Drive-By Truckers - Southern Rock Opera at 20!
There was a six year timeline on the creation of Betamax Guillotine (as Southern Rock Opera was originally called). Beginning over a year before DBT was even formed. Writing it and figuring out how to play it (and how to play like that and attempt to sing like that) was like a game we played together as we did other things. We would talk about this crazy project to entertain ourselves in the van while touring behind Gangstabilly, Pizza Deliverance and the live Alabama Ass Whuppin’ albums. We slept on people’s floors and accosted them with this crazy idea (as they rolled their eyes or occasionally got excited about it). It was all in fun yet we were deadly serious about it. Total big fun to write and create.
Actually making it was a fucking nightmare. We were broke and in over our heads yet we instinctively knew that if we backed down or couldn’t follow through we were done for and it was all over. We had, perhaps intentionally, backed ourselves into a corner and to not deliver would mean that we were basically just full of shit.
By the time David Barbe began mixing it we weren’t even speaking to each other and he literally had to talk me out of quitting my own band one evening. Did I mention how broke we all were? I ended up homeless the summer before it came out, but fortunately my friend Jenn gave me a storage room to sleep in. I spent the last half of July and all of August working around the clock trying to get SRO released.
I booked a fall tour w 75 shows in 90 days and we put that sucker out ourselves on our tiny Soul Dump Records label.
The album that became Southern Rock Opera began as an idea for a screenplay, cooked up during a long road trip from Athens Georgia to Florence Alabama in a U-haul truck by myself and Earl Hicks. Earl and I had been friends back home for decades and he was in the process of moving to Athens. It was April of 1995 (or thereabouts) and the truck didn’t have a radio, so our rambling talk somehow morphed into this idea for a movie about the mythology surrounding a fictitious rock and roll band loosely inspired by stories I knew from growing up in Muscle Shoals and close friends who had worked with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the early days. We didn’t want to use the actual band story because they were famously hard to deal with and life is too short. One of us decided to call the fictional band Betamax Guillotine.
The screenplay made it about as far as a first draft outline before life intervened and we both got busy doing other things. For me the other thing included forming a band called Drive-By Truckers. If I had had any idea the band would have survived more than a few months, I might have been more careful with what I called it, but…
The band got busy fast. We hit the road and began touring like madmen, sleeping on floors and playing anywhere that would have us. Earl worked sound at various clubs in Athens and bought some mobile recording gear. He produced two of our albums along the way. Somehow the crazy screenplay idea morphed into the idea of doing a rock opera called Betamax Guillotine. Earl was going to produce and engineer it.
As we toured behind three albums, we worked feverishly on this crazy side-project idea, eventually deciding to make it under our regular band name. Along the way Earl joined the band but still committed to recording the album. We didn’t have a deal, so we couldn’t afford to record it in an actual studio but Cooley’s wife’s family had a uniform shop in downtown Birmingham that agreed to let us record there after hours. We recorded the album over two weeks in September of 2000, during a heat wave. It was hot and miserable and we weren’t exactly getting along, but somehow we managed to finish the basic tracks in the allotted time before going back out on the road that fall.
Earl refused a Production credit since he was in the band, but make no mistake, he definitely was a producer as well as the recording engineer. We finished out the fall tour, coming home broke as hell and barely speaking to each other. In January, we did overdubs (guitar solos, backing vocals, etc.) at Cooley and Ansley’s house in Atlanta.
Everyone else in the band was either getting divorced or breaking up with their significant others and the tension from all of that had grown into a rift within the band. By the time we went into Chase Park Transduction studio for David Barbe to mix the album, we were barely speaking. I’m not going to get into the particulars of all of that now, except to say that I take the lion's share of the blame for it and am glad that Barbe was able to talk enough sense into me to enable us to stay together to see it through to completion.
What is the release date of an album that had no distribution and seemingly no future?
In those days albums came out on Tuesdays, but since we didn’t have a record deal at the time, our album wouldn’t initially be going into any record stores. September 11th, 2001 was the day we were supposed to pick up our 5000 copies from the printer and take several hundred of them to our friend Byron Wilkes’ house for him to begin shipping them out to the fine folks who pre-ordered one. We had showcased for many labels at SXSW in the spring but only received one offer, from Capricorn Records, an offer so bad that it would have essentially bankrupted us, so we passed.
Instead, we inadvertently invented crowdsourcing, using this new thing called the internet to raise funds from fans and supporters to enable us to press 5000 copies of a double CD with a 24 page booklet full of artwork and text, plus buy a used van and hire our first publicist (Traci Thomas, who now manages Jason Isbell). My sister, Lilla Hood did the layout and package design, incorporating art work from Wes Freed along with contributions from other artists Kathleen Judge, Jeff Owens and Byron Wilkes, as well as liners and text into the package that we now all know so well. Since she lived in Birmingham, Lilla was able to find a suitable printer there. The plan was for her to pick them up and meet me halfway so I could get them to Byron to send out. We were beginning our tour which I had booked (75 shows in 90 days) in Murfreesboro Tennessee on the 12th.
I was staying with my friend Dick Cooper in Florence Alabama. Dick was helping me manage the band at the time and was about to leave on the road with us as our first ever tour manager. His roommate at the time was Shonna Tucker who was an excellent local musician (bass player). They lived out on Shoals Creek a few miles north of town, very close to where I actually lived with my parents as a teenager. Their pad was a rustic A-Frame house overlooking the creek, which due to TVA and Wilson Dam was bigger than many rivers.
Dick and Shonna lived there with another musician named Scott Boyer, who in the 70’s had led the band Cowboy (and who wrote the song “Please Be With Me” which had also been recorded by Eric Clapton and Gregg Allman). Their place was a crash pad for various other traveling musicians and I spent a lot of time that summer drinking cheap beer, tequila and whisky there, crashing on their floor and plotting DBT’s fall tour and new album release. Jason Isbell was an old friend of Shonna’s and sometimes he would drive down from Memphis and hang out. We had hit it off like gangbusters and would spend endless hours sitting around picking guitars and playing each other our songs.
I awoke to Jason knocking on the door saying the world was ending or something like that. I cancelled my drive to Birmingham and we all spent the day in a bleary haze watching the horrific footage on tv until late in the night. Numb from terror and sadness.
On the 12th, we called the venue in Murfreesboro and they said they would be open regardless and we were welcomed to play. We thought, perhaps it would make us feel a little better so Cooley picked up the CDs from my sister and I loaded up the van and we headed up for the first of what became well over 200 shows on the SRO Tour.
Once the record came out, we hit the road. New York was still smoldering when we arrived there to play at Brownies in October. We came in a day early to play a benefit for the family of a lost fireman at a small bar in the village where my newly ex-wife worked.
People seemed to like the album wherever we went but it hadn’t yet occurred to us that our lives were changing. We were just busy trying to get from town to town and hoping to have enough gas and food money to keep it moving forward. Our van blew out its transmission in Pittsburgh and we spent a week touring empty rooms in Ohio while paying for a rental van, watching our money deplete knowing we had over a thousand dollar repair bill coming. We finally coasted into Chicago for a show at the Hideout on literal fumes in our newly refurbished van, broke and hungry and hoping this wasn’t the end.
Instead, we had a line around the block for a sold out show that recharged us and propelled us forward for the rest of that leg of the tour. We were informed that SPIN Magazine wanted to write a feature on us and began making plans to play a show in Muscle Shoals during our first weekend off in a while so that Eric Weisbard (who had already called us the best underground band in America the previous year) could see us and interview us. There would be a photo shoot and everything.
The show in Muscle Shoals fell through, as the club closed down. Instead, we decided to do an acoustic house concert at Dick Cooper’s house for Eric and a few friends. Jason Isbell came down for the show to hang out and Rob Malone, who had been in the band since 1998 decided not to. The rest as they say is history.
By the following spring, we had sold nearly 10,000 copies of SRO from the back of the van. Labels were now interested and we ended up signing with Last Highway Records, which also featured on their roster such stalwarts as Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Willie Nelson. We were also over halfway into recording a follow up that had the working title of Heathens. It is now known as Decoration Day.
All of our lives were drastically changed by this ridiculous album. Before it came out, most people told us we were crazy. We already knew that, but we did believe in what we were doing and how we were going about it. It somehow made sense to us and as it turned out, seemed to capture some kind of mood of the people who heard it. It somehow seems to still resonate with people two decades later.
There is a lot I would have liked to do to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Southern Rock Opera. It is seriously in need of being remastered and I’d love to see it rereleased on vinyl with the artwork properly done. It might be fun to one day do some kind of live re-imagining of it all. Cooley says if we ever perform it live again, it should be on ice.
People often ask about bonus tracks but there really isn’t anything releasable. The few shows that got recorded from that era are either board tapes with ridiculously loud vocals since most of the rooms we played in back then had tiny PA systems and we were so damn loud, or live tapes where you can’t really hear the vocals at all. We had recorded two previous attempts at the album before the Birmingham recordings, but many of the best songs weren’t even written yet and honestly most of that stuff is still missing anyway due to the homelessness that I lived through in the summer of 2001.
I would love to see Wes’ art work and Lilla’s art design properly blown up to LP size with an expanded booklet. I’d love to hear Barbe’s original mixes remastered by the great Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound who has mastered the majority of our releases since. Maybe by 2026 that will be a possibility.
To me, it’s not nearly our best or my favorite but it might be the most interesting and it’s definitely the thing that (for better or worse) has defined us as a band and to some extent as people. I’m proud as shit of it and that we somehow managed to pull it all off. I was 36 when we recorded it and 37 when it came out. That was a long time ago.
I’ve mostly made peace with it all except that I’ll probably never make peace with being called a southern rock band. We just played one on tv once upon a time.
For now, DBT is doing what we’ve always done. Moving forward with only a passing glance towards the past. We’re hard at work completing our next album, which will be our 14th studio album. We have a ton of dates booked between now and next summer and no plans of stopping anytime soon. We’re finally (so far) able to get back on the road to do this thing that keeps us alive. We’ll probably be coming to a town near you before too very long. We hope to see you there.
Happy Birthday Betamax Guillotine and thanks for the career you’ve given us.
- Patterson Hood (DBT) - September 12th, 2021
Dick Cooper, who helped me manage the band during those crazy times (2001-2002) had previously worked with members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and tour managed Leblanc and Carr Band, who was the opening act on Skynyrd’s Street Survivor Tour in 1977. He arrived in Baton Rouge about the time that word was breaking about the plane crash. He had previously worked at the Birmingham Post Herald during the civil rights days before being run out of town by Bull Connor and settling in Muscle Shoals. We initially asked him to be a technical advisor for our album, but he ended up with a well-deserved producer’s credit. It was his idea for us to change the name from Betamax Guillotine to Southern Rock Opera.
We raised about $22,000 from our fans in order to release and launch SRO. We paid everyone back in full plus 10% the following summer. One of our investors was in the stock business and he told us that all of his friends told him he was crazy to invest in us. After 9/11, many of his investments tanked but he got his money back from us with the agreed upon interest. Shonna Tucker ended up playing bass in DBT from 2004-2011 and is currently a solo artist based in the Shoals area.
Rob Malone is currently a member of The Fiddleworms and the Rob Aldridge Band, both excellent bands based in the Shoals area.
Jason Isbell is currently a very successful solo artist and is expanding his reach into acting. He is based in Nashville. We are still very close friends.
Traci Thomas was DBT’s publicist for 14 years but now is a manager full time with clients that include Jason Isbell and John Moreland. We are also very close friends.
Lilla Hood is a graphic designer. Her company Hood Design is based in Birmingham Alabama. She still designs all of our official releases.
Scott Boyer and Byron Wilkes passed away a few years ago. Both are deeply missed. Lost Highway reissued Southern Rock Opera in the summer of 2002. It has sold well over 100,000 units.
We ended up touring behind the record for 2 1/2 years, playing several hundred shows in the US, UK and Europe. We only played it in its entirety about 25-30 times and haven’t since 2002.