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Rien Fertel, a 38-year-old writer and professor from Lafayette, Louisiana, talks about his book at Avid Bookshop on Feb. 15, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. The reading at Avid was for Fertel’s new book, “Southern Rock Opera.” (Photo/Sidhartha C. Wakade)

On the same weekend as the Drive-By Truckers homecoming tour, Avid Bookshop hosted Rien Fertel, a Louisiana-based freelance writer, who’s the author of a short book about the band’s 2001 album “Southern Rock Opera for a reading prior to the Feb. 15 night concert.

The book, named “Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera” after the band and album, is a part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3, a compilation of short books written about different albums by different authors.

The short book covers a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively. To research for writing the book, Fertel took a road trip through the American South, covering the same ground as the band’s co-founders when they first discussed the idea of a semi-autobiographical tribute to the late, great Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“In the history of American music, whether its jazz or blues or rock or pop or whatever, is death, and there’s something about Southern rock that is just a little more … deathly,” Fertel said in his introduction to the reading.

In an interactive discussion with the audience after the reading, Fertel explored the possibility of beauty coming from death and the pain that follows.

In the finale to his research, Fertel visited the site where the plane carrying the band Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed on Oct. 20, 1977. Fertel said he had tried to find the location twice before, but it was not until he searched on Oct. 20, 2017 that he happened to run into someone who showed him the exact location, where a crater filled with debris commemorates the location of the plane crash.

“It was this beautiful thing, all these people from all over the world had showed up to commemorate the 40th anniversary,” Fertel said. “...  We all went home with little pieces of the plane. I carry it with me wherever I go.”

Fertel’s book and the Drive-By Truckers album, “Southern Rock Opera,” delve into the difficulties of having pride in Southern heritage while still condemning the worst parts of the South’s history.

“You can’t look at any slice of Southern culture, Southern art or Southern history without running into conflict,” Fertel said. “American history is full of conflicts, but there’s something that really stands out about conflicts in Southern history.”

The small, audience at Fertel’s reading engaged in conversation with him about the validity to the idea the American South is the birthplace of so many works of art which have cultural resonance worldwide.

From the literature to the music to the art to the food, the overall consensus seemed to be that the strength of mankind was having the ability to turn pain into artistic expression and some masterpieces are birthed from pain and conflict.

“I like things that explore the South and do really take themselves seriously as critiques of Southern history and culture, and this album, ‘Southern Rock Opera’ does that,” Fertel said.

Of about ten people who attended the reading, several expressed they would be going to the Drive-By Truckers concert after the reading.

John Farina, the director of marketing and events at Avid Bookshop, said the event was planned to coincide with the homecoming tour of the Drive-By Truckers.

“We actually have a close connection with Drive-By Truckers here,” Farina said. “Our owner is friends with some of the band members.”

However, there was frenzied overstimulation of Drive-By Truckers events while the band is in town. At any one event, the fan base was likely to be underrepresented because there was such a quantity of events happening between the three concert dates.  

“Every band has their fan base, but especially DBT’s fan base is very loyal,” Farina said.

Fertel joked about the genre of Southern rock music and how the bands and artists of the past seem to be more of  mythology or folklore than actual people because their stories are so cinematic.

As much as Athens is growing in legendary status for its music scene, Fertel said the process of traveling for research has taught him to appreciate the stories of unique people he met all throughout the south.

“Road trips are always worth it,” Fertel said. “It is a learning experience, and getting off interstates is always so interesting. I really appreciate crummy back-road motels and the stories that can be learned from towns like that.”

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