They have endowed the denigrated and emotionally impoverished New South with a sense of tragedy and dignity that history had hitherto reserved for the old regime, and they have enriched our consciousness of the past in the present.”[45] The lyrics of the Drive-by Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera construct an image of the South that is similarly fraught with contradictions.

Woodward, however, may have contested the Drive-by Truckers’ merits as a successor to Faulkner and other Southern Renaissance writers on socioeconomic grounds. “In the first place the Renaissance was a depression phenomenon and if correlated with any social condition it was certainly not prosperity,” he says. Despite the unfortunate September 12, 2001 release date, Southern Rock Opera was conceptualized and recorded during the relatively stable financial climate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, this paper charges that financial hardship was not the heart the Southern Renaissance and that Southern Rock Opera is a descendent of the movement popularized by Faulkner. Despite Woodward’s argument that there was no place for performing arts in the Southern Renaissance, Southern Rock Opera follows the literary traditions of the Southern Renaissance in both form and content.

Using the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd as a framework for Southern Rock Opera, suggests that the Drive-by Truckers recognize the band as an important historical influence on contemporary southern identity. King also notes a deep historical consciousness in the Renaissance, an artistic movement where:

The writers and intellectuals of the South after the late 1920s were engaged in an attempt to come to terms not only with the inherited values of the Southern tradition but also with a certain way of perceiving and dealing with the past, what Nietzsche called ‘monumental’ historical consciousness.[46]

This historical consciousness mirrors Woodward’s assertion in The Burden of Southern History that instead of looking for the roots of Southern identity in race, climate and geography, historians should go “beyond circumstance and purpose, beyond natural environment and public policy to stress experience as the influence of first importance.”[47]

Guitarist and vocalist Jason Isbell, who joined Drive-be Truckers late in the recording of Southern Rock Opera, notes the album has a notable Southern literary voice rooted in the band’s own historical consciousness of growing up in his distinct region. “I know that when the Rock Opera was being made, everybody in the band went {sic} through, read and gathered as many things about Skynyrd and about the rise and fall and about that time period and what was going on in music and the South in general,” he said. Isbell, who cites Southern Renaissance writers Eudroa Welty and Faulkner as important influences in his music, notes there is little difference between writing with a Southern voice in literature or in music. “You have to walk a very…fine line between having a Southern voice, a Southern literary voice and being believable to a Southern literate reader,” he said. “I have such a redneck in me. The place where I grew up was extremely red (conservative) and I was and I grew up that way. So I know what a good ol’ boy is supposed to eat…It really crawls all over me when somebody gets it just a little bit wrong. I’d rather them totally miss it all together and give ‘em unsweet tea…”[48] Isbell suggests that to write a good Southern rock album, one must have the same commitment to an authentic Southern world as Southern Renaissance writers did. 

Malcolm Cowley notes in the introduction to The Portable Faulkner that the ubiquitous Southern writer looked “first, to invent a Mississippi county that was like a mythical kingdom, but was complete and living in all its details; second, to make his story of Yoknapatawpha County stand as a parable or legend of all the Deep South.”[49] Similarly, in Southern Rock Opera the Drive-by Truckers construct a believable portrait of a young man growing up in Alabama that stands as a parable for the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd—and in so doing, the rock opera sheds light on a more authentic South. Like the world Faulkner constructed—where as Cowley notes, “all the people of the imaginary county, black and white, townsmen, farmers, and housewives, have played their parts in one connected story”[50] —the world of Southern Rock Opera features a broad range of characters, not just the white southern elite.

The struggle of contemporary artists to reconcile “the duality of the Southern Thing,” affirmatively answers Woodward’s question as to whether there is any usefulness in a southerner calling oneself southern. Hood says there’s a lot to be proud about in the South, but he’s reluctant to explicitly define “the duality of the Southern thing.” “I don’t know (what it means). Never did. That’s a big part of the point,” he says. “If you look at the words, they contradict themselves at every turn. That was the point. No two people feel the same way about it, nor should they.”[51] Ultimately, for Southern historians, the Drive-by Truckers and the Southern Renaissance writers before them, the “Southern Thing” is an individual tug-of-war between pride and regret: the pride of belonging to a special place with a separate history, speaking in a distinct accent, and the feeling of discomfort, too, about some of that history and attitude.

[1] C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge, 2008) 10.

[2] Howard W. Odum, Folk, Region and Society: The Selected Papers of Howard W. Odum. (Chapel Hill, 1964), 215.

[3] S. Renee Dechert, “Setting a Trailer House in the Rich Part of Town,” p.1; hereinafter cited as “Setting a Trailer House.” http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/d/drivebytruckers-southern.shtml (accessed November 12, 2009).

[4] Drive-by Truckers.“The Living Bubba,” p.1, http://www.pastemagazine.com/action/article/181/feature/music/the_living_bubba. (accessed November 12, 2009).

[5] S. Renee Dechert and George H. Lewis, “The Drive-by Truckers and the Redneck Underground,” in Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akernson, eds., Country Music Annual 2002 (Lexington, 2002) p. 147; hereinafter cited as “DBT and the Redneck Underground.”

[6] Dechert and Lewis, “DBT and the Redneck Underground,” 131.

[7] Stephen M. Deusner, “Drive-by Truckers: Brighter than Creation’s Dark” Paste. http://www.pastemagazine.com/action/article/6281/review/music/brighter_than_creations_dark (accessed November 24, 2009).

[8] Dechert, “Setting a Trailer House,” 2.

[9] Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee,” http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/jackson-alan/chattahoochee-6527.html. (accessed November 12, 2009).

[10] Drive-by Truckers, “The Living Bubba,” Gangstabilly, (Soul Dump Records, 1998).

[11] Dechert and Lewis, “DBT and the Redneck Underground,” 143.

[12] Drive-by Truckers, “18 Wheels of Love,” Gangstabilly, (Soul Dump Records, 1998).

[13] Dechert and Lewis, “DBT and the Redneck Underground,” 142.

[14] “The Last Flight of Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Rolling Stone, p. 1. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/5933655/the_last_flight_of_lynyrd_skynyrd. (accessed November 20, 2009).

[15] Dechert and Lewis, “DBT and the Redneck Underground,” 142.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Malcolm Cowley, “Introduction,” in William Faulkner’s, The Portable Faulkner, (New York, 2003), xv.

[19] James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity, (New York, 2005), 239.

[20] “Drive-by Truckers, “Ronnie and Neil,” Southern Rock Opera, (New West Records 2001).

[21] Ray Waddell, “Truckers’ Soul Dump Spawns Southern Rock Opera,Billboard, (November 3, 2001), 17.

[22] Patterson Hood, interview by Mike McCollum, November 29, 2009.

[23] Cobb, Away Down South, 239.

[24] Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed, (New York, 1970), 6-7.

[25] Ibid

[26] Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture, 160.

[27] Woodward, The Future of the Past. 226.

[28] Cowley, The Portable Faulkner, xxiii.

[29] Drive-by Truckers, “The Southern Thing,” Southern Rock Opera. (New West Records 2001).

[30] Ibid.

[31] Drive-by Truckers, “Three Great Alabama Icons,” Southern Rock Opera. (New West Records, 2001).

[32] Drive-by Truckers, “Betamax Guillotine,” Southern Rock Opera, (New West 2001).

[33] “Recitative,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/recitative.(accessed November 23, 2009).

[34] Drive-by Truckers, “Days of Graduation,” Southern Rock Opera (New West 2001).

[35] “Leitmotiv,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leitmotiv. (accessed November 23, 2009).

[36] Ibid.

[37] Drive-by Truckers Official Web site, “Drive-by Truckers Southern Rock Opera Write Up,” p.1.http://drivebytruckers.com/writeup_sro.html (accessed November 20, 2009).

[38] Ibid.

[39] Jonathan Dork, Writer, (July 2008),13.

[40] Charles Joyner, Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. (Urbana and Chicago. 1999), 1-2.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Richard H. King, A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955. (New York, 1980), 4; hereinafter cited as Southern Renaissance.

[43] Joyner, Shared Traditions, 206.

[44] Cobb. Redefining Southern Culture, 129.

[45] Woodward. Burden of Southern History, 39.

[46] King. A Southern Renaissance. 7.

[47] Woodward. Burden of Southern History, 100.

[48] Jason Gross, “Drive-by Truckers,” Perfect Sound Forever online magazine, (May 2006) http://www.furious.com/perfect/drivebytruckers.html. (accessed October 6, 2009).

[49] Cowley, The Portable Faulkner, viii.

[50] Cowley, The Portable Faulkner, .xi.

[51] Ibid.