Do you not know things? Would you like to change that, but can't be bothered to read? Maybe you should try listening to an album instead, you lazy son of a bitch! We talk about a few famous albums that teach you stuff on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Jeff May and Cracked editor Alex Schmidt. That's also what I'm talking about in this very column. Go figure!
5Drive-By Truckers - Southern Rock Opera / The Dirty South
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The South sure is getting a lot of attention these days, and it's rarely for anything good. With all of the burning down black churches and defending the Confederate flag, news stories coming from that part of the country right now make it seem like the Civil Rights Movement just missed it entirely. Of course, that doesn't mean you can just write off an entire swath of the nation as racist and assume that covers everything you could ever need to know about it. I mean, sure, stereotypes exist because they're true sometimes, but they're also frowned upon because using or promoting them implies that you believe that one negative trait applies to every single member of a particular race, region, religion, television show fan base, etc. Not to get all very special episode on you right now, but that's not cool, guys.
Unfortunately, as it pertains to the South, the people who are usually the most vocal about defending it seem to be more interested in maintaining their right to be awful. Like how of course Kid Rock is going to keep flying the Confederate flag on stage, because, you know, he's Kid Rock. It's also worth mentioning that he's from goddamn Detroit.
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Don't say it, "South Detroit" isn't even a real place.
So what to do? Read a book on the subject? Don't be stupid. Why do that when you can just listen to an album or two? To that end, if you're looking to brush up on your knowledge of the South, I'd recommend checking out the Drive-By Truckers. I actually find reason to recommend that pretty regularly in this column, because they're the best goddamn band in the world, but it's especially fitting in this instance, given what we're talking about today.
For example, take their third album, the two-disc Southern Rock Opera, which touches on everything from the supposed feud between rock legend / pointless gadget peddler Neil Young and former Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant ...
... to the plane crash that killed the latter of the two.
There are three songs about that, actually. The entire album is sort of about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but being proud of being from the South was a huge part of that band's story. Accordingly, the songs sometimes veer off into topics like Alabama's notorious former segregationist governor George Wallace ...
That song, "Three Great Alabama Icons," plays like a six-minute TED Talk about all the surprising things you don't know about the South. Like the fact that the aforementioned George Wallace, most known for being the monster who stood in school doorways and vowed that black kids and white kids would never walk through them together, eventually became one of the most racially progressive governors that state ever elected. Sometime in the late '70s, he claimed to be a born-again Christian and apologized for his segregationist past. During his final term, he appointed more black people to state positions than anyone before him, a record that was matched at one point, but has never been surpassed. Sure, a few songs later they say exactly what most of you are thinking right now, which is that it was probably in large part just a ploy to keep getting elected once being openly and vehemently racist became taboo. But it's still pretty surprising, right?
In 2004, the Drive-By Truckers released another album about the bottom half of the country, called The Dirty South. Yes, that is what the rappers call it, thanks for asking. Among the various tunes about car racing and making moonshine in the '30s ...
... is a fascinating trio of songs about Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff whose life story was made into a movie called Walking Tall, with Joe Don Baker or The Rock in the lead role, depending on how old you are.
How's that for diversity?
They tell the story from the point of view of the criminals he so famously rid his town of. Unsurprisingly, their take on things isn't quite as romantic as the Hollywood version.
These two albums will go a long way toward at least somewhat changing your perception of the South and the people who live there, and you can take it all in while you're riding the bus to work. If you are the reading kind though, give co-front man Patterson Hood's recent and fantastic New York Times editorial a look sometime. Later, though. Finish reading this first. Please.
4Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
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I know what you're thinking, and yes, it's true: Your dreams of having a comprehensive history of the state of Illinois in the form of a dreamy indie rock album came true years ago. How did you not know? The album I'm referring to is Sufjan Stevens' Illinois.
That's not how it's pronounced, by the way.
It's the first of what were supposed to be 50 albums, one about each of the United States. He did another one that's sort of about Michigan, but like so many of the people who live there, the concept has never made it out of the Midwest.
That said, Illinois is pretty fucking great, especially if songs about painter (and sometime child murderer) John Wayne Gacy are what you're after ...
... and I know you are, you creepy motherfuckers. There's almost nothing about Illinois that you can't learn from this album, including the fact that people in that state get a day off work to celebrate Count Casimir Pulaski's birthday every year.
There's so much information, in fact, that it couldn't be contained to one album. Not long after Illinois, he released The Avalanche: Outtakes And Extras From The Illinois Album, which is impressive, considering the first one had 22 songs.
Anyway, here's one about a UFO sighting in Highland, Illinois:
As that video should clearly demonstrate, the range of topics covered over the course of these two albums is insanely broad. Everything from author Carl Sandburg to the Black Hawk War get a mention, as do so many other things. Just so many. There's nothing about the Steve Bartman incident, but that's fine. As a Cubs fan, it's a situation I prefer to not think about.