#275: 2001, Drive-By Truckers, Ronnie and Neil

by Jackie_South on September 5, 2011

Douglas Adams famously wrote that 42 was the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything.  Yesterday, I saw pretty much bugger all evidence of that.

However, I do think that gives me some licence to be particularly self-indulgent in my song pick today, one of my favourite songs of the twenty-first century.  It’s a great, gutsy piece of guitar rock which has a brilliant piece of narrative in its lyrics, but I’m guessing it appeals most to those of us who are at least in part rock-dinosaur.

Drive-By Truckers were a bit of a bar and student scene Indie kinda-country rock act in the nineties, poking fun at their Deep South roots with albums called Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance and songs called Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus) and The President’s Penis Is Missing, mocking the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.  But their third studio album, Southern Rock Opera, took a massive swing away from the cheap jokes to make a concept album from a thoughtful reflection on their Southern heritage, and in particular what lead singer Patterson Hood terms ‘the Duality of the South“, through the prism of the band’s growing up in northern Alabama and the history and legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Concept albums about history really shouldn’t work, but Southern Rock Opera is a masterpiece, unusually constructed through deploying spoken word pieces to guitar about those themes to introduce the songs that follow.

This, the second track and first real song from the album, covers similar ground to the argument debate that George and I had six months ago about the merits of Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.

Starting with the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, it points out how the events of the Civil Rights coloured the outside world’s view of all white Alabamans (‘A whole lot of good people got dragged through the blood and glass/ Blood stains on their good names and all of us take the blame’ – blame for the bombing and racism or blame for the labelling?), and then goes to point out how the Drive-By Truckers’ home town of Muscle Shoals was responsible for some of the great albums by black artists in the late sixties, true black-white collaborations.

We don’t get to the song’s titular subjects until two whole minutes in, describing Neil Young‘s (“And out in California, a rock star from Canada”) great Southern Man and Alabama . But it was an Alabama that Floridians Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t recognise when they visited Muscle Shoals to record their first album, and wrote Sweet Home Alabama in response on their second.

The song discusses the rivalry and friendship of Ronnie Van Zant until the latter’s death:

And Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground
And to my way of thinking, us southern men need both of them around

Just as the album is unusually constructed, so is the song, with a sort of sub-refrain early on (To record that sweet soul music/ To get that Muscle Shoals sound) and a proper chorus that isn’t sung until two thirds of the way through.  That chorus sums up the band’s view of the two heroes in a sentiment I can’t argue with:

Ronnie and Neil, Ronnie and Neil,
Rock stars today ain’t half as real
Speaking their minds on how they feel
Let them guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil

I hope you enjoy it.  But if not, tough – my birthday, my pick!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

George_East September 6, 2011 at 6:32 am

Great song. No question. Shame they haven’t played it live on either occasion we’ve seen them. The pall bearer story is still nonsense mind. Great rock n roll myth nonsense but nonsense all the same. Happy birthday!

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