Take a stiff shot of the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Add some more grit, grime and edge. Shake it up well in an old cocktail-shaker and serve it straight up. What you’ll get is what a band called Drive-By Truckers serves up. I first came across the Truckers when I heard their two-CD epic, The Southern Rock Opera, released in 2001. A concept album that explores southern rock music, the album is themed on Lynyrd Skynyrd, the rock band that Ronnie Van Zant founded in 1965. Van Zant and two of his band members were killed in a plane crash in 1977 but not before Lynyrd Skynyrd garnered a huge following—even in India. On my infrequent visits to some Delhi bars I still hear their anthemic song, Free Bird, being played by DJs.
I didn’t much care for what Lynyrd Skynyrd started churning out after the band reformed without Van Zant. The new music lacked the songwriting flair that he brought to the band. So when I discovered Drive-By Truckers, it was like revisiting the old Skynyrd but with a modern touch. Like their idols, the Truckers are a three-guitar band but much punchier and more muscle bound than Skynyrd ever were. After listening to The Southern Rock Opera, I went and bought Decoration Day, The Dirty South and A Blessing and a Curse, all of them great albums.
At the core of their music, besides the trademark guitar riffs are the ragged and torn yet deeply emotional vocals of band-leader Patterson Hood. On many of these albums, Hood, the Truckers’ principal songwriter, explores life at the margins in southern American states such as
Alabama among drug-dealers, laid-off workers and gangsters. Hood, I felt, was a rarity—a thinking man’s songwriter in a genre that is often dismissed as being too redneck-ish.
Last week, I began dusting off some of my southern rock albums and giving them a listen. Alright, the immediate provocation was that I had just met a southern gentleman, former US president George Bush, whose trademark Texan drawl and surprisingly self-deprecating down-home humour was a very pleasant surprise. Drive-By Truckers aren’t from Texas, though, they’re from Athens, Georgia (as are R.E.M., by the way, and Widespread Panic) but that’s south, nevertheless.
Call it serendipity or whatever, as I was revisiting my pile of Truckers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers Band albums, a podcast popped up with an interview of Patterson Hood and a showcase of his second solo album called Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs). On the interview, Hood talked about his personal struggles: a traumatic divorce that led him to move out of Alabama to Georgia; his first solo songs that were too personal to be used by the band; his remarriage and fatherhood and so on. The album itself has 13 songs, some, such as Pollyanna, written when he was going through emotional turmoil, and other, newer ones, such as Granddaddy, which he wrote when his new wife was expecting their daughter.
But the piece de resistance on the album (and my favourite) is Heavy and Hanging, a song Hood wrote as a tribute to Kurt Cobain. There’s a story behind the song that Hood relates on the interview. It was April 8, 1994 and Hood had just moved to Georgia and was preparing to sign the lease of his new home and, as he says, the beginning of his new post-divorce life, when he heard on the radio the shocking news that Cobain’s body had been found. The song is a brilliant tribute to the Nirvana frontman and can be the basis for buying the album, particularly so if you happen to be a Nirvana fan.
Hood’s solo work doesn’t have the blistering riffs of the three lead guitars that the Truckers’ songs have but it has his mellower yet still quite shredded vocals. I made a playlist that blends a few old Truckers’ songs in with some of Hood’s solo ones and found them to be a perfect accompaniment while driving back from work in the evening. I’m told The Bottle Rockets, another southern band from Missouri, and the Backyard Tire Fire, from North Carolina, also make music that celebrates the contemporary south but I’m yet to hear them. Till then I have my Truckers’ and Hood tracks on repeat.