The Drive-By Truckers and their Southern Rock Opera: Part Five (A Fatal Crash and a Rebirth of Sorts)
Hood's “Greenville to Baton Rouge” plots Skynyrd's last plane ride as they anticipate the shows they still have to do on the triumphant Street Survivors tour. He foreshadows the different, less southern, perhaps less excessive, direction the band might take if they survive the trip, mentioning more of the lore that has grown around the plane crash: “Once we hit Louisiana, baby, I don't care / Got a brand new airplane waiting for us there /Give this piece of shit back to Aerosmith.” As the pilot dumps the gas, the narrator anticipates kicking the pilot's ass. But before he can, the crash wrecks these plans.
The album closes with Hood's elegiac and beautiful “Angels and Fuselage,” which calmly covers the final moments of the crash. All the bad ass bravado has been replaced by a fitful acceptance. Hood's plaintive vocals avow, “And I'm scared shitless of what's coming next / Scared shitless, these angels I see in the trees are waiting for me.” The addition of the angels adds to the song's ethereal dreamlike quality. Time has slowed down as the plane prepares to go down. The Truckers have spent so much time preparing us for the crash and focusing on the specifics that the listener is as prepared as the participants. Acceptance is the mood and the mode and thoughts drift to whether it was worth it. Life passes before our eyes, and Hood brings us full circle: “just a blink ago I was back in school / Smoking by the gym door, practicing my rock-star attitude.” The trajectory of the band ends and begins with death. The plane has crashed and the story ends with death just as it began with wheels spinnin'.
Yet the Truckers have explored their subject matter with love, care, and a critical eye. They are historians of mood and action. Hood remains the historian, accurately describing southern history with a touch of the mythic. Cooley normalizes the story and provides a perfect point of entry for those who only know the basics. Malone is the fan, connecting two threads with his scant and personal additions. The band was already a force to be reckoned with, bringing power and mood and tying it to the historical and specific. They created a punk rock history of southern rock, a warts and all approach to the mythic journey of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a social commentary on the region that birthed them. Some did not like it because of their irreverence, particularly those who participated in the Skynyrd story. But others marveled at the wry commentary and unabashed rocking of the album at its core.
The band began recording the record shortly after their first live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin' was released. They recorded it above a uniform shop in Birmingham, the spiritual birthplace of much of the history between the grooves. According to Hood, the sessions took place “during an early September heat wave, with no air-conditioning. We had to turn the fans off when we were recording, and we worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. So, Southern Rock Opera was fun to write, but we had a miserable time making it.” Perhaps the heat is why the fires of hell are so evident, but no mythic history could be complete without properly representing the violence of the region.
Once they had finished the album, they ran out of funding for how to proceed, so they created a grass roots plan for releasing it. They solicited investors, later dubbed “The DBT Investors,” and promised them a fifteen percent return on their investment to pay for manufacturing and distribution. Due to online fan support and word of mouth, they were able to raise $23,000. They printed 5,000 copies of the record and purchase a used van for touring. The record came out on September 12, 2001 on Hood's Soul Dump Records, which had released their three previous albums. It sold well and the band eventually signed a large-scale distribution deal with Lost Highway Records, who re-released the record to widespread acclaim on July 16, 2002.
The band had created something special, building on the story-telling of their previous records and the hard-rocking attitude and live show that was quickly becoming legendary. Yet something was still missing – a third voice and third guitar that made them truly legendary and pushed them to new levels of songwriting and a more cohesive narrative outlook. Jason Isbell joined the band during the tour for the album. Even though Isbell knew Hood's father and had played with him in earlier jam sessions, he was only Hood's acquaintance. Hood had recently relocated to Athens, Georgia and met Isbell through Dick Cooper, a Muscle Shoals native, calling the meeting a "life-changing moment in time.” Isbell was younger than the others in the band, but when Rob Malone failed to show up at an acoustic house party, he sat in and something clicked. Their next three records are among their best – Decoration Day is a standout, including some of their best songs. It builds on the mythology but takes the band far different places beyond a devotion to southern rock history.