Drive-By Truckers - Southern Rock Opera - Review
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critics' view

Stained with motor oil and hard liquor, the Drive-By Truckers' latest offering offers a murky trip through Southern folklore and a homage to the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll. True to its title, Southern Rock Opera details the rise-and-fall of fictional rockers Betamax Guillotine. Sharing many similarities with prototypical Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band encounters personal disaster, dope and the effects of an entire sub-Mason-Dixon mythology.

Why bother writing a semi-fictional double-disc album dealing with issues of rock history and Southern life? Drive-By Truckers realize the relevancy of Southern music in the canon of American rock. DBT also are painfully aware of the preconceptions and distrust that plagues the modern South. Through the perfectly-cinematic tale of Skynyrd, the band is able to address the issues of racism, economic ruin, substance abuse, and regret that stain America's image of the South.

Divided into two acts, (discs one, and two, respectively,) the tale of Betamax Guillotine is revealed. Act One introduces a teenager coming of age in the late '70s. Obsessed with getting blitzed and skipping school, the kid becomes haunted by others' visions of his Southern home, and dreams of rock! fame. Act Two catches up with 'our hero' years later, after he's become an arena-rock star, and traces a downward spiral towards the inevitable plane crash conclusion.

While a heady concept, DBT don't let their brains overpower their brawn. Packed full of buzzing, knife-sharp guitars, echoing drums and cloaked in a swampy, mystical production, the tunes on SRO overflow with struggle and doom. "Days of Graduation" features a paranoia-inducing, loping bass and three-guitar storm over the spoken-word tale of a tragic car-wreck. "Ronnie and Neil" is a booze-fueled rave-up dealing with the misguided view of Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zandt's musical and political battles, ("their feud was just in song,").'"72 (this highway's mean)," and "Women Without Whiskey" conjure up the same down-and-out, road-weary ghosts that have always been at the center of Jay Farrar's finest songs.

Yet more than simply spin a story of rock tragedy, SRO attempts to deal with the looming legacy of Southern past. Songs such as "Birmingham," "Wallace" and "The Southern Thing" offer commentary on how Civil Rights struggles, political corruption and slavery have created the dichotomy of modern Southern living. As frontman Patterson Hood states in "The Southern Thing," the South remains caught "proud of the glory / stare down the shame / duality of the Southern thing."

Sure the whole Southern Rock Opera concept is a bit over-the-top, and a two-disc set will always contain its fair share of duds, but the Drive-By Truckers have succeeded in making an album that is as good a historical reference as it is for air-guitar. Bet Ronnie and Neil would both approve.

Ethan Covey
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