“POLITICAL MUSIC DOESN’T HAVE TO SUCK” would be a good tagline for the Drive-By Truckers’s latest album, American Band (ATO). Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Brad Morgan, Jay Gonzalez, and Matt Patton have given us another record full of loud guitar harmonies, tight rhythms, and a good dose of twang. Hood and Cooley — the band’s principal lyricists since Jason Isbell departed in 2007 — have again proven themselves to be two of the best living songwriters you probably haven’t heard of. Hood’s off-kilter stories and Cooley’s quicksilver lyrics continue to complement each other in rich and surprising ways.
Much of the buzz around American Band has been about the album’s political bent, which makes sense given the seeming contradiction of the band’s Southern identity and left-of-center politics. “I don’t want there to be any doubt as to which side of this discussion we fall on,” Hood said in a recent press release. Indeed, their 11th studio album kicks off with Cooley’s “Ramon Casiano,” which is not so much an elegy for the 15-year-old boy murdered in Laredo, Texas, in 1931 by Harlon Carter — who was released on a technicality and went on to radicalize the NRA as its executive vice president — as it is a devastating articulation of the violent white supremacy at the heart of Second Amendment activism: “It all started at the border, / And that’s still where it is today. / … But killing’s been the bullet’s business since back in 1931. / Someone killed Ramon Casiano, / And Ramon still ain’t dead enough.” And Hood’s “What It Means,” written in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, dispenses with mealy-mouthed optimism: “I mean Barack Obama won / And you can choose where to eat / But you don’t see too many white kids lying / Bleeding on the street.”
It would be easy to mistake all of this for opportunistic topicality, but the Athens, Georgia-based Truckers have shown a deep commitment to left-wing politics over the course of their long career. There is, for example, Cooley’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” from The Dirty South (2004): “Tell me why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad / With the same skin stretched over their white bones and the same jug in their hand.” There’s also “Sink Hole,” which is a metal murder ballad about a farmer killing a banker and burying his body in a sinkhole, from Decoration Day (2003). Their catalog, which stretches back close to 20 years at this point, reveals a constant preoccupation with class conflict. It gives voice to a vast working class who are, as Hood puts it on the recent live album It’s Great to Be Alive! (2015), “tired of waiting around for the trickle down.”
September also marked the 15th anniversary of the release of Southern Rock Opera, the clearest evidence of these engagements. Released on September 12, 2001, Southern Rock Opera laid the groundwork for the band’s later, increasingly left-wing music and offered an astoundingly prescient roadmap to post-9/11 politics. Bryant Simon has called the Truckers “a very political band,” but the depth and complexity of their politics remain largely unexamined. In what follows, we don’t want simply to celebrate the album’s anniversary. Instead, we want to offer a listening guide to what should be considered a landmark work of American music, and, in the process, unpack the album’s complex politics. On Southern Rock Opera and later Truckers songs that extend and deepen the project, the band gives voice to a white working class left behind by deindustrialization, challenges the liberal conception of Southerners as irredeemably racist, and ultimately calls for solidarity among blacks and whites along class lines. As Connor Kilpatrick has argued in Jacobin, “the American ruling class has made out like bandits simply by keeping portions of the large (and potentially powerful) working class from uniting in a single political party behind even a social-democratic program.” The most recent salvo in this battle has been the liberal elite tendency to paint the white working class as deeply reactionary, but as Hood sings on Southern Rock Opera, “To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same.” Since the late ’90s, the Truckers have been adept dramatists of American historical consciousness, and one of their main subjects has been the relationship between race and economic inequality. Most impressively, they’ve done all of this while making good music. The Truckers make very good, very political music that challenges current political orthodoxy in a way that rock music hasn’t for a very long time.
On July 9, 2015, The New York Times Magazine published an opinion piece by Hood entitled “The South’s Heritage Is So Much More Than a Flag,” which was almost certainly the first time the frontman of a Southern rock band penned an op-ed for the Times. It took one of the most heinous events in recent American history — Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black churchgoers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina — to propel him into the pages of the august New York cultural institution. In his op-ed, Hood weighed in on the debate about the Confederate battle flag that ensued in the wake of the shooting. Southern Rock Opera, he explained, “wrestled with how to be proud of where we came from while acknowledging and condemning the worst parts of our region’s history.”
A concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band associated with Confederate-flag imagery, seems like a strange occasion to meditate on the complexities of Southern culture. Southern Rock Opera’s story, revealed over the course of the album and in a “libretto” contained in the liner notes, concerns the life and death of Betamax Guillotine, a fictional rock band from North Alabama whose name alludes to the mythic cause of Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant’s death (struck in the back of the head by an on-board VCR during the famous plane crash that killed him and several other band and crew members). Betamax Guillotine both is and is not Skynyrd, both is and is not the Truckers themselves. As Hood explained, “We wanted to examine people’s misconceptions of the South, and study some modern-day southern mythology. The band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s story seemed like the ultimate vehicle for tying all of these loose ends together into what would hopefully flow like one big story.”
Originally conceived as a screenplay, Southern Rock Opera is divided into two acts. Act I opens in 1979, just after the unnamed “hero,” who both is and is not Hood himself, has graduated from high school and experienced the death of his friend Bobby (described on the opening Southern gothic spoken word track “Days of Graduation”). “Years pass,” the libretto explains,
Our hero moved to the city, then a couple of more cities. He got him a funny haircut or two. He became a punk rocker and tried to disassociate himself from his youthful transgressions. Much like so many well-meaning southern people who try to talk down their southern accents for fear of sounding “too-southern.” (As if that was inferior or something.)
Accordingly, Act I features a kaleidoscopic cast of Southern characters, a cacophony of voices that narrate some personal or historical moment of Southern life, from the recovering drug addict of Hood’s “Dead, Drunk and Naked” to the rebellious teenager of Cooley’s “Zip City,” which is kind of like a Springsteen ballad stripped of the romance and rewritten by Alice Cooper.
At the end of Act I, “our hero” begins to have recurring dreams about fronting a hard rock band. Act II takes place “present day, in some alternate universe” in which Betamax Guillotine has achieved enormous success as an arena rock band: “His stage show conjures up the Southern rock glory days. They’re telling stories of a forgotten south […] Stories that own up to the terrible while telling of the beautiful. Rock that doesn’t bend down to kiss anybody’s ass.” The double album ends with “Angels and Fuselage,” a first-person account of a plane crash similar to the one that killed Ronnie Van Zant.
This is an insanely ambitious project, especially for a band that had previously released two good, but not great, alt-country albums and was on the verge of breaking up not long before they began recording Southern Rock Opera. The story isn’t immediately apparent at first or even second listen. Instead, the concept album is held together more by recurring themes and motifs than by narrative, at least as far as the listening experience is concerned. These are: Southern rock mythology, the intertwined politics of race and class, and the deteriorating quality of life for working-class people in the United States. The point of the latter two can be summed up in Colin Dayan’s words: “While the oligarchs and the obscenely wealthy of this country run the show, they make sure that the divide between poor white and poor black is pronounced and spectacular. It is carved into the heart of public life in the United States.”
What Southern rock mythology has to do with any of this needs explaining, and the album’s second track, “Ronnie and Neil,” starts to lay it all out. The title refers, of course, to the supposed musical “feud” between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, but the song anchors the album in the Civil Rights–era American South: “Church blows up in Birmingham / Four little black girls killed […] / 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.” This is, of course, a reference to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, but Hood’s lyrics juxtapose the horrors of racist violence against the racial collaboration of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: “Meanwhile in North Alabama, Aretha Franklin comes to town / To record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound.” Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where Hood’s father David was a part owner and a member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (or “The Swampers”), is an imaginative locus in the world of Southern Rock Opera, in which Hood’s lived experience coincides and clashes with history. As Hood explains on the later spoken-word track “Three Great Alabama Icons,” “You know, race was only an issue on TV in the house that I grew up in. [George] Wallace was viewed as a man from another time and place.” And far from a dismissal of Southern racism, Southern Rock Opera calls on Southerners to recognize the good things about the region — its people, its music, and its art — while confronting its history of oppression. Hood calls this “the duality of the Southern Thing,” a phrase that encapsulates the record’s dialectical nature. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where the all-white Swampers backed black recording artists like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge, is emblematic of the interracial collaboration that happened under the shadow of Wallace’s long reign.
“Ronnie and Neil” sets the album’s dialectic in motion: “Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town / To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound / And they met some real good people, not no racist pieces of shit / And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit.” That hit, “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974), is often held up as evidence of the band’s insouciance toward Southern racism. But the truth is closer to Patterson Hood’s observation in “Three Great Alabama Icons”: “[Ronnie Van Zant] was a huge Neil Young fan but in the tradition of Merle Haggard writing ‘Okie From Muskogee’ to tell his dad’s point of view on the hippies and Vietnam, Ronnie felt that the other side of the story should be told.” In other words, “Sweet Home Alabama” is a song written in the folk tradition of the murder ballad. As an act of ethical imagination, the singer assumes a persona in order to expand the boundaries of the listener’s empathy. Neil Young didn’t shoot his baby down by the river any more than Ronnie Van Zant supported George Wallace. As Lee Ballinger avers, the members of Skynyrd were “anti-handgun, anti-George Wallace, pro-peace, pro-environment, responsible citizens of the South” who proudly played at a campaign rally for Jimmy Carter. In restoring Skynyrd to this context, the Truckers hold them up as counterintuitive evidence of a salutary turn to progressivism in Southern culture.
“My father supports Wallace, but that doesn’t mean I have to,” Van Zant said after Second Helping (1974) was released. “Sweet Home Alabama” is ultimately a political song, but it escapes the clumsy, boring fate of most protest songs through inversion and dialectic. Van Zant’s father’s voice creeps in — “In Birmingham they love the governor” — only to be undercut by a chorus of boos. Ed King’s iconic guitar riff is buoyant and carefree. But Van Zant’s vocal delivery on Second Helping’s first track is unusually subdued and flat when compared with the emotional heft he put behind “Simple Man” and “Free Bird,” the hit songs of Skynyrd’s debut album. It’s especially incongruous with Clydie King and Merry Clayton’s belted-out chorus. The song draws the “heritage not hate” crowd in only to piss all over them. It doubles back on itself: “I miss Alabama once again / And I think it’s a sin.” Is the sin missing Alabama, or is it the misperception of Southerners as “racist pieces of shit”? These lines express the speaker’s nostalgia for a fabled homeland while condemning the very fact of longing for such a ruined, politically backward place. It’s easy to miss the only line Van Zant actually sings with any kind of panache: “Montgomery’s got the answer!” he declaims after the last refrain. This is one of Southern Rock Opera’s central questions: How can you embrace a place as your home while fully recognizing its history of atrocity and injustice? How can you root yourself in a place that’s so full of hatred? The “Southern man” needs both Ronnie and Neil.
Song after song on Southern Rock Opera is, much like “Sweet Home Alabama,” sung from the point of view of average white Southerners trying to feel and think their way through the region’s rich, strange, and disturbing history. The bouncy guitar riff of “Dead, Drunk and Naked,” another track from Act I, echoes “Sweet Home Alabama,” but the lyrics veer off into Flannery O’Connor territory, documenting the dark comedy of rural poverty: “When I was a young boy, sniffed a lot of glue / Mom sent me to rehab, they told me what to do / Didn’t have much money, the Lord picked up the tab / They made me write him love songs, sitting in my room.” Another track, “Birmingham,” begins with the first few notes of “Sweet Home Alabama,” but it’s a false start. Far from celebratory, “Birmingham” opens with the indisputable assertion that racial division and wealth inequality are intertwined: “Economics shut the furnace down / Bull Connor hosing children down.”
One of Southern Rock Opera’s putative blind spots is its failure to address Skynyrd’s association with the Confederate flag. Hood says this was a conscious decision: “We didn’t want our narrative getting bogged down in a debate about an antiquated symbol, one we considered a moot point in any case.” Even if there is little in the band’s history or music to suggest that they were racist, Skynyrd’s use of the Confederate flag was indefensible. But to dwell on this would be to miss the reason Skynyrd was so important to the Truckers and why they chose to refract their vision of the post–Civil Rights South through such an unlikely lens. For the Truckers, the Skynyrd story represents a very specific kind of American working-class hope: they are the “fatherless boys from Florida” who played their asses off to escape rural poverty and become world famous. The idea that rock ’n’ roll offers freedom from the crushing financial vicissitudes of American life is one of rock music’s most powerful myths. It’s one that Skynyrd themselves perpetuated in songs like “Free Bird” and “Call Me The Breeze.”
The politics of Southern Rock Opera hinges on the claim that the vast majority of musicians are workers. “Ain’t nothing I’d rather do right now than just go on home and lay around / But that ain’t never an option for a working man like me,” Cooley sings on “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” which narrates the moments before Skynyrd’s fateful flight. Given the precariousness of their own music careers when the album was recorded — the original pressing of Southern Rock Opera was fan-financed and sold out of the back of a tour van — the Truckers were less interested in Skynyrd’s meteoric rise than in the labor that went into their success: “Practiced twelve hours a day in the Hell House / In the swamps outside of town. / 100 degrees without no open windows, / Heat radiating off the tin.” That’s from the song “Life in the Factory,” which reduces the allure of rock ’n’ roll to the starkest of terms: “Ain’t no good life down at the Ford plant / Three guitars or a life of crime.”
The point isn’t simply to deflate the myth of rock ’n’ roll freedom but to show that the rock ’n’ roll dream and the American dream are one and the same. As Cooley sings on the Decoration Day track “Marry Me,” an antidote to every rock anthem that extolls the escapist myth of the road, “Rock ’n’ roll means well but it can’t help telling young boys lies.” That lie, which says that rock ’n’ roll will set you free from the material concerns of life, work, and family, is simply an amplified version of the lie of the American dream. The musician of “72 (This Highway’s Mean),” who imagines the highway that will “set me free” as “the same one that I see / Being ripped up off the ground and wrapped around me” like a burial shroud is no different from the speaker of The Dirty South’s “Puttin’ People on the Moon” who works at Wal-Mart and declares, “all them politicians, they all lyin’ sacks of shit / They say better days upon us but I’m sucking left hind tit.” The latter song was released in 2004, long before the wealth gap became media fodder.
Southern Rock Opera ends with “Angels and Fuselage,” which narrates the moments before Skynyrd’s plane crashed in Mississippi and finds the speaker “adding up the cost of these dreams.” But the song was recorded in 2000 in the midst of the dot-com crash, and it’s hard not to hear that resonance, too. The Truckers — who supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary — offer no easy answers here or on any of their albums, except to suggest that an inclusive, class-based political movement is not only possible but necessary. Looking back over their impressive body of work from the early years of this century, it’s startling just how prophetic it all was. Listening again, it’s hard to shake Southern Rock Opera’s final chorus: “And I’m scared shitless of what’s coming next.” Who isn’t?
Paul Fess is a doctoral candidate in the English Program at the City University of New York, Graduate Center and a fellow at the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University of Rochester.