It’s sort of an answer record to an answer record. Or maybe it’s the last act in a trilogy. Whatever you want to call it, “Ronnie And Neil” by Drive-By Truckers is part of a continuum of rock songs that deal with the rich, complicated history of the American South and the way that history is represented.
To properly understand the song, it’s important to know the history of the songs that preceded it. The story begins in 1970, when Neil Young, a Canadian, wrote the song “Southern Man,” which castigated racist elements in the South.
That didn’t sit all that well with Ronnie Van Zant and the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who responded with 1974’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Van Zant name-checks Young and his song in that Top 10 hit, hinting that a true “Southern Man” doesn’t really need Neil’s point of view anyway.
All of that back-and-forth served as the impetus for Drive-By Truckers breakthrough 2001 concept album Southern Rock Opera. As Truckers’ frontman Patterson Hood told the Birmingham News at the time of the album’s release, “It’s about growing up in the South and people’s misconceptions of that. You know, thinking everyone here is like George Wallace, and the TV footage of police dogs and the schoolhouse steps. But there was the whole Muscle Shoals music scene going on at the same time, with white musicians backing up people like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.”
“Ronnie And Neil” is, in many ways, the linchpin of that album, a song which examines how outsiders’ perception of the South is often influenced by pop culture representations that are far removed from reality. And yet Hood clearly shows his admiration for Young and Van Zant and their willingness to have an opinion and take on difficult topics in song.
Hood clearly learned from their examples, as he fearlessly makes his own points regardless of what the rock legends might have said. “’Southern Man’ and ‘Alabama’ certainly told some truth,” Hood sings amidst the Truckers’ crunching guitar attack. “But there were a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young wasn’t around.”
As for Skynyrd, Hood details how they utilized the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section in much the same way that Franklin and Pickett once did. He also intimates that Young and Van Zant didn’t hold a grudge because their similarities were ultimately much greater than their differences, as the chorus makes plain: “Ronnie and Neil, Ronnie and Neil/Rock stars today ain’t half as real.”
Fans of the Drive-By Truckers would beg to differ though, because the band’s impeccable authenticity makes them worthy torch-bearers of the Southern rock tradition. Maybe somewhere down the road somebody will write their own answer to “Ronnie And Neil,” because it’s only fitting that this proud tradition continue.