The Drive-By Truckers and their Southern Rock Opera: Part Two (Inspirations and Ideas)
The idea for the album formed in a conversation between Hood and former bassist, Earl Hicks, in which they discussed writing a semi-autobiographical screenplay about their youth in the south and the plane crash that almost ended Skynyrd by taking the lives of vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines in 1977. Their chartered plane, a 1977 Convair CV-300, converted from a CV-240 ran out of fuel and crashed in Gillsburg, Mississippi near the end of a flight from Greenville, South Carolina, where they had performed at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were also killed in the crash, while 20 other people survived, including guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington. Bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell, and drummer Artimus Pyle, who crawled out of the wreckage with members of the road crew, were also injured.
As often happens under extreme circumstances, folklore and legend has developed around the event. According to Pyle, Johnny Mote, the farmer who investigated the wreck shot at him, but others report it differently. Aerosmith's flight crew looked at the plane earlier and decided that it was unsafe and that its crew was equally suspect. Pilots McCreary and Gray were purportedly passing a bottle of Jack Daniels around. Concrete reasons for the crash are somewhat a matter of conjecture. The right engine's magnetos, which provide spark and timing for the engine weren't working correctly; Powell and others saw flames coming out of this engine before the crash, and the pilots had intended to make repairs at Baton Rouge. Reports differ on just what happened. VH1's behind the music conjectures that the pilots might have dumped fuel instead of transferring it to the other engine, while Pyle told Howard Stern that the fuel gauge malfunctioned and the pilots had never checked it; this neglect seems farfetched even with other reports of these pilots. An inspection by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found no problem with the right magneto, so the speculation will continue. The tragedy will surely produce more legends, and the story was practically tailor-made for an ingenious crew of southern musicians to build on. Given that the Truckers were not the most reverential, they crafted an album that took this basic plot and wove it even more tightly into a story of the historical and mythological south.
The album follows an historical trajectory, beginning in Act One, Betamax Guillotine, with the protagonists' last days in high school already tainted by death. “Days of Graduation” chronicles the death of Bobby and the narrator's girl in a grisly car accident the day before graduation. Tragic accidents bookend the album and both pointedly are connected to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The idea of young hope is promptly cut off in each case. Bobby's drunken “tear-assing” down back streets has ended in tragedy with screams and the wheel of the 442 still spinning. The narrator tells the story against a backdrop of distorted instrumentation and loud guitars, sounding like he is speaking from beyond the grave. After the crash at the graduation ceremony the legend-making, and possibly apocryphal story is told that the paramedics could still hear “Free Bird” playing on the stereo. He leaves us with the idea that it “is a very long song,” as if we have never heard it played often on classic rock radio; at the time, I'm sure it might have been a sign of rebellion.
The next track, “Ronnie and Neil” connects the real-life song feud between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young to southern soul music, but also touches on the Sunday, September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that took the lives of four black girls and helped build support for the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The song connects southern touchstones of integration, mentioning Muscle Shoals, one of the first studios in which blacks and whites commonly made music together. The onus of the song, of course, is that Neil Young wrote several songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama” that covered racism and strife in south, and Lynyrd Skynyrd answered his charges in “Sweet Home Alabama,” yet they liked each other’s music and became good friends.
The next several songs create mood more than anything. Cooley's “72 (This Highway's Mean)” chronicles U.S. Route 72 and creates a less specific mood of a journey through this charged south. Hood's “Dead, Drunk, and Naked” loosely tells the story of growing up and moving out after high school, as many of the songs do on the album. Cooley's “Guitar Man Upstairs” is told from the viewpoint of a guitar man telling the younger guys in his apartment complex about his trouble with the law.
(I originally wrote this essay as part of a failed proposal for the 33 1/3 series that I never completed. I wanted to share it somewhere. Stay tuned for subsequent reworkings of parts of the essay.)