I came in to the Drive-By Truckers at a curious time: I was still working at Borders, and participated in the (extremely limited–about five stores) testing for vinyl sales. It was around 2008-2009, and the selection was largely limited, leaving me unsure of what actually led to titles appearing there. Certainly, it was a store in the Southeast (although a unique town within the state and region), and the Truckers do not suffer the absence of a following there. It did lead to my very mild introduction to Ryan Adams, which has served me well, though I didn’t actually do anything with it for years. I saw our copy of DBT’s 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The art by Wes Freed was intriguing, and the title, too–I was reluctant, as I was still overcoming a lot of my resistance to “twang” in music, and the band’s name was a dead giveaway for containing just that. At some point, I gave in and did pick up a CD copy of that same album, and found myself falling for it rapidly.
It wasn’t long before I was going to see the band and buy all their albums–indeed, in 2010 I saw them play two shows on two concurrent nights, which was quite an experience. But the curious time is something that involves knowing about the band’s history–initially responsible for a pair of interesting but often thought to be somewhat “slight” early albums (Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance), they really broke through and into their own with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which addressed some of the issues that would in some way typify the band as both people and a musical entity–the “holy three” of frontman Patterson Hood’s childhood in Alabama: football, via Bear Bryant, race politics in George Wallace, and music in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some overlap, some confusion, some mixed signals and messages, all adding up to “the duality of the Southern Thing” as Hood wrote on that album. After its release, Jason Isbell joined the band and they released their most acclaimed pair of albums: 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South. To this day, many clamour for Isbell (now solo and successful at it, as I will prove here later on) to rejoin, even if only in brief or for a tour, or what have you, but he left after A Blessing and a Curse in 2006–and that’s where 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came in.
I joined the DBT bandwagon after their heyday, completely unbeknownst to me.
The odd thing about it, though, is that it has given me a differing perspective on their career. I appreciate the post-Isbell period because I didn’t know there was that component “missing”–I’ve gone back since then (with my now complete Isbell solo set, of course) and understand what people mean, but I have no issues at all with the Hood/Cooley/Tucker set-up, though one wonders what will come from the now sans-Tucker version.
So, for the purposes of this particular album, the band is composed of: Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, John Neff (who once played for The Two Dollar Pistols), and Shonna Tucker. This is the same band that recorded 2010’s The Big To-Do, which should come as no surprise, considering the two were recorded simultaneously and separated into their respective albums as the first was developed. It comes off something like the Dave Gregory-exit-inducing last two albums from XTC–Apple Venus and Wasp Star–in that one album is composed of the rockers and one of the more relaxed songs, though they released theirs in the opposite order. Go-Go Boots is the lighter of the two albums, containing nothing along the lines of “This Fuckin’ Job” and its uneasy but intensely crunchy, rocking mixture of frustrated anger and despair or “Birthday Boy” and its fumble of shame and stripper’s attempts to comfort set to a solid roar of distortion, though the overall content does have some similarities.
It was only appropriate that I chose the time I did to revisit the record–the time of day, I mean, not the time of year, or time in my life. It’s an album that glows warmly (musically, anyway) like a setting sun. That could be my own preferences inserting themselves of course–though I also like a good rainy album, or a night-time one. Still, the acoustic orientations and the laidback tones and tempos lend themselves to an association with that time of day that many have made in the past on the same grounds, even if not necessarily with this very album.
I think it may be how the stage is set with “I Do Believe”, a song Patterson Hood wrote about his grandmother, starting the album with the a cappella refrain of the song’s title, “I do believe, I do believe, I saw you standing there, sunlight in your hair, reflecting in your eyes…” with only a few light hits at the hi-hat from Brad Morgan to hint at the coming sounds. A sweet roll of bass and friendly guitars follows in on Morgan’s expanded beat and a hint of shaker percussion. It should be out of place here–songs follow about murder, heartbreak, self-recrimination, finding the place to hide from family…but it isn’t. It’s an interesting choice, because often the ray of sunshine is dropped at the end of a dark album, so as to relieve whatever weight has been pressed down in the preceding moments. It works even better here, though, as it puts you in a happier place to hear what follows, to shine through the darkness that follows. The two-three..four beat from Brad and the low-jangle of guitars is ideal here, like a breezy trip with the top down (in a Mustang perhaps–just as Hood describes his grandmother, and Wes Freed illustrated her) into a sunset.
The tempo drops to a slow roast for the first of two versions of a real murder that occurred twenty years ago in Hood’s hometown–the title track. It’s a perfect example of one half of Hood’s specialties: the storyteller half. Guitar wails from Neff’s slide, as Shonna’s bass and Morgan’s drums lay down a hardened rhythm. Hood’s voice sways with the beat, and the whole song sounds like the forbidden excitement of the hidden affair that he portrays as partly prompting the sordid, ahem, affair. It’s sleazy and uncomfortable, even as you can hear the shaking head and sigh of Hood as he recounts the tale, not unlike one that made it onto the companion album (“The Wig He Made Her Wear” on The Big To Do, about a vaguely similar, also real murder). This song, though, is just that much more off in that direction, as the whole band is in that sleaze mode, where it was only Neff on the other track. His slide here is just…raunchy. The way the whole thing drips with the fascination/horror with the whole thing is simply perfect in execution.
Shonna was in the band for a few albums before she contributed a full song, her first appearances being “I’m Sorry Huston”, “Home Field Advantage”, and “The Purgatory Line” on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. She threw a few on The Big To Do (namely “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So”), and “Dancin’ Ricky” is her first appearance on her last album with the band. It’s in keeping with the tracks she brought to the other chunks of the sessions that spawned them (the ones on The Big To Do, that is), being less interested in the verbosity that Patterson in particular tends toward, as well as the smirking wit of Cooley’s contributions. It’s a soul-leaning pop track–in a good sense, if that needs to be stated–and it acts as showcase for some really great organ work from Jay Gonzalez on a B3, some nice little fret slides, and even producer (producer of most of DBT’s output, actually) and ex-Mercyland member¹ David Barbe’s chance to throw bass on a track, what with Shonna covering piano and all.
John Neff whips out the dobro while Morgan mans a bass and snare rim sort of barebones drumbeat for the wiggled eyebrow of Mike Cooley’s first lead vocal, “Cartoon Gold”. He pulls out the banjo Patterson has said he plays in a very specific way, as well as Hood’s favourite line on the album–something he says Cooley is often responsible for, a statement much of their fanbase would agree to. He has a knack for a distinctly different approach that covers ground Hood doesn’t; his play on words is at least worthy of a smile (or, more likely, smirk), if not a chuckle or laugh, but he generally sings it totally straight and shoots a line of emotional truth straight through the whole thing anyway to justify that. “I’m not good with numbers/I just count on knowing when I’m high enough…” he starts, and already the man’s way with words is just fantastic. The sense of humour about less-than-positive emotions is like he describes himself at the song’s end: “Sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on”–a drinker slumped not out of inebriation, nor absolute despondent sorrow, but a mood best described as “Well, shit.” I think that kind of sums up the tone of the song, if not its content, in fact–it’s ponderings about the past that don’t seem to add up to much of value for the one pondering, but with a bit of advice for listeners hiding in it anyway–be it good or bad advice.
Side One ends with the heavy piano and sharpened points of guitar of “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”, the story of a man who was passed a heavy automatic rifle a friend (Ray, of course) had made him wary of. He finds himself bored and shooting it, only to one day realize he’s testing how close he can shoot at real people in the distance. It’s a funny story because it goes no further–though there’s all kinds of darkness hiding behind it–the friend is a veteran, who was worried about Ray for the very reasons he himself is now finding himself doing almost-horrific things. The song is slow and plunks itself down with Gonzalez’s deep, low hammering at the keys, Neff’s lap steel squealing out a texture of distant loss of control. Hood’s voice is confessional, but not secretive–quiet but not at all whispered. It’s dashed with both self-recognition of horrific echoes and nonchalance at serious things–which carries its own sense of horror.
The Truckers don’t often include covers on their albums–indeed, excluding a compilation of rarities, they hadn’t done it until this album was released², with this next track being the first: Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love”. It was actually initially released on a 7″ (Dangerous Highway – A Tribute To The Songs Of Eddie Hinton Vol. 2–which I, myself, own) with their other cover of one of his songs, “Where’s Eddie?” which appears later on this album. They apparently did so thanks to their pride in the work on both, and that pride is justifiable. Neff is back at the dobro, and there’s a kind of extra-clear recording and production (a hint of echo, and the lightest crackle of perhaps homage-induced anachronistic high-end thinness) on Patterson’s voice. The song slumps a bit, bright with its overall message, but aching with the knowledge of absence–“I used to go around saying I didn’t need nobody/To be happy and belong/Then one sad day I found myself in trouble/Way down, without a friend/Along came the love of a real good woman/Said she’d love me ’til the end…” It’s like a shot of hope, tinged with melancholic doubt, cracking across the surface of it. Truly a great recording, this one.
While Patterson has said they “shouldn’t talk about” “Assholes”, it’s not much to guess who and what it’s directed at–the band switched labels for this pair of records, and the last two for their prior label are a live album and a compilation, usually a dead giveaway for contract fulfillment. It’s driven home more clearly by lines like “And you sicked your lawyers on me/Told them to go for the throat/And you just sat back and watched them/Have a go/And you say that we’re the assholes/’Cause we bitched about the hassles/While you’re sleeping in your castles/And we’re still riding down the road…” Of course, it could be management, or any variety of people–but the context leans one way to my ears. Cooley mans the banjo again, and gives a sort of pokey feeling to the song, which is amusing considering the title, the profane choice of label both appropriate in visceral reaction and funny for its intensity in the music’s context. It’s a shrugging anger, though–whatever rage Hood may have felt (or may still feel) is either filtered or tempered, and it makes for an unusual song about the topic, as compared to some that have come out (like, say, Trent Reznor’s run at TVT with Broken…)
There are clear threads back to older country in the basically simple set-up of “The Weakest Man”, Cooley’s second shot at the record, which maintains the attitude that runs through a lot of his songs, that sense of wry amusement at the world, as a means of dealing with the worst parts of it. The chorus is a one-two punch–the first at the woman he’s leaving, the second at himself: “Leaving you won’t be any harder/Than walkin’ out the door and leavin’ town/But I’ll be leavin’ knowing surving you don’t make me stronger/Than the weakest man who’s ever turned you down…” It’s also a good showcase for The Bottom Feeders, the backup vocalists who work with the group on the record. Well, they are the group, but it’s a good name for a made-up backing group all the same, and they fit in perfectly on the track.
The absolute winner of the album–sorry to call it so early!–is doubtless “Used to Be a Cop”. I first heard the song at that pair of shows I mentioned–I’d only just picked up their earlier records, so I immediately scoured them for this brilliant track, only to discover it was actually from an upcoming album instead. The studio recording was no kind of disappointment. Where “Go-Go Boots” was a slow burn of sleaze and murder, “Used to Be a Cop” rides Shonna Tucker’s sliding thump of a bassline and the ringing guitars that announce the chorus (of a kind) through a simmering shudder of discomforting stalker-y sociopathy. Another in the great tradition of stalker songs, I suppose! It’s a hefty track, which has a lovely bridge that shines with the past glories of our fired, divorced, short-fused protagonist, until returning to the twitching hypnosis of the bassline and slightly dissonant clang of guitars that represents the present instead.
A track available only on the vinyl version, “I Hear You Hummin'” is a veritable jam session between Neff, Gonzalez, Morgan and author and vocalist Shonna Tucker, recorded, apparently, with a single microphone and live. It’s raw and wobbly, but endearing rather than overly troubled for that fact.
Our contract killer-hiring preacher from “Go-Go Boots” returns in “The Fireplace Poker”, and it’s now enough of a different take to seem as though it’s just a shamefully similar true story of woe instead of the same one. It’s Hood in a rocking chair at a fireplace telling the story with that same shaking head and sigh of bewildered amazement–and quietly morbid fascination. Gonzalez drops a rather simple but poignant set of piano keys on the latter half of the track, delightful in their contrast and simplicity around the thumping constancy of Brad Morgan’s drumming.
“Where’s Eddie?” is the Eddie Hinton/Donnie Fritz song the band released with “Everybody Needs Love” as a b-side before the album came out, and it’s sung–as intended, gender-wise–by Shonna Tucker, who pours the full extent of her voice into it, stretching it much further than she usually aims to with her own songs–it’s a country-tinged soul track, melodramatic in its questioning sorrow, but in the best and most appropriate ways–though this partly reflects its age rather clearly, as it was first released as a single by Scottish singer Lulu in 1970.
The band’s single for the album (backed with “Used to Be a Cop”) is a forward-leaning one, on edge and relaxed simultaneously as Patterson describes with both weariness and tension the scene of his family at Thanksgiving–conflicting politics, strange habits and personalities, age differences and everything else that comes with most large gatherings of people. He describes a family member’s project (“Poppa” could be his own father, Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, or it could be his grandfather–familial usage of that title tends to vary) that “will never be finished” but Hood guesses “that’s the point” because it “Gives him a filter and psychological ointment”. Patterson has said that the filter, for him, is actually songwriting–a method of hiding in plain sight from family, as means of dealing with it. It’s a more sane middle step between the saccharine imaginings of large family gatherings, and the hysterically exaggerated negatives of stand up comedy and movie scenes about them. It does have a great kicker of a final verse line, too–“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/Blessed be my family 300 miles away…”
Cooley admitted frankly that “Pulaski” was named simply because he’d been through the town (once) and its syllables, particularly in unison with its containing state, Tennessee, fit perfectly with the song (unlike his own hometown or homestate). It shuffles along on another easy, brushy beat from Brad, and is smaller and more intimate–as is often the case in this contrast–than Hood’s prior one. It has the love for “not even ‘Southern’–American small towns” Cooley occasionally shows–a sense of pride in those small ones and their atmospheres. Of course, it’s not so silly as to pretend the protagonist’s move to California proves the complete inferiority of anywhere else, so much as pointing out that people are often neither better nor worse in that shift, and fantastic representations–as those on T.V.–are just that.
“Mercy Buckets” is, naturally, a play on “merci beaucoup”, the French for “thank you very much”. It’s about as wild as the album gets, Cooley and Neff trading leads, and doubtless a few from Hood in there, too. It’s the final show-stopper, sad, dragging in tempo, but big, expansive, dramatic, and generally huge–cinematic, as the band likes to think of themselves. Each syllable of Hood’s chorus is emphasize: “I will bring you buckets of mercy”, and there’s no question that the scorching peals of guitar are the right way to end the album. Not with some kind of inappropriate huge block of rocking bang, but with the rather slow-moving force of fireworks exploding in a night sky, shooting up on those streaks of lead guitar, but slowing at their explosion and slowly flittering back downward. It’s a release of energy matching what came before instead of entirely defying it.
I was perusing record stores in another state recently on a business trip, and had occasion to speak to the proprietor of one of those stores. We talked a bit about music, particularly the new Jason Isbell which had just been released, and conversation naturally wandered to the Truckers. We agreed there was a bit of searching for either after their split (though I think he meant Creation’s Dark where I meant A Blessing and a Curse, on which Jason did, in fact, play, but released some of his lesser songs with the band), but that both had clearly found their stride by now–indeed, this pair of albums is extraordinarily successful at clarifying what this band is after their rise carrying Isbell and now as the band that they are, the one more exclusively defined by Cooley and Hood, who’ve been together more than two and a half decades now.
I can understand the trepidation some no doubt feel with a band with this name, or an album or cover art like this–I still get those feelings sometimes, much though I now try to subdue them. I can only suggest what I try myself–sample it out. There are some great performances from the band floating around the net, plenty even official. And if you’re really adventurous, Cooley is touring solo, and the band will probably be back on the road together before too long. Give them a shot if you haven’t, though. They may be unabashed in their northern Alabama roots, but that tells you less about them than you might think.
¹I actually just picked up the random compilation of their work, but that’s a pretty meaningless reference except to Athens, GA locals, so far as I know. Still, it was a cool band from what I’ve now heard.
²That said, they covered one of my favourite Warren Zevon tracks (“Play It All Night Long”), though I honestly thought they didn’t quite manage it properly. They did, however, blow the Tom Petty song “Rebels” out of the water on that record (The Fine Print), and contribute one of the better “Like a Rolling Stone” covers out there, and Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”, which I’ve never heard the original track to. Hood did cover yet another semi-obscure favourite of mine, Todd Rundgren’s “Range War” on his second solo album–which makes sense. It was on Todd’s second album, too. I mean, if you count Runt as a solo record, which plenty of people (justifiably) do. Including me.