By Kelly Dearmore
(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)
Eighteen years and 14 albums down the line from their formation, the Drive-By Truckers have come a long way from their salad days as scrappy hicks with serious licks playing barroom country rock — and arguably just as far from their turn-of-the-century breakout as the whiskey-soaked poster band for a latter-day breed of Southern rock.
Of course there’s more than trace elements of both still hard-wired into the band’s sonic DNA to this day, but over the span of their nearly two-decade run, the Truckers have covered nearly as much stylistic ground as they have burned through lineup changes, moving from triple-guitar-blazing rock anthems to Gothic Americana to Memphis soul. The one constant, from their 1998 debut, Gangstabilly, through to this year’s English Oceans, is the nucleus of co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and their shared affinity for a poetic, literate form of Southern storytelling, often steeped in blood, lust, murder, addiction, and all manner of other uncomfortable things. Mixing the artfulness of William Faulkner with the grizzly elements of Larry Brown — and instrumental finesse and firepower to match both extremes — Hood, Cooley, and the rest of the Drive-By Truckers make music that reflects the Southern American experience in all of its “misunderstood glory” without ever hoisting the Rebel flag.
Prior to launching Drive-By Truckers, Alabama natives Hood and Cooley (from Muscle Shoals and nearby Tuscumbia, respectively) had already played to-gether in a number of different projects, including a six-year stint in a regional punk outfit of some notoriety called Adam’s House Cat. So their chemistry was there from the start when they formed the Drive-By Truckers in Athens, Ga., in 1996, and it has only further deepened since then. Although Hood wrote and sang most of the band’s songs early on, in time the two guitarists would begin splitting frontman duties to great effect, with Hood’s weaving of murky tales over ominous arrangements perfectly counterbalanced by Cooley’s generally more up-tempo and melodic tunes (which have rightfully earned him comparisons to Georgia icon Dickey Betts). The Truckers showed potential from the get-go, releasing a pair of strong albeit under-the-radar studio albums and an incendiary live record during their first four years together. It was the late-90s, boom times for “alt-country” bands playing to the No Depression set, but the Truckers stood apart from their peers by merit of the fact that they never came across like heart-sleeved sentimentalists with Black Flag posters on their walls; they were genuine Jack Daniels-swigging, cigarette-smoking creek-stompers with grinding riffs, swampy rhythms, and twisted tales of people most folks would rather not know.
But as fresh (and loud) as the Truckers sounded on those early releases (which we’ll come back to in a bit), it was their third studio album that proved to be the proverbial big one — and not by accident, either. 2001’s Southern Rock Opera (originally self-released on the band’s own Soul Dump Records label, but picked up for wider distribution the following year by Lost Highway) was epic by design, with 20 songs sprawled across two CDs totaling 94 minutes of music — and all of it devoted to a single overarching theme. On the surface, much of the album plays out like a straight-forward tribute to the legacy of Southern rock gods Lynyrd Skynrd, from Act I’s rollicking “Ronnie and Neil,” which examines Ronnie Van Zandt’s misunderstood relationship with Neil Young, to the handful of songs closing Act II detailing Skynyrd’s infamous 1977 “Greenville to Baton Rouge” plane flight that ended in tragedy. But as forthright as the Skynrd influence may be throughout Southern Rock Opera (both lyrically and especially musically), the album’s real theme is far more complex. Hood calls it “the duality of the Southern Thing” — a messy tangle of contradictions including pride and shame, hope and resignation, celebration and damnation. For infamous Alabama governor George Wallace, the damnation is literal, with fellow “Southerner” the Devil himself summoned up in one song to jovially sing, “Throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is a comin’!”
But it wasn’t just the scope of its heady concept that made Southern Rock Opera such an impactful record and landed it on so many critics’ year-end best-of lists. Above and beyond everything else it had going for it, the album rocked, with Hood, Cooley, and third axman Rob Malone blasting a barrage of juke-joint guitars over ass-shaking beats and fist-pumping rhythms on anthems like “Ronnie and Neil,” “Let It Rock,” and “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” that would have sounded right at home next to Skynrd’s best on the FM radio dial in the ’70s — or blowing the roof off sold-out arenas. And the quieter moments were no less powerful; in the goosebump-inducing closer, “Angels and Fuselage,” the boogie is jettisoned and Hood’s most tender vocals almost drown in ghostly reverb, painting a picture of the doomed as they crash down that is just flat-out heart-ripping. The Truckers’ would go on to make other fine records, some arguably even better and certainly more nuanced and varied, but Southern Rock Opera remains their most ambitious statement and the no-brainer starter record for DBT newcomers.
Of course, Southern Rock Opera was the first DBT record for plenty of new fans even back when it was still the new Truckers album. With the follow-up still a couple of years away, those hungry for more had to make do with the band’s back catalog: 1998’s Gantstabilly, 1999’s Pizza Deliverance, and the 2000 live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin’. Judged solely by their admittedly silly titles and deliberately garish, cartoon-like covers (so different from the surrealist Wes Freed paintings gracing all of their other albums), it’s almost hard to believe those first two studio records were released by the same band that made Southern Rock Opera. But the liner notes Hood wrote for the 2005 reissues of both albums on New West Records prove that he still holds those early efforts in high regard — and rightfully so. While the tracks often sound like demo recordings and the use of the term “butthole” is more prevalent than it probably should be, both albums at their best offer more than a few hints of the high quality songwriting that would become one of the band’s hallmarks. As has long been the case, these records are filled with observances and artful recollections of the odd neighbors and seriously messed-up folks living around Hood and Cooley. But there’s no judgments being passed here; rather than setting these types up as the butt of jokes, they’re portrayed in an unfiltered manner which allows the listener to figure it out as they go.
Two of the songs from Gangstabilly remain emotionally charged and powerful live staples to this day: “The Living Bubba” and “18 Wheels of Love.” Hood has often called “The Living Bubba,” a tribute to a fellow artist friend who died from AIDS, his all-time favorite Truckers tune. The electrically raw, mid-tempo hard-luck tale, full of thoughtful lyrics and the cry of a pedal steel lilting behind it, serves as a template for many another DBT song to follow. Also true to Truckers form is the way Hood doesn’t mince words for the sake of tiptoeing around a somber subject: “Ain’t no message for the youth of America,” he sings frankly, “except wear a rubber and be careful who you screw.” In “18 Wheels of Love,” Hood begins another DBT tradition by speaking along with the music, presenting himself as a storyteller who happens to sing, and not the other way around. The tale of his ailing mother running off with an obese trucker to get married in Dollywood offers up the humorous but inspirational sing-along chorus of “Mama ran off with a trucker/Mama ran off with a trucker/Peterbuilt, Peterbuilt.”
It was during the Pizza Deliverance-era where the grown-up DBT would begin to take shape. Future full-time pedal steel player John Neff contributed to the recording, and it was over the course of the subsequent tour in support of the album that the band began writing songs for Southern Rock Opera. Although Pizza doesn’t boast the long-time fan favorites its predecessor does, the group’s ability to tell myriad stories using unconventional and abrasive poetry becomes even more evident here. In the opening lines of “Bulldozers and Dirt,” Hood sings, “Bulldozers and dirt, bulldozers and dirt/what’s your mama got hidden up her shirt?/I like to play and I like to work, but most of all/I like bulldozers and dirt.”
Like Gangstabilly before it, a lot of the songs on Pizza are decidedly more beer-soaked, rowdy backwoods country-rock in style than full-on Southern rock. But the live Alabama Ass Whuppin’, originally released on Second Heaven Records and reissued by ATO in 2013, is an amps-on-11-worthy smackdown. In addition to hitting most of the high points from the first two studio albums — including a 9-minute version of Gangstabilly’s “Steve McQueen” — the filler-free set list also includes a Trucker-fied “revamp” of “Lookout Mountain,” from Hood and Cooley’s old band Adam’s House Cat, and a storming cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.”
As well as those pre-Southern Rock Opera efforts hold up, though, it was the records that came after the opus that would really prove whether or not the Drive-By Truckers had it in them to keep delivering the goods. 2003’s Decoration Day, the band’s first record for New West, answered that question in the affirmative. It also marked the album debut of new DBT recruit Jason Isbell, the baby-faced guitarist (and fellow Alabama native) who had joined the band after Rob Malone’s split in 2001. Isbell brought a good deal more to the table than just that crucial third guitar to fill out the band’s sound, though; he also proved to be a gifted songwriter and singer whose contributions brought a whole new dynamic and creative voice to the band. Although he only wrote and sang two of the 15 songs on Decoration Day — the subtly anthemic “Outfit” and the album’s title track — both stand out as high points. Keeping up with the new kid kept Hood and Cooley on their A-game, too, with Hood working the pain and anger of his recent divorce into emotionally arresting songs like “Heathens,” “Your Daddy Hates Me,” and “(Something’s Got To) Give Pretty Soon.” Ironically, Cooley’s vibrant roadhouse swinger “Marry Me” was pretty much the most straightforward love song the Truckers had tackled up to that point.
The three-headed writing, singing, and axe-slinging beast of Hood, Cooley, and Isbell really hit its stride in full with The Dirty South (2004, New West), with Hood contributing six songs, Cooley four and Isbell three — and just about all of them ranking amongst their personal best. Cooley’s swampy stomper “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” opens the album on a satisfyingly aggressive note, and his “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” is a terrific and highly tuneful salute to the golden age of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records stable of rock ’n’ roll legends. Isbell answers with the hauntingly reflective “Danko/Manuel,” nodding to The Band, and also shines on the somber ballad “Goddamn Lonely Love,” a stunning turn of the Muscle Shoals soul sound that would later become heavily prominent in the DBT canon. Hood’s “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” and “The Boys from Alabama” stand out, too, but it’s the dense, full-on rock barrage of “The Buford Stick” that offers the record’s most compelling narrative. Buford Pusser, a sheriff in 1960’s Tennessee who worked aggressively (and according to some sources, not always legally) to destroy the Dixie Mafia, was a legend in his own time whose story was glamorized for the 1973 movie Walking Tall. Hood, singing from the perspective of one on the business end of Bufford’s bulldozing brand of justice, takes a figurative shotgun to the folk hero’s reputation. “To me he’s just another crooked lawman up in Tennessee … That son of a bitch has got to go.”
By 2006, constant touring began to take its toll on the group and internal strife crept into the DBT dynamic. The strain showed on the aptly titled A Blessing and a Curse (2006, New West). Taken on its own, it’s far from a bad album, but compared to the high standards set by its predecessors and even those that came after, it’s probably the Trucker’s weakest effort overall. It’s also one of the band’s most stylistically all-over-the-place, marked by genre-benders like Hood’s punk-paced “Wednesday” and R&B-flavored, keyboard-fueled “Goodbye” and the edgy, Replacements-style power-pop of Isbell’s “Easy On Yourself.” The title track is arguably the closest thing on the album to a “standard” Truckers tune. In the big picture of the Drive-By Truckers’ history, though, A Blessing and a Curse’s most memorable claim to fame (or infamy) is the fact that it proved to be Isbell’s last album with the band. He went on to forge a successful and highly acclaimed solo career, leaving behind a handful of the best songs in the DBT canon — as well as his ex-wife, Shonna Tucker, who had joined the band as bassist on The Dirty South and would begin writing and singing Truckers songs of her own in the aftermath of Isbell’s departure.
With 19 songs spread out over 75 minutes, 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (New West) is the Truckers’ longest sprawl of a record this side of Southern Rock Opera. It certainly dwarfed Blessing’s relatively scant (by DBT standards) 47-minute running time, and the wide canvas allowed room for plenty of songs satisfying enough to suggest that the band had regained its mojo. Cooley’s “3 Dimes Down,” “Ghost to Most,” and “Self Destructive Zones” are among his top five offerings to date; Hood’s “The Righteous Path” and the menacing “The Man I Shot” rank high amongst the harder-charging side of his work; and Tucker’s “The Purgatory Line” offers a hauntingly lovely interlude. But there’s also a lot of room taken up on the record by too many loafing numbers, such as Tucker’s “I’m Sorry Houston” and Cooley’s not-really-up-to-par “Bob,” resulting in a dragging effect that ultimately makes Brighter Than Creation’s Dark a hit-and-miss affair.
Where Brighter Than Creation’s Dark’s ambitious reach exceeded its grasp, 2009’s The Fine Print: A Collection of Oddities and Rarities (New West) is a surprisingly effective and highly enjoyable grab bag of apparent left-overs and cast-offs. Ranging from previously unissued gems like Isbell’s unforgettable, tender “T.V.A” to a gang-version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s an admittedly scattershot collection but extremely fun just the same. Hood’s “George Jones Talking Cell-Phone Blues” is a pedal-steel driven favorite that remains in Truckers set-lists, and the alternate, up-tempo version of Cooley’s old Pizza Deliverance song “Uncle Frank” is a treat. It may indeed be an oddity, but The Fine Print holds up next to a lot of the band’s best “real” albums. Not quite as essential but still worth checking out is the same year’s Live From Austin, TX (2009, New West), capturing the band’s Austin City Limits appearance during the Brighter Than Creation’s Dark tour. (A couple of years later, after the Truckers moved on to ATO Records, New West also issued a last-ditch “best of” cash grab, 2011’s Ugly Buildings, Whores and Politicians: Greatest Hits 1998-2009.)
The eighth DBT studio album, 2010’s The Big To-Do, was their first for ATO and featured their first-ever full-time keyboard player in Jay Gonzalez, who would make almost as indelible of a mark on the band’s sound as Isbell had seven years prior (see: “The Fourth Night of My Drinking”). With a tight and tidy 13-song track-list, the record re-established the Truckers’ identity with authority. While the rock wasn’t necessarily steeped in Wild Turkey, it was still forward pushing and aggressive. Hood’s “This Fucking Job” and Cooley’s stripper-POV tale “Birthday Boy” are both killer. Speaking of killer, murders, committed and attempted, collide with light-heartedness in “Drag the Lake Charlie,” and the scandalous “The Wig He Made Her Wear.” Both are sordid stories keying in on twisted locals where the pace of the tune is slowed so that Hood can again use the arrangements to compliment the yarn he spins.
With the group’s footing regained, the Truckers chased The Big To-Do with the following year’s Go-Go Boots (2011, ATO). Although the lion’s share of the album’s 14 songs were written and tracked during the To-Do sessions, making it feel at times like B-sides companion to its predecessor, Boots still has a sound of its own. Hood has called it the band’s “most Muscle Shoals-sounding album,” and a rich, soulful vibe is indeed prevalent, with Gonzalez’s keys filling the air and famed Muscle Shoals musician Eddie Hinton represented with two strong covers: the nourish, Tucker-sung “Where’s Eddie” and the Hood-sung country soul beauty “Everybody Needs Love.” The title track and “Dancin’ Ricky” are also stick-to-your-heart soul songs that would’ve fit into a modern-day Stax compilation had the landmark label survived into the new millennium. Granted, Go-Go Boots is likely the least “exciting” record of the DBT catalog, but that’s not for lack of imminently listenable songs and performances so much as it is the band’s softer focus on amp-blasting rock anthems.
With Tucker departing after Go-Go Boots, the Truckers were down to just two songwriting and singing voices for the first time in more than a decade. The resulting English Oceans (2014, ATO) thus brings the band almost full-circle, though in contrast to their Hood-heavy earliest records, here the ratio of Hood songs to Cooley songs is an even split. The complementary yin/yang nature of their individual styles is in full effect, but the album finds both founding Truckers working their way back up the country-rock ladder from the laid-back soul of Go-Go Boots. Cooley’s ear drum-busting opener, “Shit Shots Count,” is a balls-out rabble-rouser that should open every DBT show from now on, while Hood continues to create his own form of rock literature in the expansive, album-closing “Grand Canyon.” In between the personality-driven bookends rests a fine group of songs ranging from pleasing country comforts (Cooley’s “First Air of Autumn”) to deliberately uncomfortable but compelling story songs (Hood’s “When Walter Went Crazy”). There may not be any daring curveballs here (unless you count the fact that the mysterious, Cooley-sung “Made Up English Oceans” arguably sounds more like a Hood number), but there’s no filler, either.
From start to finish, English Oceans is proof that two decades on from the first time they turned the ignition and started their long, sometimes straight-ahead, sometimes winding musical course from smarter-than-your-average-Redneck country-rock jams to Southern rock operas to Americana to Memphis soul and back again, the Drive-By Truckers can still deliver a satisfying Alabama-by-way-of-Georgia ass whuppin.’
Mr. Record Man’s Top 5 Drive-By Truckers Albums
1. Southern Rock Opera (2001, Soul Dump; 2002, Lost Highway)
One can split hairs over whether or not Southern Rock Opera is really the DBT’s absolute best album, but it is unquestionably their most essential. The often ominous, menacing arrangements and lyrics provide most of the double album’s songs with an edge-of-your-seat urgency. Yeah, it’s long, and demands a big commitment from the listener in order to take in the full scope of its epic statement, but it rewards that time and effort in spades. And once it grabs you, it’s awfully damn hard to shake it loose: This writer once tried to listen to the whole thing at a Virgin Megastore listening station in 2001.
2. Decoration Day (2003, New West)
Chasing the triumphant Southern Rock Opera with another near-perfect record was a tall order, but the Truckers pulled it off with flying colors. Adding the considerable talents of then-unknown/future Americana hero Jason Isbell to the mix proved a key factor in the album’s success (along with that of its arguably just as strong follow-up, The Dirty South), but Patterson Hood’s ability to channel the pain of divorce and have his own distinctive voice heard so clearly in the midst of Isbell’s breakthrough is also impressive.
3. Gangstabilly (1998, Soul Dump; 2005, New West)
The beginning of what has turned out to be as impressive a catalog of any rock or Americana band still going. The silly name and sillier artwork might betray the depth of the songs a bit, but the raw-boned brilliance of real-life tragedy and triumph, as told in “The Living Bubba” and “18 Wheels of Love,” respectively, can’t be denied. Also not to be judgd by its title: Mike Cooley’s “Panties in Your Purse,” a colorful, galloping country-folk tune that hints at his then yet-to-be-fully revealed greatness.
4. English Oceans (2014, ATO)
Their latest offering is perhaps the Truckers’ most sonically balanced release to date, with co-frontmen Hood and Cooley taking equal time in the spotlight but clearly sharing the same goal of reclaiming their early country-rock roots after several albums worth of stylistic detours. Bare bones, back-to-basics, and deeply satisfying from end to end.
5. Alabama Ass Whuppin’ (2000, Second Heaven Records; 2013, ATO)
A portrait of the band in its wild and beer-soaked (or beer and whiskey-soaked) youth, captured in front of friendly, rowdy crowds in Atlanta and Athens in 1999. Unlike the sleeker and admittedly more musically sophisticated Live From Austin, TX released a decade later, there’s nothing pretty about this artifact from the DBT’s barroom days, but that’s just how it was and how it should be. Think of it as the Dead Sea scrolls for the Truckers, packed with early fan and band favorites like “The Living Bubba,” “Lookout Mountain,” and even a cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.”