Like most of America, I spent most of yesterday quietly reflecting about September 11, 2001. The most comfortable spot on my couch is right next to a south-facing window with an ever-so-slight view of the Freedom Tower in the distance. On a clear day with low humidity, much like the weather yesterday and that awful day 15 years ago, the tallest towers of Lower Manhattan rise like glass phoenix above the old tenements of the East Village in the foreground.
Emotionally, I felt pretty raw. Physically, I was exhausted after a fun evening at a Widespread Panic show. From that spot on my couch, my eyes darted back and forth between the various 9/11 NFL tributes on TV to that spot in the New York skyline where The Towers once stood. Later that night, during the Patriots-Cardinals game, I mustered the energy to go up to my roof and take in the blue memorial lights of where The Towers once stood. More than just a ‘gram-able opportunity, I sat up there just staring for at least a half hour, sober with the significance of those two beams shining into infinite darkness above the city.
There’s a certain gravity to the passage of time. 15 years is a long time. 10 years, back in 2011, was *just* one measly decade. iPods weren’t technological relicts of the past quite yet, nor was knowing at least one person with a 2001 model year car with 125,000 miles on it.
15 years, on the other hand, is half my existence. We’re rounding the back nine on 20 years since that day. Plenty of people never knew The Towers nor the day they were taken from us. They grew up in a post-9/11 world where “9/11” was referenced as “9/11” without being experienced. My cousin, a high school student, is one of those people. It’s almost unfathomable to those of us who remember the announcements during ninth grade biology class or the horror of a teacher turning on CNN only to witness a plane slam into the South Tower.
September 11, 2001 was a “Super Tuesday” of releases for the music industry. Three stuck out to me personally as a 15-year-old who loved trips to F.Y.E. at the mall: Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, Ben Folds Rockin’ The Suburbs, and the Drive-By Truckers Southern Rock Opera, which officially was released on September 12th. I spent a lot of time dorking around on jam band message boards in high school, which is where I first heard about the gritty music of an Athens, Georgia-based college rock band called the Drive-By Truckers.
That double-album marked my first of many experiences with DBT. My college-age camp counselor at church camp threw on Southern Rock Opera in his car stereo when we were chugging off Mt. Dew by a campfire one night, as teenagers do. A few months later, I picked up a copy when I found a used copy for sale at a thrift store. Wes Freed’s iconic cover art most certainly had something to do with pulling the trigger on that purchasing decision.
It was one of my first experiences with alt-country Americana music, something that felt very real in post-9/11 America. Heart-achingly lonely, it’s rock for oil-stained hands and long, contemplative drives past Flying J truck stops on roads like I-65 from Nashville to Birmingham or I-81 from Roanoke to Knoxville. You can almost smell the Red Man chewing tobacco and Evan Williams through the grizzled, tube-screaming guitar distortion on tracks like “Zip City” and “Plastic Flowers On The Highway.”
It’s impossible to talk about Southern Rock Opera without digesting its narrative about “the duality of the Southern thing.” It embraces the white trash appeal of southern rock while spitting in the very face of backwoods redneck stereotypes. That’s a musical portrait of rural America that I really appreciated growing up in a small town, even if I did come from just a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. This ‘graph from S. Renee Dechert’s PopMatters review back in 2001 summarizes the rock opera quite nicely.
In a nutshell, the album is a two-CD fictionalization of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story. A young man grows up in Alabama during the 1970s and struggles with its social and political realities. Eventually, he leaves home and becomes a rock star in Betamax Guillotine, though at the height of their glory, the singer and some of the band are killed in a plane crash. But Southern Rock Opera is more than this; it confronts essential questions of what it means to be from the South.
In my mind, it’s one of the greatest Southern rock albums of all time. That album is 15 years old today, just like how everyone who remembers the darkness of 9/11 all those years ago is 15 years older.
The world was a very different place on September 12, 2001. The world is an even more radically different place on September 12, 2016. Sometimes I read stories like this about a generation with no recollection of 9/11 and wonder if we’ve even learned anything since then. I’d like to think we have. I’d like to think we still drive past fake plastic flowers on the highway and slow down for a few minutes, thinking about the life it memorializes. Hopefully in our country’s most confusing moments, optimism and hope prevail as a middle finger to whatever evil B.S. a couple of terrorists tried to accomplish that day.
Patterson Hood wrote it best in “The Southern Thing”:
“We’ve come a long way rising from the flame.”