Ronnie and Neil
by Justin Farrar | March 5, 2014
I’m not ignorant of the fact that Drive-By Truckers have dropped a new album. English Oceans is yet another excellent slab of rock and roll, dirty and scuzzy—and snarling in ways that the group’s more recent full-lengths are not. Having said that, I’d be a lying weasel if I didn’t cop to the fact that the Truckers song presently lodged in my noggin isn’t from the new joint, but rather Southern Rock Opera, the band’s sprawling concept album from 2001.
I’m referring to “Ronnie and Neil,” and it’s hard rock gold. In it, Patterson Hood tells the story of how, back in the 1970s, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young maintained a unique relationship that was part rivalry (self-righteous hippie versus hip-swaggering Southerner) and part mutual appreciation society (a couple of big-time rock stars digging one another’s talents).
As most fans are well aware, theirs was a relationship of songs-and-images, many of which have been analyzed to death: “Alabama” and “Southern Man” versus “Sweet Home Alabama;” Van Zant sporting a Tonight’s The Night tour shirt on the cover of Skynyrd’s Street Survivors album; and Young giving a demo of “Powderfinger” to Skynyrd to record (which, sadly, they didn’t before the 1977 plane crash that claimed Van Zant’s life, as well as those of bandmates Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines).
The upshot of all this rumination is that it inspired me to build a concept-driven playlist riffing on the very themes the Truckers explore in their tune. The bookends are “Ronnie and Neil” (obviously) and “The Three Great Alabama Icons” (the other cut from Southern Rock Opera to touch on Van Zant and Young). In between those tracks, I programmed a call-and-response sequence of Skynyrd and Young cuts from the ’70s. Of course, the mix spotlights the tunes that helped to create the mythology surrounding their relationship (the previously mentioned “Alabama,” “Southern Man,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Powderfinger”).
But I also added several tunes that spotlight other commonalities between the main players in this drama. Songs about the evils of drug abuse are the most obvious example: you have “The Needle And The Damage Done” and “The Needle And The Spoon”—plus “Tonight’s The Night” and “That Smell,” as well as “Tired Eyes” and “Every Mother’s Son.” Another key parallel, and a very rock-and-roll one at that, is the artists’ shared disdain for the men who corrupt our world through power, violence and money. Here, we have “Vampire Blues” and “Mr. Banker,” as well as “ Cortez The Killer” and “Workin’ For MCA.” There are other commonalities embedded in the playlist, but enough talk. Let’s get to the music.