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The Drive-By Truckers – Delivering That Alabama Ass Whuppin’

Drive By Truckers

Drive By Truckers

This is a piece Steve wrote about the DBT’s in late 2010.  It was well received in the band’s “Three Dimes Down” message board forum and included in his 2011 book “Pile Drivers and Power Chords.” – Helen Bach


As a life long music fan, I travel a lot of places to satisfy my addiction.  I might drive down classic rock lane in the morning, head for the alt country highway in the afternoon, and then stroll through an old school rap or punk rock alley in the evening.  I love a broad range of music, from Bob Wills and Louis Jordan to Husker Du and Pere Ubu. Aggressive guitar based rock with lyrics I can chew on will always be a selling point for me.  For the past few years, wherever I roam musically, I always come back to one place. The Drive-By Truckers have become my musical home.

It wasn’t, to quote ‘70s arena rock inspiration Bon Scott, love at first feel. My introduction to the band’s music started with their “Decoration Day” album.  I found the opener about incest just a bit too creepy (still do) and while “Marry Me” is a fine song, it echoes The Eagle’s “Already Gone” a bit too much for my taste.  The recurring themes of guns and alcohol seemed a bit contrived, like artificial darkness.  However, I was pulled in by “My Sweet Annette,” an early 1900s leaving-the-betrothed-at-the-altar tale, and was especially moved by the Jason Isbell contributions – “Outfit,” which lovingly reflects on the fatherly advice he received and the title track, about being an unwilling g participant in a long standing family feud.  “Sink Hole” hit a sweet spot for me as well.  There can never be enough songs about killing a banker man.

I later discovered that although the band now has a deep catalogue of outstanding material, consistency isn’t always their strongest point.  My other favorite Southern based, Lynyrd Skynyrd influenced rock band are the boys from Festus, Missouri, the Bottle Rockets. T he Bottle Rockets started as first rate songwriters who disguised their technical skill with drunken aggressiveness.  As they’ve matured, they have become first rate craftsmen. Brian Henneman and company, to make a baseball analogy, love the nuances of the game – the sacrifice fly, the hit and run, the extra effort to turn a single into a double.  Conversely, the Drive-By Truckers, while deeply skilled in rock ‘n’ roll fundamentals, prefer to swing for the fences.  The Bottle Rockets have a much higher batting average; the Drive-By Truckers win the home run derby in a route.

Lead visionary for the DBTs is Muscle Shoals, Alabama native Patterson Hood.  Patterson has the great musical back-story in that his father, David Hood, was the bass player in the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.  David Hood’s day job was performing on records by artists such as Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Bob Seger, and Percy Sledge, when he wasn’t working in the production booth for The Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson. P atterson started writing songs as a child and never considered a non-musical career.

Today, Patterson comes across as a warm, likable guy and emits a “Gee Whiz! Can you believe I get to do what I love for a living!” vibe when performing.  It’s easy to imagine him as a hip college professor – the kind that would effortlessly deconstruct the carefully designed ideological paradigms of the underclassmen in the morning and then smoke a joint with the grad students in the afternoon.  Check out “Three Great Alabama Icons” if you ever need a history lesson on racial relations in the Yellowhammer State.

His long time musical partner, Mike Cooley (also known as “The Stroker Ace”), provides the rock ‘n’ roll attitude, Keith Richards spirit of the band.  Cooley seems like the kind of guy who might punch you in the face one minute, then wrap his arm around you and buy you a beer the next.  As different as Cooley and Patterson may seem personality wise, their musical chemistry brings different elements in terms of guitar sound and, more importantly, songwriting to the band.  As powerful as the DBTs are when they crank up three guitars and start bashing out the same chords (such as on “Ronnie and Neil”), their songwriting is what has made the Truckers a band for the ages.

Although I wasn’t completely enamored with the “Decoration Day” record, I was interested enough to work backwards and listen to “Southern Rock Opera,” an excellent decision on my part.  “Southern Rock Opera” became a life changing record for me, at a point in time when I didn’t think that was still possible.  A large, sprawling concept album, originally created as a screenplay, “Southern Rock Opera” starts with a car wreck and ends with a plane crash.  In between, there are appearances by Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd and George Wallace and Bear Bryant and women without alcohol.  Mike Cooley works out his angst regarding his teenage girlfriend’s chastity belt on “Zip City” and Patterson Hood revisits classic ‘70s arena bands on “Let There Be Rock.”  The record also touches on issues such as the Civil War and racism.  The band stated their claim as being unapologetic, proud Southerners, who also clearly understood the dark chapters in their history.  As Patterson put it so eloquently, such is the duality of the Southern thing.

The band toured for two years to promote the “Southern Rock Opera” album and the strength of the record made the band commercially and critically viable.  Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were well into their 30s at this point and had been making music together in various bands with no commercial success for over a decade.  I can’t imagine how many times they must have been told to give up.

In late 2001, Greenhill , Alabama native Jason Isbell joined the band, giving the unit three excellent songwriters. The 2004 “Dirty South” album features superlative contributions from all three.  Mike Cooley’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” is a fierce rocker about a father’s moonshining operation and “Carl Perkin’s Cadillac” pays respect to Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame.  Patterson Hood takes on poverty, unemployment, and cancer in the overpowering “Putting People on the Moon,” and contemplates the potential impact of a suicide on “Lookout Mountain,” which includes this wonderful Southern dilemma, “Who’s gonna mow the cemetery when all of my family’s gone?” Jason Isbell propulsive “The Day John Henry Died” looks at the effect of industrialization on a fabled manual laborer and he gets personal on the heart breaking “Goddamn Lonely Love,” written for band mate and (at that time) wife Shonna Tucker.

The 2006 effort, “A Blessing and A Curse” contains Cooley’s sleaze classic “Gravity’s Gone” and the sharp rocker “Feb 14” from Hood.  However, the band seemed to be fatigued at this point and the overall songwriting suffered.  Tucker and Isbell would soon divorce and Isbell left the band in 2007.  During Isbell’s tenure, his contributions were not great in quantity but were outstanding in quality.  He is missed.

Since 2008, the band has regrouped and released two fine studio albums, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” and “The Big To Do,” along with “The Fine Print: A Collection of Oddities and Rarities,” as well as a DVD from Austin City Limits.  A new album is slated for February 2011.  All of these records include music I love (such as “The Righteous Path,” “The Fourth Night of My Drinking,” “Birthday Boy,” and their revelatory cover of Tom Petty’s “Rebels”).  They also all include songs I’ll never hear again.  The thrill of the treasures always outweighs the disappointment of the failures.

Through talent and passion and perseverance, the Drive-By Truckers have become a long-term viable success.  They have taken a traditional hard rock formula and made it relevant through both the power of their music and their ability to write trenchant, moving lyrics whether through stories, legends, or observations.  Any time these boys (and girl) are ready to dole out another Alabama ass whuppin’, I’ll be first in line to get one.

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