Chicago -- The wildly pounding demand for a Drive-By Truckers encore at Chicago's Abbey Pub should've drummed out any fears the Hotlanta hooligans had about playing their Southern Rock Opera north of the Mason-Dixon.Their over-amped triple guitar salute to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the often misunderstood Southern culture for which they stand went down like free beer at a tractor pull with the solo-starved crowd of Midwestern post-rock reactionaries.
Yet the Truckers' concern was justified. A song cycle built around the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash of 77 (which took the lives of main man Ronnie Van Zandt, Steve and Cassie Gaines and manager Dean Kilpatrick) isn't a surefire recipe for success, particularly in light of the 9/11 tragedy.
Even hardcore Skynyrd fans -- the ones who scream requests for Freebird and actually want to hear it -- might not appreciate some punks messing with the legend of their fallen heroes.
According to bearded singer/ songwriter Patterson Hood, pretty much everyone discouraged the band. After they had the first version of Southern Rock Opera recorded, they went to South By Southwest to look for somebody to release and distribute it. Nobody would touch it.
"A couple people said they might be interested if we played down "the Southern part' of the rock opera and whittled it down to a single disc," shrugs Hood with a hoarse Muscle Shoals drawl. "They said nobody would buy a two-disc rock opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd. So we went ahead with the idea of putting it out ourselves."
Eventually, the people at Lost Highway heard it, understood what the band was trying to do and wanted to release it complete -- as is.
"They even called us up when they found mistakes in the liner notes to ask if we wanted the typos left in," says Hood.
For the Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera is actually less about the band famous for Freebird, Sweet Home Alabama and That Smell than it's about what they represented.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is merely a jump-off point for a broader examination of the relationship between celebrity icons and their fans, the end of the stadium rock era and, ultimately, what it means to be a Southerner.
"It all started with a drunken conversation I was having with Earl (bassist Earl Hicks) on a long drive between Alabama and Georgia. At the time, we'd both rediscovered Skynyrd and looked at them differently than we did while growing up hearing the same three songs played over and over on the radio.
"We talked about what a great movie could be made out of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story, or maybe a concept album. Every time we'd drive around, the Skynyrd thing would come up. The idea began to evolve once we started writing some songs and it became more about the retelling of the folklore surrounding the band -- that point where myth overtakes reality.
"The political tie-in came when (former Alabama governor) George Wallace died and we began to think about what else was going on at the time, particularly with the civil rights struggle, and seeing interesting parallels. Both their stories touch on a lot of things about the South that we wanted to address."
Interestingly enough, while looking for connections between Skynyrd and Wallace, Hood discovered where the Drive-By Truckers and their artist contemporaries fit in. And that personal resonance is why the Trucker's Southern Rock Opera rings true, at times with unexpected poignancy.
The album closes with Angels And Fuselage, in which Hood sings about the trees getting closer before the crash, while Kelly Hogan -- who lost members of her band, the Jody Grind, in a highway wreck -- adds the heavenly harmonies.
"We started this project with the intention of it being about more than Skynyrd, but some things just came together by chance. The significance of Kelly singing on that particular song was not lost on us. In the end, we realized that this was more about us than we ever imagined."
DRIVE-BY Truckers Southern Rock Opera (Lost Highway/Universal) Rating: NNNN