As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 4, 2005
The first time the Drive-By Truckers received any serious attention was in 2002 when Lost Highway Records re-released their wonderful landmark double-disc Southern Rock Opera (originally appearing on the tiny Soul Dump Records, a year before.) That effort was lavishly praised -- and rightly so -- by critics as well as fans of hard crunching roots-conscious guitar rock. And their subsequent efforts, Decoration Day and The Dirty South have lived up to Southern Rock Opera’s huge promise.
(As just one small voice in criticdom, all three made my annual Top 10 lists, The Dirty South topping last year’s.)
But some casual Trucker fans might not release that the Georgia-based band has been making albums years before Southern Rock Opera. The group’s current label, New West.
While neither of these reach the heights of the group’s last three albums, they’re both respectful efforts that, in retrospect, drop huge hints of what was in store. These CDs provide a glimpse at a great band back when they were merely really good.
The Truckers were more “country” sounding than the new ones. You hear a lot more steel guitar and mandolin on these albums as compared with the DBT’s now trademark Skynyrd-esque three-guitar attack. (But you can hear a precursor of that sound in the very first album with the roaring guitars on “Buttholeville” and the lyrics of “Demonic Possession,” in which singer Patterson Hood declares, “I can kick ass and talk backward/I hang out with a bunch of slackers/and I know I can get help from him/I listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin.”)
One thing that has remained constant in the DBT’s career is their obsession with their Southern heritage. Virtually every song deals with Southern culture.
On these first two albums, some of the songs tend to be jokier than their recent work.
You have fun-filled Patterson Hood tunes like “Steve McQueen” (described here as “the coolest doggone motherscratcher on the silver screen“) and “18 Wheels of Love” (the singer’s mom marries a truck driver at Dollywood, with a Porter Wagoner look-alike conducting the ceremony) from Gangstabilly
The on Pizza Deliverance, which came second but contains earlier songs) some tunes -- “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)” and “The President’s Penis is Missing” (a then-timely Bill Clinton spoof) -- are more scatological.
Add these titles to Jim Stacy’s funny redneck cartoons that served as the cover art on these albums and some might be able to dismiss it all as Southern Culture on the Skids-style hick shtick.
Unless you listen to the actual music.
Both Hood and original Trucker Mike Cooley -- the only members still with the band -- already were writing some fine songs.
Gangstabilly starts off with a slow tune called “Wife Beater,” featuring a sweet whining steel and a refrain with three-part harmonies.
The singer is pleading to a domestic-violence victim to leave her abusive husband. But it’s obvious it’s a lost cause. “Now you say he‘s changed and you‘re going back to him … ”
The title of the song “The Living Bubba” might sound like something Larry the Cable Guy would approve of. However it’s actually about a friend of the band’s who died of AIDS. “Don’t give me no pity, don’t give me no grief/Wait til I die for sympathy/Just help me with this amp and a guitar or two/I can’t die now cuz I got another show to do.”
Pizza Deliverance kicks off Hood’s “Bulldozers and Dirt,” a song in which the protagonist basically is a lecherous scumbag. Singing to the teenage daughter of his live-in girlfriend, he brags how he met her mother while burglarizing her home.
By the end of the tune he’s coming on to the girl. “I’ve lived with your mama for 11 years/Through good times and bad times, fist fights and tears/But something comes over me when you come near/So won’t you come over and sip on this beer …” Not only can you imagine the horror of the girl, you get a feel of the twisted pain of the singer. You can’t feel much sympathy for him, but you know that pain is real.
And speaking of pain, Cooley’s best song here is “Uncle Frank,” which, over a jangly, Byrdsy guitar, tells a tragic tale of an uneducated man ripped off by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
But Hood’s songs dominate. There are unforgettable images, like the box of spiders kept by his great grandmother, the creepy middle-aged couple Margo and Harold (“fifty and crazy, big hair and cocaine …”), and of G.G. Allin.
“The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town” (the title is a parody of similarly-named country songs about Porter Wagoner and Hank Williams) tells of a Memphis show by the celebrated rock ’n’ roll degenerate, famous for his disgusting, sometimes illegal, stage antics.
The song tells of an indignant old man reading a newspaper account of the concert to his wife, But for Hood, it was a liberating moment, a night that blasted out the boredom of their lives. “Me and Cooley we just laughed so hard we both fell down,” he sings.
One small complaint I have about these reissues is that there are no outtakes or extra cuts. In the liner notes Hood tells about recording on barebones budgets in those days (at one point he was doing construction work at the studio in exchange for recording time.) So maybe there were no outtakes or “lost” tracks.
But it’s good to have these albums available again. Now I just hope New West re-releases The Truckers’ great live album Alabama Ass Whoopin’ .
Hear a whole mess of Drive-By Truckers music tonight on The Santa Fe Opry, 10 p.m. -midnight, KSFR, 90.7 FM
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