The making of Southern Rock Opera starts in 1972: Neil Young was feeling pressured, because the success of Harvest meant playing arena shows for the first time, Young wanted a bigger sound, so he hired his good friend Danny Whitten, who’d played guitar and sang with him in Crazy Horse. Whitten, however, showed up at the tour rehearsal sessions in no way suitable for handling the job. Young had no choice but to send him home. That night, Whitten died of a drug overdose. A year later, another member of Young’s inner circle, Bruce Berry, a longtime roadie for CSNY, died in the same way.
Young channeled his grief into a wake turned performance art that became Tonight’s the Night. Recorded in 1973, but not released until 1975, the album was a tequila-drenched song cycle about Young’s “standing on the sound of some openhearted people going down.” He went all in on going to a place artistically that few could, or would dare to, reach.
It’s regarded now as one of Young’s best albums. At the time, however, not many got it. Ronnie Van Zant, lead singer and songwriter of Lynyrd Skynyrd, was one of the few who did. On the cover of Street Survivors (1977), he wore a Tonight’s the Night shirt, surrounded by flames, like the rest of the band. Three days after the record release, while on tour, the band took a chartered flight from Greenville, SC to Baton Rouge, LA. The plane crashed in Mississippi. Van Zant, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, and her brother, guitarist Stevie Gaines, who’d joined the band a year earlier, were killed.
Subsequent pressings of Street Survivors removed the flames from the cover art. As a band, Skynyrd were finished. But the legend was just beginning.
Most know the band’s legacy from “Sweet Home Alabama,” which has several significant name checks: Birmingham, the Alabama governor—followed by a chorus of boos—Muscle Shoals and the Swampers (the name of the famous studio where part of Street Survivors was recorded, and the studio’s legendary rhythm section).
The most debated reference in the song is to Young’s heavy-handed criticisms of racism in “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” Van Zant sings, “I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.” Young took it in stride, and even wrote “Powderfinger” for Skynyrd, but the band never got the chance to play or record it.
The son of David Hood, bass player in the Swampers, Patterson Hood had Skynyrd practically in his blood. In the spirit of youthful rebellion, he went in a punk direction. But his meeting people who weren’t from the South made him realize the region was viewed much differently by outsiders, and caused him to reevaluate, and revalue, the music of his past.
In 1996, Hood formed the Drive-by Truckers and started working on Southern Rock Opera. About a year and a half later, around the time George Wallace, the governor of Alabama from 1963-67, 1971-79, and 1983-87 died, Hood wrote the three songs central to the album’s narrative: “Let There Be Rock,” “Wallace,” and “Angels and Fuselage.”
Southern Rock Opera envisions Skynyrd’s tragic saga through the raucous farewell party of Tonight’s the Night and Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (1974), which focuses on the contradictory behaviors of a wide range of Southern characters. Newman helps to shape the motif of what Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing,” which, along with spoken-word passages, bridges the two acts on the double album: first, a historical, cultural, and musical remembrance of growing up in the South in the 70s and second, the exploits of a rock band that morph into Skynyrd.
The album bursts forth with a sledgehammer guitar figure that drives “Ronnie and Neil,” about how Skynyrd’s recording music in Muscle Shoals places the band in an elite group that includes Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Hood suggests that Van Zant and Young share this kind of soul, but “Southern Man” and “Alabama” overlooks the redeeming qualities other Southerners had. It’s a lot to pack into just under five minutes, yet the album, on the whole, while musically dense, still has a bare-bones feel, like short stories with the filler removed.
Southern rock, like all rock, plundered blues music. What set Southern rock bands apart from British rock bands was their closeness to the soul source, not just at Muscle Shoals, but places in the region where performers such as James Brown got their start. Listen to “The Southern Thing,” and you’ll hear the Truckers using a four-on-the-floor groove in the verse before shifting into a harder syncopated counterpoint for the chorus.
The embodiment of “the duality of the Southern thing” appears next: Wallace himself. Hood damns Wallace to hell, not because of his beliefs, that, after all, were hardly surprising for a Southern white man, but because of his “blind ambition” which regarded the consequences to blacks as collateral damage.
In a prologue (“The Three Great Alabama Icons”), we learn that Wallace started out with, for the time, a progressive racial outlook. After losing the governorship in 1958 to someone with more extreme views, he became a hardcore segregationist, giving white people in cities like Birmingham exactly what they wanted, which paved the way for his massively successful political career. Later in his life, Wallace recanted and did all he could to help minorities enter into politics. In 1982, he won 90% of the black vote.
Newman-like in its twisted humor and blues shuffle, “Wallace” is from the devil’s viewpoint, welcoming Wallace, with Southern hospitality, to his permanent residence down below. While acting courteous, the devil pulls no punches: “I know, in the end, he got the black people’s votes, but I bet they’d still vote him this way.”
“Let There Be Rock” has a different ending. The protagonist remembers having a ticket to see Skynyrd in 1977. The show, unfortunately, is rescheduled for the ill-fated “Street Survivors Tour.” But he proudly says he got to see AC/DC: “With Bon Scott singing, let there be rock!” The grim irony is that Scott died a few years later in 1980. Although death hangs in the air, “Let There Be Rock” is a defiant refusal to live a life of compromise.
After a further meditation on death, “Plastic Flowers on the Highway,” which spins the old saying, out of sight, out of mind, in a morbidly comical way, the knee-bending guitar riff of “Cassie’s Brother” blasts out of the speakers. Singer Kelly Hogan voices the role of Cassie Gaines, who convinces Skynyrd to let her brother audition. The band is blown away by Stevie Gaines’s guitar playing, and he joins up for the adventure of an all too brief lifetime.
The Truckers keep the pedal to the metal, as the rest of the songs speed by like hazily remembered rehearsals and touring stops. Cassie was supposedly scared of the plane chartered for the flight to Baton Rouge, but Van Zant, known for being a hard-ass bandleader, would hear none of it.
The story of the end, the last song, “Angels and Fuselage,” is rendered starkly, in a simple downward chord progression. There is a tonal shift upwards for the chorus, playing out the terrifying moment of uncertainty about what comes after once the plane hits the ground. Hood captures the nightmare in progress: “And I’m scared shitless of what’s coming next/I’m scared shitless, these angels I see in the trees are waiting for me.”
In the present age, where music can be, in theory, copied, digitally sampled or otherwise, the singular and complex vision of Southern Rock Opera eludes any means of reproduction. By now, I trust that no further explanation is needed.