Drive-By Truckers

Southern Rock Opera
Decoration Day
The Dirty South

Southern Rock Opera (New West Records '01) Rating: A-
After two worthwhile but definitely not as good albums, Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance, came this ambitious double album, which announced the emergence of one of America’s best modern day bands in no uncertain terms. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Patterson Hood (son of legendary Muscle Shoals session bassist David Hood) and to a lesser extent singer-songwriter-guitarist Mike Cooley (and to a much lesser extent singer-songwriter-guitarist Rob Malone), this excellent “rock opera” describes what it was like for these guys to grow up in the south, specifically in Alabama. The band are notable for their loud, hard-hitting, moody music, which owes a debt to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young, both of whom feature prominently in the lyrics of many of these songs, but even more so for their lyrics; these guys are born storytellers and their sometimes nostalgic but never corny ruminations on politics, racism, and religion (among other topics) are always interesting to hear. These songs are often humorous and moving, and though the rough, grizzled vocals of Hood (who writes and sings 13 out of the 20 songs here) in particular might not be for everybody (Cooley’s vocals are less rough and more country, and Malone only sings on two tracks), I for one like his voice a lot (it’s certainly distinctive). Perhaps the album is a little on the long side (a single album with 3 or 4 less songs might’ve worked even better), but there’s little if any outright filler, and there are quite a few outstanding highlights, many of which would remain in their live repertoire (and by all accounts these guys are a kickass live band). For starters, how can a song titled “Ronnie and Neil,” about Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, not be great? Rest assured it is; when Hood sings “let your guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil” I can’t help but think, amen brother! “72 (This Highway’s Mean)” is a cool Cooley country rock number, while “Dead, Drunk, and Naked” shows the band’s penchant for creating memorable song titles and songs that live up to them. From a thematic standpoint, the heart of side one is exemplified by the “The Southern Thing,” where Hood introduces “the duality of the southern thing.” He elaborates even further on the spoken word epic “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” which not only isn’t a boring spoken word song but which is actually pretty great. In addition to Van Zant the other icons are football coach Bear Bryant and former governor George Wallace, who most of the song is about and who also stars in the next song, “Wallace,” where he is welcomed by a Southern devil, the kicker being that he landed in hell not for being a racist, but for being a political opportunist. Another highlight from side one is Cooley’s “Zip City,” one of the band’s best songs ever, while disc two begins with the anthemic “Let There Be Rock,” where Hood recounts his disappointment over having never seen Lynyrd Skynyrd live, though this is counterbalanced by an impressive roll call listing the bands he did see. More importantly, the chorus (“Bon Scott singing, ‘Let There Be Rock’”) into the guitar solo – and there are quite a few guitar solos on the album – is a great rock ‘n’ roll moment. Without getting into too many more individual song details, I’ll note that I’m also partial to Cooley’s “Women Without Whiskey,” Hood’s “Plastic Flowers On The Highway,” Cooley’s “Shut Up and Get On The Plane,” and Hood’s “Angels and Fuselage,” which ends the album the only way it could’ve ended, with an epic, elegiac ballad that recounts the fateful Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash that killed several band members (including Van Zant) and ended the original incarnation of the band (and no disrespect to anyone else, but Ronnie was the heart and soul of that band). Anyway, as concept albums go this one’s a real keeper, as Southern Rock Opera is a great tribute to a great band that’s worthy of comparison to that great band’s best work.

Decoration Day (New West Records '03) Rating: A
Coming hot on the heels of 2001's stellar Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day further established the Drive-By Truckers as one of today's top American bands. Like Skynyrd, the band has a three guitar lineup that can burn (they also have three songwriters and lead singers, with Jason Isbell replacing Rob Malone, a definite upgrade), but their ragged rockers owe as much to Neil Young and Crazy Horse and The Rolling Stones as they do to Skynyrd, and their plentiful ballads owe more to the country rock side of bands like Wilco, with pedal steel guitars and fiddles fleshing out the bands sound. Some of these songs are flat out fantastic, both musically and lyrically. For example, the gritty Southern realism of "Sink Hole," where their triple guitars weave in, out, and around the main melody, makes Kings Of Leon sound like the boys that they were circa 2003, while "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" is the perfect song for when you're pissed off. "Marry Me" is all about it's great Stonesy groove, but "My Sweet Annette" shows a much softer side, as all three songwriters really know how to tell an affecting, vividly realized story. I know that I feel heartbroken for poor Annette, and the absolutely gorgeous country-based music makes the lyrics that much more powerful. "Outfit" is another deeply affecting number that echoes the simple, small town sentiments of Skynyrd's "Simple Man," while "Heathens" is really pretty and "Sounds Better In The Song" matches another timeless backwoods melody to intelligent lyrics depicting the resigned feelings that can accompany a deteriorating relationship. There's still hope on the next song, even if "(Something's Got to) Give Pretty Soon," and elsewhere we get treated to tales of incest ("The Deeper In," which seems rather plain at first until you realize what's happening, and how clever these guys really are), deadbeat boyfriends ("Your Daddy Hates Me," a somewhat plodding and over-long dirge that's more than salvaged by its self-lacerating lyrics and searing guitar), lessons on life (the short, punkish "Careless," which details how one screw up can screw up everything), and sad sack wives ("Loaded Gun In The Closet," whose final line is absolutely devastating). As with 99% of all albums today, this 65 minute release is maybe 2 or 3 songs too long, but believe me when I say that this album earns its A rating. After all, how many bands can make you almost want to cry while kicking your ass at the same time (the suicide lament "Do It Yourself")? Note: Again Hood writes most of these songs (nine), while Cooley adds four strong entries and Isbell makes the most of his two contributions (“Outfit” and the also-terrific title track). This album also began a long association with ex-Sugar bassist David Barbe as producer.

The Dirty South (New West Records '04) Rating: A
Shonna Tucker replaced Earl Hicks on bass here, but this was another great album from a band in their absolute prime; stellar drummer Brad Morgan rounds out the five-piece lineup in addition to their three singer-songwriter-guitarists (actually all three are multi-instrumentalists who flesh out their sound with banjo, harmonica, piano, electric piano, organ, etc.). This moody, hard rocking album has it all for the Drive-By Truckers fan, as all three songwriters are at the top of their game, with Hood contributing only six songs this time as Cooley and Isbell write four songs apiece. Perhaps The Dirty South lacks some of the thematic unity of the prior two records (aside from three songs from the point of view of the antagonists of Sheriff Bufford Presser, who was the subject of the 1973 movie Walking Tall: “The Boys From Alabama,” “Cottonseed,” “The Buford Stick”), and again maybe this 70-minute album would’ve been even better had two or three songs been cut, but this is such a great collection of well-written and well-played songs that its minor flaws hardly matter when all is said and done. This may be just another Drive-By Truckers album at this point, but it’s definitely one of their very best ones. As per usual, the guys tell dark, interesting stories that can be deeply affecting but also make you think, and when words fail them they can just unleash their enviable three guitar attack (I know that I’m always glad when they do). Among the plentiful highlights are “Where The Devil Don’t Stay,” “The Day John Henry Died,” “Puttin’ People On The Moon,” “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” “Danko/Manuel” (these last two songs again show how these guys love rock ‘n’ roll and are aware of its history), “The Boys From Alabama,” “Never Gonna Change,” “Lookout Mountain,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” but ask me on another day and my list of album highlights might look quite different. Which is the mark of a great album, is it not?

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