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Rigs to Riches 

The Drive-By Truckers tell the Skynyrd saga with some new-fashioned Southern rock.

While chronicling Skynyrd's tragic tale, the Truckers endured heartache of - their own.
  • While chronicling Skynyrd's tragic tale, the Truckers endured heartache of their own.
Patterson Hood is more than just a little under the weather. The vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter for the Drive-By Truckers has just been diagnosed with walking pneumonia, and he punctuates nearly every sentence with a deep, racking cough. A month of traveling in a van together means that the rest of the Truckers are suffering the same fate: Four of the five members are hacking away.

"It's a good thing we had this week off, or we'd have been screwed," says Hood from his Athens, Georgia home. "We stayed sick almost this whole last leg of the tour."

The Truckers are trying to get as well as possible as quickly as possible, to continue capitalizing on the unexpected acclaim lavished on their fourth album, Southern Rock Opera. Lauded by everyone from Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly, the record is a fascinating concept piece that incorporates a lightly fictionalized version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story into a larger work about the dichotomies and misconceptions of growing up in the '70s South. The album's concept began as a brainstorm on a road trip from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to Athens, as Hood and friend Earl Hicks began reexamining the role that Skynyrd had played in their teenage lives as fans and in their adult lives as musicians. The pair thought that their story would make a compelling movie, but they eventually retooled the concept as a song cycle about the fabled band.

Hood's association with Lynyrd Skynyrd goes back further than just his concept piece on the band's figurative rise and literal fall. His father, David Hood, was a session bassist with the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who recorded and toured with some of music's most notable talents -- Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge. The elder Hood was well acquainted with the Skynyrd boys: He was one of the Swampers, the sessioners who founded the Muscle Shoals studio and were made famous with a lyrical name-check in one of Lynyrd Skynyrd's biggest hits, "Sweet Home Alabama."

By the time the younger Hood helped found the Drive-By Truckers in 1995, he had accumulated a number of songs that fit the concept he had in mind, and drummer Mike Cooley and bassist/guitarist Rob Malone began contributing songs to the process as well. After a trio of self-released albums (Gangstabilly, Pizza Deliverance, and the live Alabama Ass Whuppin'), band members began to work in earnest on the concept album that they had envisioned for as long as they were a band.

"We were so obsessed and absorbed in making it that, by the time we were done, we didn't even know if it was any good," says Hood with a laugh and a throat-clearing cough. "We've been overwhelmed by how it's been received by everybody. We didn't know if anybody would slightly get it, or want to get it, or if it would be hated or taken the wrong way. We had no idea, and it finally got to the point where none of that mattered, and we just had to finish the goddamn thing, get it out, and get back on the road and do what we do."

The Truckers, originally a quartet, added their longtime friend and producer Earl Hicks as bassist to create a lineup of classic Southern rock proportions: bass, drums, and three guitars. With Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers revived three of the most revered -- and reviled -- conventions of the '70s: the three-guitar attack, the double album, and the rock opera.

"All three of which are things which I have, at different times, denounced on my own," says Hood. "Although not so much the three-guitar lineup, because I've always been a little attracted to that. Most people who try to do it don't get it right, and it's a mess, with people noodling on top of each other. Skynyrd had a certain thing that they did that made theirs work."

If the Skynyrd story plays like high tragedy, with the group losing its leader, Ronnie Van Zant, and two other band members in a plane crash at the peak of its popularity in 1977, the making of Southern Rock Opera is a compelling story in itself. Beyond the standard travails of making an album this complex and personal, the Truckers had the added onus of working outside the traditional structure of the music business -- i.e., without the safety net of a major label. During the course of making Southern Rock Opera, both Hood and guitarist Rob Malone saw their marriages dissolve, and Malone ultimately departed after the band's fall tour late last year. That, combined with the self-imposed pressure to make the piece meet everyone's personal satisfaction, took a toll on the band.

"It was not fun to make," says Hood. "One of the golden rules of the band when we first started was 'Always keep it fun.' We spent the better part of a year breaking that rule with a vengeance, working on this record. In retrospect, I think it was important that it be that way, in a method-acting kind of way. It's not a pretty story, and I think the miserable time we were having makes for the way the record sounds. The next one is going to be more fun to make. Life's too short."

The Truckers have been invited to open three shows for Lynyrd Skynyrd in early March on Skynyrd's home turf in Florida. Hood says the band was provided copies of the album, and although members of the Skynyrd entourage -- who may have been responsible for securing the Truckers as the opening gig -- have expressed a great admiration for the album, there's been no official response from the band.

But even with accolades flying around for Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers are already looking ahead to their upcoming work. New guitarist Jason Isbell has energized the band's catalog material and is, according to Hood, an inspirational songwriter. Just as the Truckers have begun working Isbell's songs into their sets and thinking seriously about their next disc, a number of major labels and big indies have started sniffing around.

"There have been a thousand synchronicities as far as this whole project, and they kind of keep happening," says Hood. "It's been one of those situations where every day, something else happens that makes me think that this was all just meant to be."

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