Whisky & Culture

The beautiful South?

Lew Guthrie III on Southern Rock Opera by Drive-By Truckers – an epic concept album on the life and times of Lynyrd Skynyrd
By Lew Guthrie
Being a heavy rock fans has always presented a moral dilemma for anyone with a social conscience. Too often chauvinistic or downright sexist, politically insensitive and sometimes reactionary and right wing, metal and its sub-genres were particularly held up to ridicule in the late 70s when politically aware punks attempted to sweep them aside.Many of us positively welcomed the political posturings of the likes of The Clash, Elvis Costello, and Tom Robinson, but didn’t like the music. And we felt uncomfortable with the more extreme elements of hard rock but lived for that next guitar solo.And in America the problem was at its most acute. First Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot and 38 Special swaggered out of the South wrapped in confederate flags and not only refused to apologise for being white, working class and Southern, but glorified it, putting the nose of Liberal sensibilities well and truly out of joint.Neil Young even wrote two songs about the attitudes of the South, earning himself the Lynyrd Skynyrd riposte in Sweet Home Alabama: “Well I heard Mr Young sing about her, well I heard ole Neil put her down. Well, I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Drive By Truckers grew up with this backdrop: fiercely proud of their southern roots, surrounded by good honest God-fearing folk and brought up to understand southern hospitality. But at the same time they rejected separatism, segregation and the bigotry of the likes of George Wallace.Southern Rock Opera is a concept album spread across two compact discs and played in the raunchy southern boogie style of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It addresses all the issues of racism and the South and celebrates its good side – including drinking whiskey.On The Southern Thing, for instance, songwriter Patterson Hood rejects that the South’s dominant attributes are racism and hatred: Ain’t about no hatred, better raise a glass It’s a little about some rebels, but it ain’t about the past Ain’t about no foolish pride, ain’t about no flag Hate’s the only thing that my truck would want to drag On Ronnie and Neil the feud between Neil Young and Skynyrd’s hard livin’, hard drinkin’ and tough talking frontman Ronnie Van Zandt is addressed directly.Hood makes some powerful claims. The two singers became friends, he says, and he resurrects the rumour that Young helped carry Van Zandt’s coffin after his death. Van Zandt was no racist, he says, and Young knew it. Young even wrote Powderfinger for the band, but they never had time to record it before three band members including Van Zandt were killed in a plane crash.Even the role of the controversial state governor George Wallace is reassessed. When he died, the band point out, he had the overwhelming support of the black population and the trade union movement. Before he adopted his segregationist stance, he had been endorsed by African American pressure groups the NAACP.Meanwhile, while racist murders in Birmingham Alabama were grabbing the headlines, youths were getting on with growing up.Skynyrd were the soundtrack to a many a young man’s rite of passage in to adulthood, with women and whiskey the main goals: Me and old Jack Daniels, become the best of friends We got all them Baptists to die for all our sins I know the Lord is coming The South will rise again!The second act of this opera, set years after Skynyrd’s demise, finds a mythical rock band touring and taking stock.They’re deeply proud of their roots, and loud rock music, wild women and good American whiskey are still the driving forces in their lives. On Women Without Whiskey, Mike Cooley look at his priorities If morning’s a bitch with open arms and night’s a girl who’s gone too far Whiskey is harder to keep than a woman and it’s half as sweet But women without whiskey, women without whiskey… Whiskey is hard to beat Southern Rock Opera won’t be everyone’s glass of hooch, but it’s a brave attempt to articulate how many of us felt when our looks and likes were mocked and we found ourselves tarred with one very broad brush. And musically this is fine rough and ready rock.One to raise a glass of Stagg or Weller to.