The news that Lynyrd Skynyrd, the onetime standard-bearer for Southern rock, will no longer use the Confederate flag as the backdrop for its shows has sparked a very interesting discussion on the band’s website.
Though I can only laugh at Rossington’s statement that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” I can also sympathize with people who try to make symbols mean what they want them to mean. But when the commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans calls the NAACP a hate group along with the Ku Klux Klan, that suggests something quite a bit nastier (or, at the very least, howlingly ignorant of history) is going on with the complainers.
It’s a fact that many Southern states only resurrected the Confederate flag in response to the civil rights movement. For a long time I had problems listening to Skynyrd’s signature song, “Sweet Home Alabama,” because the reference to George Wallace was so ambiguous. It took the Drive-by Truckers and their album Southern Rock Opera to get me to listen with fresh ears. Along with “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” posted above, the album has a song called “The Southern Thing” with these great lines:
“You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright/ You wonder how I sleep at night/ Proud of the glory, stare down the shame/ The duality of the Southern Thing.”
Since I’ve spent my years living comfortably above the Mason-Dixon Line, there are probably lots of people who’ll say I have no busy chiming in on this argument. But since the flag represents a foreign nation that tried to rip our country apart, all to preserve a decadent society built on the sale and exploitation of human beings, I think we Northerners have the right to make our voices heard as well.
My fixation on the Drive-By Truckers has now lasted about as long as my obsession with Husker Du, only with the advantage that the DBTs aren’t about to break up. I think. It seemed like the Huskers blew up just as the world was starting to appreciate them. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the DBTs. Stylistically the bands have nothing in common but electric guitars and a taste for feedback, but they share (shared) a severe work ethic that also seems (seemed) to bring out the best in their songwriting. That means a harvest of B-sides and oddments every bit as good as the tunes that make (made) it onto the official albums. Up top, DBT Patterson Hood does a solo version of “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues,” from the DBT odds’n’sods collection The Fine Print. I’m adding it to the bookstore sound system, because like the Husker’s “Celebrated Summer” it makes perfect leadfoot music for a drive to the shore. Which is just the kind of thing I want to hear right now.
The new Drive-by Truckers opus, The Big To-Do, manages the feat of outdoing its predecessor, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The trademark sound — dark, gritty rock shot through with country twang — is even more potent for the absence of filler: no borderline offensive goofs like “Bob,” just thirteen powerful songs about trying (and often failing) to keep body and soul together in the Post-Dubya Age of Suck. It’s Lynyrd Skynyrd with more brains, Crazy Horse with more inspiration, Nebraska with more drive. It’s a formula, but it’s not formulaic. I don’t listen to enough new music these days to feel comfortable making pronouncements like “The DBTs are the best American rock and roll band now standing,” but I’d like to see somebody argue against me on the merits.
Since the title of Booker T. Jones’s new disc, Potato Hole, evokes food, let me offer an alternate title: Three Great Tastes That Don’t Necessarily Taste Great Together. Those three being Booker’s Hammond organ, Neil Young’s lead guitar and the Drive-By Truckers’ feedback drenched backup. I love all three, but the combination turns out to be a bit of an acquired taste.
Booker T. Jones (along with guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn) was the cornerstone of Stax Records during the years it offered a harder-edged alternative to Motown. Up above, Booker T. plays his signature tune “Green Onions” with Cropper, Dunn and a host of young ladies on shimmy. While the bass lays down a firm pulse, Cropper’s guitar darts in and out of the smoky R&B organ sound.
The Drive-By Truckers, who back Booker T. on Potato Hole, are one of the best American rock bands now treading stages, but their Crazy Horse-influenced sound meshes a little too closely with the organ — with Neil Young, another feedback lover, doing his thing as well, Potato Hole sometimes sounds like it has three organ players instead of just one. It’s a listenable record, but these slow-simmering instrumentals are a far cry from Booker’s best Stax work — or, for that matter, Fork in the Road or Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.
If you’re a fan of any of the participants, though, you’ll want to check out Potato Hole if only for some of the more off-the-wall covers. The idea of Booker T. covering Andre 3000’s “Hey Ya” may sound surprising, but after all, he did the same thing with Simon & Garfunkel and The Young Rascals back in the day. One of the best tracks is “Get Behind the Mule” by Tom Waits, shown here in a concert perfomance from earlier this year in Australia:
By a happy accident, I heard about the Drive-By Truckers and their terrific concept album, Southern Rock Opera, right about the time I was doing some serious research into Lester Maddox and the segregationist pushback against civil rights. Rather than Maddox and Georgia, the Drive-Bys focus on Alabama and George Wallace, as well as Bear Bryant, Lynyrd Skynyrd and anything else that embodies “the duality of the Southern thing.” The song above, “Wallace,” imagines the reception the former governor of Alabama received when he shuffled off this mortal coil:
Throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is coming to stay
When he met St. Peter at the pearly gates, I’d like to think that a black man stood in the way.
I know “All should be forgiven”, but he did what he done so well
So throw another log on the fire boys,
George Wallace is a coming…
Now, he said he was the best friend a black man from Alabama ever had,
And I have to admit, compared to Fob James, George Wallace don’t seem that bad
And if it’s true that he wasn’t a racist and he just did all them things for the votes
I guess Hell’s just the place for “kiss ass politicians” who pander to assholes.
So throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is coming to stay
I know, in the end, he got the black people’s votes, but I bet they’d still vote him this way.
And Hell’s just a little bit hotter cuz He played his hand so well
He had what it took to take it so far
Now the Devil’s got a Wallace sticker on the back of his car