How do I do this record justice? Not by telling you that it is a two-disc opus of 20 songs that cover 30 years worth of roots rock/alt country/southern rock, exploring the history of the south through the prism of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of the most influential rock bands of all time. Not by telling you that despite the subject matter, this is a complex, intelligent, almost literary record, but a record that despite its high-minded intentions never forgets how to rock. Not even by telling you that this is one of the best records you're likely to hear this year, no matter what your opinion of southern rock (or the south) might be.
Recorded in Birmingham, Alabama, over the course of a year or two, "Southern Rock Opera" was mostly finished over a year and a half ago, but due to various small delays, it wasn't released until the summer of 2002 (Rolling Stone actually reviewed it several months before then). Using a three-pronged guitar attack and what sounds like three vocalists (they don't give credits for each track in the liner notes), the Truckers have created an album that sounds like early Silos crossed with a deep fried, southern-style Eagles, with a dose of Creedence, the Allman Brothers, and of course Skynyrd thrown in for good measure.
"Opera" (divided up into two acts, one for each disc) tells stories of hard drinking, hard living, and heartbreak while slowly unspooling an epic narrative that manages to tell the story of the south over the last 50 years by recounting Skynyrd's rise and fall as one of the most successful rock bands of the 70s. The eyes through which we see this story are those of a kid growing up in Birmingham during this time, and his story of learning to play guitar and eventually leaving the south is intertwined with the Skynyrd's and with the history of the last few decades.
The songs typically fall into three categories. There are the tales of bar life/band on tour generally sung by a hoarser Don Henley sound-alike, songs like "Ronnie and Neil" (about Ronnie VanZant and Neil Young, two Alabama boys who made it big as guitar heroes), "Dead, Drunk, and Naked", "Guitar Man Upstairs", "Let There Be Rock", "Cassie's Brother", "Life in the Factory", "Shut Up and Get on the Place", and "Greenville to Baton Rouge". Then there are the more mid-tempo songs of heartbreak and loss, sung by a vocalist with a much smoother and richer voice, one that is better suited to the more emotional content. These songs include "72 (this highway's mean)", "Zip City", and "Women Without Whiskey", and are some of the best songs on the album. Finally, there are the darker edged songs that usually deal with death, like "Days of Graduation" (a spoken-word recounting of a high school senior who is killed in a car crash the day before graduation), "Road Cases", and "Plastic Flowers on the Highway".
The intellectual core of the album is built around a four-song continuum that comes near the end of the first act. "Birmingham" and "The Southern Thing" talk about growing up in the south, and forming that unbreakable bond with the land, a tainted heritage, and a rich culture of traditions that only a southerner can truly understand. "The Three Great Alabama Icons" is a long, meandering spoken word piece that tells the stories of football coach Bear Bryant, Skynyrd frontman Ronnie VanZant, and politician George Wallace, deftly weaving these seemingly disparate narratives into a tapestry of southern history that comes off like a modern-day version of Faulkner or O'Connor. Musically, this is probably the weakest track, but don't get me wrongthis is the lyrical center of the album, and you won't find yourself reaching for the skip button when this track comes on.
After offering a slight defense of George Wallace (though not his racist politics) on "Icons" (pointing out that he renounced his bigotry in the early 70s and pushed integration in Alabama so that by the early 80s, the last time ran for office, he won with an overwhelming marjority of the black vote), the mini-epic concludes with "Wallace", where we are told that, despite his renunciation of his racism and his attempt at reparations later in his life, Wallace is still going to hell because he chose to let good men suffer needlessly just to further his political career.
The second disc focuses more specifically on the rise and fall of Skynyrd (although they are a big presence, both narratively and musically, on the first disc). The last three songs are about that fateful flight which ended in a crash that killed Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie, a backing vocalist for the band. "Shut Up and Get on the Plane" and "Greenville to Baton Rouge" are celebrations of the life of excess led by a rock band at the peak of commercial success and creative output, whirlwind recountings of a band constantly going from one sold-out gig to another, completely unaware of the tradegy that awaits them on board their last flight together. The album ends with the eight minute "Angels and Fuselage", a dreamlike reenactment of the last thoughts that might have been going through Ronnie's head while the plane was crashing.
I'm not a Skynyrd fan, and southern rock is not something that takes up a lot of space in my CD collection, but I am from the south, and of the south; I would not be who I am if I hadn't grown up in the south. Before now, I hadn't considered Skynyrd to be part of my personal history, but after hearing "Southern Rock Opera", I realize that they always have been and always will be.
This record will give you a new perspective on the south no matter where you are from, and you don't have to be a southerner to enjoy it; it just plain rocks. I defy anyone who likes electric guitars to listen to this even once and not come away hooked. No matter what I say about it, or how much I try to describe it for you, I'll never be able to do this album justice. So spare me the effort: hear this album for yourself as soon as you can. Today if possible, but don't put it off longer than a week. You'll regret every moment you were without it.