"I don't hate you at all, really."

Phew! Jason Isbell, guitarist and vocalist of the Drive-By Truckers has just reassured Street that Northern upbringings do not, after all, provoke hate in him. One might ask what, pray tell, would ever cause one to ask such a question in the first place?

The quintet, born and raised in Alabama, is the essential Southern hard rock band of its generation. Merging smart lyrics, a distinct vernacular and a revved-up three-guitar bombardment, they've inherited a throne left vacant since the glory days of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band to which the Truckers are more than frequently compared.

"We're way sick of it, we've been sick of it for a long time," Isbell says of the media's persistence in lumping the two groups together. However, he's quick to note that it is still quite flattering. "At one time," he believes, "[Lynyrd Skynyrd] were the best rock and roll band in the country, maybe in the world."

The Drive-By Truckers, for years led by guitarists/vocalists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, got their big break in 2001 with Southern Rock Opera, a ridiculously ambitious two-disc, 90-minute set loosely based around a Southern teen's love of '70s arena rock ^ la Skynyrd. Isbell first appears on 2003's Decoration Day, a heartfelt "exorcism of demons," as he dubs the material. Hot off the heels of that album's success, the band recently released The Dirty South, which Isbell considers probably "the best thing we've done." Contrary to Decoration Day's overriding search for self, "[The Dirty South] is a little more about the general atmosphere down here right now ... a little more about other people and what they have to deal with."

As far as the rest of 2004 goes, the main focus of the Truckers will be touring in support of South. In terms of new material, Isbell claims the group has a bunch of songs ready to go, but whether they will be released as a full length, an EP or even at all remains unknown -- it's "really up in the air" at the moment.

Seven years, six albums and 50,000 Skynyrd comparisons into their career, the Drive-By Truckers are at the peak of their game. How might their music evolve in the future? "Time will tell," Isbell says, "but we're always going to be Southern, the things we'll always be concerned with are Southern and rural." It's this sincerity that makes the Truckers one of the best active bands in the country. That a group with such a distinct style and heritage can transcend a regionalized fan base is a testament to their spirit, wit and talent. And that three guitar attack? It's downright smokin'.

Check out the Drive-By Truckers at the Theatre of Living Arts (334 South Street) on Sept. 21. 8 p.m. $12.


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