This is the best entry point to the Drive-By Truckers’ world. For this album they’ve got three-count-‘em-three songwriters working at a peak, the band is operating at a high level throughout, and some of their most indelible tunes are here. It’s also not perfect – as none of their albums are – so it’s not gonna set up unreasonable expectations of a batch of masterpieces for the unwary listener. This isn’t to say that they don’t have great albums (they have four by my count and three or four more a notch below those) or that you wouldn’t do almost as well jumping in with the album before this, Decoration Day, or being introduced to them via the (great) concept double album Southern Rock Opera, it’s just that, well, this one just feels right – less commitment than the double album and simply better overall than Decoration Day. But they’ve been around since the 90s, they’re headlining Red Rocks this summer for the first time, and starting with this record they haven’t failed to crack Billboard’s Top 200 album chart with any of their releases, so maybe you don’t need an intro and just need a reminder.
Or maybe you do need an intro – chart success or no, they’ve never had a song that hit the top 40, the only Grammy they’ve been associated with was as the backing band for Booker T’s album Potato Hole, and they’ve never had a gold record, which means only a select group of fans are buying their records. So take these 70 minutes of prime DBT and drink it in. It’s an album rife with working class stories of hard living below and around the poverty line, of lowlifes, crime and corruption, of some of the great purveyors of the very Americana that influences the Truckers themselves, and of “Goddamn Lonely Love.” Maybe start with the best thing on the album – lead guy Patterson Hood’s “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” about a Reagan-era family man struggling to get by while the local NASA affiliate spends who knows how much on pie in the sky ideas of putting people into space. This couplet has never failed to get a cheer from the audience in the ten years I’ve been seeing them perform live: “and all them politicians/they’re all lyin’ sacks of shit” and that’s followed shortly by “and the preacher on the TV says it ain’t too late for me/but I bet he drives a Cadillac and I’m broke with hungry mouths to feed.” But he’s not just being clever – the song’s angry, rife with cancer, no money for health care, “double digit unemployment” and more, so when Hood lets out a scratchy falsetto at the song’s climax, it’s a genuinely anguished moment. From there, proceed either to Mike Cooley’s lighter “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, or on to his intense, grim “Cottonseed” about a hired killer who specializes in making people disappear when the men who influence the law need them to disappear. It’s the centerpiece of the record both literally (falls in the middle of a trilogy of songs elucidating the other side of the true story that was turned into the movie Walking Tall) and mood-wise. Then maybe it’s time for Isbell’s rousing “We Ain’t Never Gonna Change,” an anthemic cry of Southern pride without any of the bullshit that can come with the territory, and a rival to “Sweet Home Alabama” in the rocking, melodic sing-along department. But then check out what Isbell is best known for – his slow, melancholy numbers, like “Danko/Manuel” about two casualties of The Band, or the closer “Goddamn Lonely Love” which is about exactly what it says and showcases Isbell’s aching vocals – a league away from Cooley’s drawl and Hood’s gruff story-songs. But find your way back to Hood too, his sad, goddamn lonely (and ultimately class-bound, like most of the album) “Lookout Mountain,” and his touching “The Sands of Iwo Jima” which pokes holes in the myth just like his pair of Walking Tall songs do. And then you might quickly note that I’ve mentioned every song except three – Cooley’s terrific, father-son opening salvo, “Where the Devil Won’t Stay” (which the liner notes say is “based on a poem by Ed Cooley,” Mike’s uncle), his other father-son tune “Daddy’s Cup” and another of Patterson Hood’s bits of true local color, “Tornadoes.”
But in telling you about all the songwriting smarts on display, I’m failing the band. I haven’t said how then-new bassist Shonna Tucker is already in perfect sync with drummer Brad Morgan, who takes his cue from Charlie Watts in that other rock band by simply, unflashily supporting and driving the band at all times. I’m not telling how the three songwriters’ guitars speak louder than their voices here and are the best that the Hood-Cooley-Isbell lineup ever laid down on albums. And I’m not telling how the flow of the album from Cooley’s lead cut to Isbell’s sad, slow closer is a trip worth taking in order, rather than the sampling suggested above.
The Drive-By Truckers have soldiered on after this record through personnel shifts and personal crises. Their last studio album, English Oceans, is one of their best, a surprising rebound from a pair whose quality many fans questioned. They’ve got a new one in the can slated for a fall 2016 release. Jason Isbell will also be headlining at Red Rocks this summer and walked home with a pair of Grammys for his most recent album, Something More Than Free. Catch both of those shows if you can – Isbell muscles up his tunes live and the Truckers themselves always deliver – but if you don’t know the records start here. Just promise that you’ll continue on from here to more – Southern Rock Opera, English Oceans, Decoration Day, or my personal fave, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. And then you’ll come back to this one and remember just how great it is.
- Patrick Brown