People from the American South have a bone deep connection with the place that, sooner or later, the more adventurous will try to outrun. When you finally do get out, you’re relieved. You work at losing your accent, pronouncing your “g’s”, forgetting your now-useless Southern manners. The thought of fried squash makes you feel ill. Visits home now seem to reveal a backward, maddeningly slow, impenetrable way of life. As it has always been, those who have gotten out believe themselves to be above all that. For awhile, anyway.
What about the people who didn’t get out, though? Nobody wants to think about them any more, those who used to work at the car plant and then the steel mill and then there was no car plant and no steel mill and what then?
I like this band because they know all about that. They know it as grown-ups, with empathy and understanding, in lyrics that haven’t blown me away this much since, well, maybe John Hiatt, or maybe never.
The thing is, this isn’t the moonlight ‘n magnolias South, at all.
On “Decoration Day,” they get the Big Issue over with right away. It is, after all, the pinnacle of all the worst assumptions made about the backwoods hills -- like the old joke:
Q: “What’s the definition of an Alabama virgin?”
A : “A 12 year old girl what kin run faster than her brothers.”
The song is close to sympathetic. A white trash girl headed nowhere meets her eldest brother for the first time and falls for him. Simple, but not. Same with “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” about a minister’s wife who shoots her husband dead, and why. Or “Birthday Boy,” a look at what a stripper thinks as she’s working the pole. It just goes on and on, song after literate song.
This is the South I remember from childhood and early adolescence, before hey-we’re-a-big-city-too Atlanta and, especially, before all those years in L.A. Listening to this music now, I can feel the ever-present sweat, see my cuticles bloodied from scratching my bug bites, hear the roar of the tree frogs and cicadas over the screech of hell-bent tires in the distance. I never had a name for it before but these guys came up with one: The Dirty South, one of their records. A rare commodity: good, bad: a sense of place.
Q: What are an Alabama redneck’s last words?
A: “Hey, y’all, watch this!”
The two guys and the girl at the core of the band -- Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker -- come from Russellville, Alabama, in the northwest corner of the state. (They’re younger than me. These songs couldn’t possibly be autobiographical, or that dark corner is a whole lot further behind the gleaming, hustling, generic Atlanta than I thought.) Patterson Hood’s father was the bassist for the Swampers, the house band at Muscle Shoals, a backwoods cinder-block recording studio that drew people like Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones to...where? Somewhere they probably thought of as East Jesus, Alabama. The place was beyond legendary -- if you don’t know of it, just click this link. So it’s likely that Hood grew up in a sound booth. The others, I don’t really know that much about, other than to say that I can look at them and listen to them and say, “that's real.”
They’ve been playing around for a long time. They do what bands do now, touring and touring and touring, hoping that the 300 people who saw them in Raleigh or Houston liked them enough to buy their records, and might tell their friends. They may have a gotten a little radio play here and there, but not much, because they’re unclassifiable. That’s the kiss of death in what passes for the music industry now. They’re not glitzy enough for Faith Hill’s Nashville. They’re a little too rawbone country for “alternative,” (whatever that means now). They’re too rock and roll for either one. So what?
In his song “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about Carl Perkins and Sam Phillips -- the guy who “discovered” Elvis* -- Mike Cooley sings:
“Carl drove his brand new Cadillac to Nashville and he went downtown
This time they promised him a Grammy….he turned his Cadillac around….
Mr. Phillips never blew enough hot air to need a little gold plated paperweight…”
Don’t ever change, guys.
The Drive By Truckers, who live and work in Athens, GA, when not on the road, have released ten studio records so far. They’re scheduled to open for Tom Petty on some of his American dates this summer and then tour Europe.
*Rumor contends that Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ secretary, actually “discovered” Elvis. Sam wasn’t in when he came by to see him. She had him record a couple of demo ballads, wrote “good ballad singer” on his card and told him to come back when Mr. Phillips would be there.
The Drive-By Truckers’ records are available for download in the usual places or at indie record stores. Or through their website.
The photo of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood is by Barry Brecheisen, from "Chicago Now."