Friends since college in the mid-1980’s, winners of a Musician magazine award for best unsigned band and guitarists/singers/songwriters/snarling Southern revisionists, the brilliant Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood (son of Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood) dug down and dirty into the axle grease and bootlegged rotgut for Drive-By Truckers, the most provocative band of the New South since the utterly dissimilar R.E.M. Careening from a punkish Lynyrd Skynyrd to a tender Reverend Horton Heat or a drawling Crazy Horse (circa Rust Never Sleeps), the Truckers’ raw and lamenting music gets its energy from massed guitars, heartfelt ambivalence about growing up in the South and the unironic lyrics of plaintive ballads about incest, George Wallace, corn-pone drifters and self-loathing wife-beaters. But the music gets its soulful greatness and its considerable heart-break from Hood, who sounds like he has never turned down a menthol cig, a last shot or a chance to yodel full-throated at his tormenting but beloved landscape. He is simply one of the most effective singers in rock today, a voice of conscience, tenderness and raspy defiance. This is not your grandpa’s Molly Hatchet or .38 Special. Drive-By Truckers are new, and they are ferocious.
Beginning a tradition of great cover paintings by Wes Freed, Gangstabilly is the band’s first attempt at self-definition and regional exorcism. “If you see me on the street and if I whop you on the head / You probably got it coming and if you hit me back / We’ll call it even, but I ain’t going down easy / Cuz my mama loves me and I got friends in Decatur, Alabama.” Titles indicate the steely and sober mood: “Steve McQueen,” “Late for Church,” “Wife Beater” and, not so moodily, the brilliant “Panties in Your Purse.” Such topics, along with the minor-key portraiture of a region barely able to wag its own tail, are buoyed by the most countryfied music in the band’s canon. Wistful mandolins, searing pedal steels, aching harmonies partially ennoble the landscape of huge trucks, drunken souls, endless gigging and demons perched on every other barstool. The playing, solid if muted, ain’t Wilco or Ryan Adams: this is country rock, Jerry Lee by way of Merle, sung with Elvis’ once-pristine soul, songs celebrating shamanistic conmen, wives who whisper no and musicians who care about red dirt and tradition and loss. The album was recorded live in the studio over a two-day period; the sameness in melody and coloration is vindicated by the consistently expert musical craft and Hood’s voice, already a thing of breaking-down wonder.
Pizza Deliverance, which was released second but actually written and recorded prior to Gangstabilly, rocks harder, with twinned guitars that allow more of Mike Cooley to come through. What’s more, the album contains the spirited duality, musically and thematically, that would become the band’s cornerstone aesthetic. The wry “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)” and the hilarious “The President’s Penis Is Missing” examine the split between the South’s historical greatness and its wayward sons. “The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town” concerns an aghast older couple reading a newspaper account of G.G.’s scatological onstage shtick. The boogie riffing borrows neither from stadium rock nor simple dynamic progression: the guitars start loud and edgy and only become louder and more frazzled, dissonant and distorted.
Preceding the trio of studio albums that made DBT’s rep, Alabama Ass Whuppin’ is a sterling live set of songs from the first two discs recorded in and around Atlanta during the fall of 1999. The album is a stunner and a scorcher: the drumming packs a relentless wallop, the background singing has the kind of ragged glory of the early Band and the guitar work is supple and strong. There is little intimacy here: the sound sheets, repetition, calls and responses mark a mature band let loose on a Saturday night, winking at each other with secret punk rock glee as they hammer Lynyrd Skynyrd riffing to the Southern Cross. This roaring Dixieland express of an album kicks you in the head, heart and groin.
The two-disc Southern Rock Opera solidified the Truckers’ position, turning what was previously hinted at (or whined about) into grist for a sustained lyrical and musical narrative of a North Alabama boy wandering a musical map of loves and hates. Using Lynyrd Skynyrd as both touchstone and source of regret, our hero (presumably a thinly disguised Hood) ruminates on gods and monsters: Neil Young of “Southern Man,” George Wallace, Jack Daniels, Wet Willie and Robert E. Lee. With Rob Morgan adding a third guitar, the music is textured, bombastic and raw. In an “opera” that is part nostalgia and part speculative utopia, the slower songs are tender, angsty: if you drink and drive, if you worship heros, if you play with guns, if you live in a place the media have forgotten, you take your chances. Still, the album could be shorter; since Lynyrd Skynyrd is not in fact “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” the merging of our hero into a rock star who allegorically follows Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fateful descent is corny. That said, the sound, packaging and notes are all outstanding; ultimately, Southern Rock Opera is an affecting portrayal of depth, loss and ambivalent love for a land that is “dead drunk” and full of “swamps outside of town” with “angels in the trees.”
Decoration Day and The Dirty South share the white-hot intensity of Baptist revivals and rockabilly, each wrestles with bittersweet reminiscences of demons and heroes: war veterans, Richard Manuel, Sheriff Buford Pusser, brother/sister incest, lying preachers, Carl Perkins and dying friends. With Earl Hicks on bass, Brad Morgan on drums and Jason Isbell completing the guitar triumvirate, Decoration Day (during which Southern churches memorialize their fallen) is almost perfect. Cooley contributes four excellently crafted Southern rockers; he has found his own burly voice and his lead guitar nods reverentially to a bygone era of happiness and exuberance. Isbell offers up the ringing “Outfit,” warning fellow rockers, “Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus / Don’t give it away.” Hood’s musicianship and singing remain the music’s gravity, its familiarity, its power, its doom. “My Sweet Annette,” a wistful and bluegrassy piece of understatement and heartbreak, is the album’s best song: John Neff’s pedal steel matches, quietly and a few staggered beats away, the singer’s whispered hoarseness.
The highway’s rotted smear and Dixieland music provide the aggressive context for The Dirty South. The clean-toned music is more pared down yet allows more of a role for Isbell. (The band has a new bassist, Shonna Tucker.) The chord progressions are steadier; agonized ambivalence gives way to mature acceptance of the rich and sad fabric of life: it’s an album the Rolling Stones might have made if they had stayed in Muscle Shoals for a couple more summers. The best song, “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” crawls and rocks, accuses and cajoles: everyone is going down, and the otherworldly singing — part recitation, part tortured near-falsetto — allows Hood to take on the world, the North and the South, the haves and have-nots, the lying jokers and real men. The singer — broke, hungry, guilty — watches his wife die of cancer as politicians lie and drive Cadillacs searching for life in the sky. This is spectacular music, soulful and searching.
Hood’s solo effort, Killers and Stars, is unplugged, spare, funny and scary. His obsession with the weak, the powerless, the goners and those left behind continues in a quieter vein. The songs are improvisatory and intense, fragments that signal a major voice in American music.