Having written one of the greatest Southern-rock songs of all time"The Living Bubba," about a road-warrior rocker dying of AIDSsinger-guitarist Patterson Hood and Drive-By Truckers strive for glory on a double-disc set they've dubbed Southern Rock Opera. The liner notes lay out the concept: These are songs about stubbornness, drinking and driving, dying young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Great State Of Alabama. The record's true inspiration is laid out on "The Three Great Alabama Icons," a spoken-word narrative addressing Hood's mixed feelings about Skynyrd, Bear Bryant, and George Wallace. The best cuts on Southern Rock Opera dig deep into Hood's simultaneous pride and shame in his home region, as he tells concise, revelatory stories about growing up as a rock-loving geek, distrustful of his peers' jock worship and Confederate nostalgia, and about the ways he's forgiven the sins of the South as an adult. On "Wallace," the late Alabama governor and segregationist is condemned to hell not for racism, but for political opportunism. Other songs deal with the friendly war of words between Ronnie Van Zandt and Neil Young ("Ronnie And Neil"), the justification of Southern apologists ("The Southern Thing"), Hood's disappointment in seeing so many great concerts but never seeing Skynyrd ("Let There Be Rock"), and the dangers of travel (a slew of songs, the best being "Plastic Flowers On The Highway" and the elegiac "Angels And Fuselage"). Southern Rock Opera makes a better intellectual exercise than it does a collection of beer-soaked party music. Hood has a powerful and distinctive drawl, but he shares the leads with his bandmates, whose performances are much less compelling. And Drive-By Truckers' version of Southern rock is murkier than that of its heroes. It's all fuzzed-up power chords that hang in the air, shadowing tempos that come in two flavors: funereal or hoedown-friendly. Musically, Drive-By Truckers is far too rigidly structuralist for its inspired lyrics. But when the band rips into one of its best cornmeal-dusted melodies, as on "The Southern Thing," "Let There Be Rock," "Women Without Whiskey," and the punchy Skynyrd bio "Life In The Factory," the indomitable force of twanged-up guitar-rock regains a vital clarity.