Friday, August 27, 2004

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: MORE SONGS OF THE SOUTH

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 27, 2004

Some critics have hailed The Drive-By Truckers as the second coming of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the undisputed heirs to the throne of Southern rock royalty.

I don’t think that gives the Truckers nearly enough credit.

Although they will never be a fraction as popular as the “Sweet Home Alabama” boys, the Truckers are 10 times deeper. And they rock just as powerful.

With their latest album The Dirty South, the DBTs have unleashed their third straight masterpiece of insightful -- and strong rocking -- observations of Southern life, Southern mythology, Southern pride, Southern shame and Southern horror. The new album continues in the same direction -- and I believe surpasses -- their previous works Decoration Day and Southern Rock Opera.

(Actually, it’s the fourth straight solid DBT album if you include their rollicking, often hilarious 2000 live CD Alabama Ass Whoopin’ .)

The Drive By Truckers, for those who have been denied their pleasure, features three singers and songwriters, OTs (original Truckers) Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, who came aboard on last year’s Decoration Day.

(And credit should be given to an unofficial Trucker, artist Wes Freed, whose spooky cartoons full of big cars, full moons, twisty trees, sexy women and demonic creatures have added to the allure of the last three DBT records.)

Once again, the Truckers take us on a backroads tour of the Deep South, where they look with unflinching eyes at the lives of the people who live there, the heroes they look up to, their wisdom, their lies.

Some heroes you’ll recognize. There‘s some rock ‘n‘ roll history lessons in “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac, which is about the Sun Records heyday while “Danko / Manuel” is about the two late members of The Band.

Two songs, “Boys From Alabama” and “The Buford Stick” serve to deflate the legend of Sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame. Between these two is “cottonseed,“ a minor-key acoustic tune by Cooley that doesn’t specifically mention Pusser. But -- with its talk of “greed and fixed elections, guns and drugs, whores and booze” -- might be part of a trilogy.

Isbell‘s “The Day John Henry Died” is more than a sad ode to the mythical steel drivin’ man. It’s a rage against an economy that uses human beings like machines before discarding them.

But the best stories are the ones about folks you’ve never heard of. In “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” (whose spiritual ancestor is Gil Scott Heron’s proto-rap tirade “Whitey’s on the Moon”)

The narrator’s an unemployed Alabama auto worker who’s bitter because the Ford plant shuts down “while over there in Huntsville, they puttin’ people on the moon.”

He scrapes by with running numbers and selling drugs. Meanwhile his wife gets cancer. By the end of the song she’s dead and he’s working at Wal-Mart, “and now over there in Huntsville, even NASA’s shut down too. By the end of the song, the guitars sound like they’re about to explode and Hood sounds as if he’s about to start throwing punches at politicians, preachers or anyone else who might get in his way.

There’s sentimentality in these stories, but none that’s not hard-won. Cooley has a couple of “Daddy” songs. In the opening cut “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” the beloved father is a bootlegger -- but Mama turns him in.

But even better is “Daddy’s Cup,” which is centered around a racecar driver’s advice from his father, a former racer who had to quit after damaging his eyesight in a crash. From childhood he knows his true purpose in life is “Daddy’s second chance.“ After his pitiful first race, Daddy says, “If you quit now, son, it’s gonna haunt you all your life”

He doesn’t quit, but the driver’s still haunted. He races on with Daddy’s picture on the dashboard. “Since then I’ve wrecked a bunch of cars and I’ve broke a lot of bones …,” Cooley sings. “I lost more than I won but I ain’t gonna give up/Til they put me in the ground or Daddy’s name on that cup.”

Hood’s “Lookout Mountain” -- featuring raging guitars worthy of Crazy Horse -- is a man contemplating suicide. He’s wondering about the aftermath: “Who will end up with my records/Who will end up with my tapes?/Who will pay my credit card bills?/Who will pay for my mistakes?”

The arguments are strongly weighted against the singer throwing himself off the mountain. But somehow he still sounds undecided.

It’s hard to find rock ’n’ roll this tough, this serious any more.


Also recommended:

*Killers and Stars by Patterson Hood.
The Dirty South is a main-course album. But this one’s a nice appetizer. It’s a low-fi, home-recorded collection of 11 original songs and one cover (Tom T. Hall’s “Pay No Attention to Alice”) by the DBT singer. According to Hood’s liner notes, it was recorded when “I had just gotten divorced, was fighting with the band … and a good number of my friends. I was feeling pretty freaked out and isolated ...”

These are prime conditions for some twisted songwriting. And indeed there are some fine disturbing songs here. “The Assassin,” is the strange tale of a killer who’s lost his taste for his art. “Belinda Carlisle Diet” is a bluesy rage about “cocaine and milkshakes.”

But the most memorable tune is “Fire” a metaphor of a doomed love. Is it really about a house fire? If so, was it an act of arson by the singer?

While it’s interesting to hear these songs at an early stage, the above listed ones and several others leave me wanting to hear the full Drive-By Trucker treatment.

Meet the Truckers: No, not literally. But you can get a lot more familiar with their music Friday night on The Santa Fe Opry, KSFR, 90.7 F.M. Hear songs from The Dirty South and previous Drive By Truckers albums. Opry starts at 10 p.m., the Truckers set right after 11 pm.

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