Edge of An Era

The evidence was clear but grim: As the cop approached the mangled remains of the car, one look inside told him that none of the teenagers had survived the crash. And yet, on the car’s radio, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” groaned on with an insidious life of its own, chillingly resistant to death and destruction.

In fact, scenes like this were supposedly played out many times during the ubiquitous song’s heyday. Patterson Hood, lead singer of the Athens-based band Drive-By Truckers, remembers the rumor well from his high-school days. Now, he and bandmates Mike Cooley, Rob Malone and Brad Morgan plan to turn the tale into an entire CD.

“It’s going to be a kind of redneck rock opera,” Hood revealed in a recent interview. “It’s like an urban legend … or, I guess, a Southern urban legend.”

That’s a pretty hefty ambition coming from a band who didn’t even know they were going to be a band until after they’d already immortalized their first tunes: A few years back, Hood had some songs he wanted to get out of his system and decided to do a one-day recording project with longtime friends Malone and Cooley (the latter musician had played with him in a band called Adam’s Housecat — based in their hometown of Muscle Shoals, Ala. — since 1985). But the chemistry proved lasting and, before they knew it, the Drive-By Truckers were a destiny-driven unit.

More than 200 gigs later, the band is poised to record a live CD, due this winter (the rock opera is slated for release in the summer of 2000). Once a staunchly unplugged outfit, the group has since developed a grittier, electric vibe — motivated partly by practical concerns, such as the difficulty of playing acoustic tunes in cavernous clubs.

Creative restlessness played a part in the metamorphosis, as well. “When we began, we had an upright bass [and] access to all these different instruments, and were intrigued by [the acoustic sound],” Hood remembers. “And we had a good time doing all that stuff. … And then, when that whole alt-country thing happened … it seemed like every has-been punk band suddenly had a pedal steel player. It became kind of tiresome.”

He laments the fact that a band can’t grow in a different direction without immediately being re-labeled: “Music has all been separated into these different parts. If someone asks you what it is that you [play], and you say rock, then they’re like, ‘Well, what kind of rock?’ If you have a pedal steel, they’ll say, ‘Well, no, that’s Americana.’ It’s so segregated.”

Anthemic hooks and Hood’s clarity-skirting sandpaper vocals give Drive-By Truckers common ground with groups that preceded such categories — Drivin ‘n’ Cryin’ and early Replacements, perhaps. But the group’s sense of humor is clearly its own. Pizza Deliverance (Soul Dump Records, 1999) is full of rueful, giggle-through-the-tears stories, like those of many roots-rock groups. But most of the Truckers’ tunes are based on true stories. “Box of Spiders,” for instance, is about Hood’s funeral-obsessed great grandmother. “She used to attend several a day. Often she wouldn’t know a single soul there,” the singer reveals in the album’s liner notes. “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)” was lifted directly from a call-in Christian radio show for wayward teens that Hood and his wife, Donna Jane, listened to one Sunday evening.

Some Truckers’ songs, however, are decided flights of fancy. “We had moments while we were rehearsing Pizza Deliverance where we just kind of made things up on the fly,” Hood admits. One such tune is the brooding “The President’s Penis is Missing,” which features one of the more memorable choruses in modern-music history: “The president’s penis is missing … Ole!/We searched high and low, every night every day/Lord, won’t you come down and redeem us/Has anybody seen the president’s penis?”

Other fictional songs are highly personal and dear to the band’s collective heart. “Mrs. Dubose” — a tune written by Malone — pays solemn, unprecedented homage to the waspish, bedridden crone who terrorizes Scout and Jem so memorably in To Kill a Mockingbird. “For some reason, Rob just had an obsession with that character, and I really wanted to include the song on [this album],” notes Hood, gallantly refusing to discuss Malone’s reasons for honoring the classic book’s less-than-lovable character without consulting his bandmate.

With two major projects looming, the band has come a long way from the day they decided to kick around a few ideas in the studio. “We’re definitely running on a master plan now,” Hood reveals. “I don’t know if it’s based on any kind of sound business strategies, but we definitely have an idea of where we want to go.”

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