By the time you were born there were four other siblings
Your mama awaiting and your daddy in jail
Your oldest brother was away at the home
and you didn’t meet him ‘til you were nineteen years old from “The Deeper In”, Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers
The South metered out by the Drive-By Truckers in the first cut of their album, Decoration Day, is a South Scarlet wouldn’t recognize and couldn’t abide. The plaintive first lines of “Deeper Down” open out into a song about first love and incest, beginning our odyssey through a southern world of rattle-trap pick-up trucks, murderous love, bloodfeuds, and the wrath of God. The musical equivalent of a Larry Brown short story, every cut from Decoration Day tells of men and women giving the middle finger to the “bourgie” (a “dirty south” term for the uptight middle class) conventions of middle America. When in the cut “Heathens”, the gritty twang of Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood speculates that, “If we can get the van out of the ditch before morning/ain’t nobody got to know what I done”, we feel like we have heard a manifesto from an unvoiced South that sees little moonlight and smells few magnolias. Much of the new music emerging these days from Athens, GA, celebrates this hard-knocks South the proletarian South rather than the mythic South. Leave your hoop-skirt in the closet honey, we’re going mud-doggin’.
Mud-doggin’ in the Dirty South, in fact. The music coming out of Athens these days fuses rock and country, deep frying the whole mix in Lynyrd Skynyrd. But Africa can be heard in some of these new rhythms, as well Africa traveling from the Caribbean to the south Bronx and then down tobacco road to Atlanta, Athens, and even to La Grange, Georgia. Hip-hop went south in the ‘90s, continuing its long journey from its rich African roots to its emergence in the sound system musical culture of Jamaica and the appearance of Rap in the tough streets of the south Bronx in the ‘70s. Atlanta cradled the southern wing of this movement as Goodie Mob and Outkast meshed the sweet obscenities of Luther Campbell and Dr. Dre with the realities of southern urban life, producing the Dirty South style. Gospel harmonies intermingled with adjectives and verbs momma doesn’t let me use to tell the world about the “the Dirty South”; a hardscrabble world of living in the projects and eating collards for dinner, a world in some ways even meaner than South Central because of its blood-soaked southern geography. It’s a world of social and class oppression intermingling with racial prejudice, producing a nightmarish brew.
“The South has always been dirty, now its gonna get ugly,” or so proclaims the latest incarnation of this movement, an unlikely griot named Bubba Sparxxx. Sparxxx, a big, white, former football star and self-proclaimed “cracker” from the piney woods of south Georgia, has struck an alliance with Timbaland, the production genius who can, in fact, receive credit for much of the sophistication of Sparxxx’s latest disc, Deliverance. Well on his way to residing in the hip-hop Hyperion, Timbaland’s Beat Club already includes alums like Missy Elliott, Aaliyah and, most recently, Kiley Dean. Some might wonder how Timbaland’s odd combination of swinging guitars and cyber-beats (sometimes reminiscent of early ‘90s video game scores) could ever blend with a southern accent. Wonderfully, Sparxxx’s lazy molasses drawl gells perfectly with Timabland’s majestic, yet quirky, syncopations.
Drive-By Truckers and Bubba Sparxxx share a similar aesthetic, a defiantly rednecked aesthetic that caterwauls and rebel yells, demanding that their listeners put down their bottle of Dasani and pick up a fifth of Wild Turkey. Both acts have exploded out of the musical ferment of Athens, becoming part of what can only be called a red neck chic, a fascination with the low-down South that can be seen in everything from the jokes of Jeff Foxworthy to the popularity of NASCAR. Drive-By Truckers can perhaps contribute some sophistication to this larger cultural trend, as the popularity of their music may signal the remergence of southern rock, an angular and angry garage band sound long beloved of working class rebels. Bubba Sparxxx in some ways represents an even more interesting phenomenon, a hip-hop sound that bears witness to the biracial south, a world in black and white and a world attuned to global rhythms that are as old, and ironically as southern, as the hills themselves.
Athens, Georgia might seem an unlikely seed-bed for these self-consciously southern acts blending such a rich gumbo of musical styles. The college bars and fraternity parties of the University of Georgia previously acted as the finishing school of alta-rock and neo-pop, a fact relished by Hood upon his arrival in the early ‘90s. Hood has admitted that his Alabama childhood had all but soured him on the southern rock tradition before he came to Athens. He rediscovered his musical roots when he heard Skynyrd, David Allen Coe, the Allman Brothers, and The Band amidst the techno-pop cacophony.
Drive-By Truckers is perhaps best known for committing what some would consider the ultimate hubris; a young band crafting a concept album around, wait for it . . . the very band that so clearly influenced them and the emerging southern rock revival: Skynyrd. In fact, they risked the eternal wrath of the Skynyrd faithful by naming the album’s imaginary band “Betamax Guilltoine”, an allusion to the oft-repeated legend that Ronnie Van Zant died by being literally beheaded by a VCR-become-airborne missile in an October 1977 plane crush into a Mississippi swamp. Drive-By Truckers manages to avoid passing over into utter satire, and “southern rock opera” becomes a powerful evocation of the band whose music served as a soundtrack for the “lowdown” South, the South of dirt roads, reddened necks, and harsh economic fate lightened by hard boozing and loud music.
Social and economic class struggle certainly informs the stories the Drive-By Truckers have to tell us. The marginalized South rants with defiance or moans with yearning in almost every cut off the new Decoration Day CD. In “Sink Hole”, Drive-By Truckers narrates the murder and burial of a “Banker Man” who tried to take the family farm, while the title cut evokes a multi-generational feud that becomes an angry meditation on a violent southern past. In fact, almost every cut off the album lets us into the psyche of someone about to go over the edge, someone about to kill or die in a blinding rage at a world that has ignored them because of their accent, their pitiful paycheck, or their wicked, wandering, wild ways. Drive-By Truckers sings the “Free Bird” South that never sat on a columned porch and thinks mint juleps are just plain sissy.
Bubba Sparxxx comes from this same South, from the shadow on the Sunbelt that is south Georgia. Janisse Ray, in her beautiful memoir and environmental manifesto Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Milkweed Editions, 1999), writes that “In south Georgia everything is flat and wide. Not empty. My people live among the mobile homes, junked cars, pine plantations, clearcuts and fields.” Sparxxx comes from the same land and chants many of its agonies. If Gone with the Wind serves as your touchstone for southern identity, Bubba wants you to remember another film about the South when you read the title of his new CD, Deliverance. The infamous film based on the James Dickey novel of the same name tells, of course, the tale of city boys who hit the country and get themselves in a world of hurt. Sparxxx forces this hard world on us in tight rhymes like “Nowhere”. a reflection on hillbilly existential angst that demands, “Can you relate to five kids, six fishsticks on a plate?” while evoking a muscular southern manhood where step-father Jimmy Mathis “Showed me how to set the scope, shoot and then leave with the deer/And then he made me drink the blood to show me life was precious”. No mint juleps, here.
Deer Hunting and hip-hop? Sparxx and Timbaland pull it off, blending a music as biracial as the South itself. In “Comin’ Round”, perhaps the finest, certainly the most innovative, cut off the CD, Timbaland provides Bubba with a background that blends almost every musical tradition born in the American South; indeed, with a global soundscape that takes us on a tour of the Atlantic rim. A kind of lazy blues number sped up Dirty South style, “Coming Round” incorporates the twangy appeal of the steel guitar with an opening riff that evokes bluegrass and the older folk traditions of the southern highlands. This rich ferment explodes with the sudden introduction of Afro-Cuban percussion and we are as close to Caribbean sugar fields and West African mangrove stands as we are to the loblolly pines and the Okefenokee Swamp.
How did Athens produce a band that, quite literally, invokes the spirit of Ronnie Van Zant with a white hip-hop rhymemaster who blends Africa and Nashville while dancing around the stage like grandad in a moonshine reverie? The tale tells us, I think, more about the nature of the American South in general than about Athens in particular. South-watchers, amateur and professional, have spilled gallons of ink wondering whether the region will survive modernization and, lately, globalization. Let’s hope those discussions are outdated. To assume that “the South” will disappear assumes that a stable core of southern identity exists as an essential and clearly defined “somethingness” that is now threatened by strip malls, subdivisions, and too many Wal-Marts. Yet this fear seems frequently at work. Southern Living magazines litter the coffee tables of the southern middle class, glossy witnesses to the fear that this regional “somethingness” might disappear amidst rapid cultural change. Red Neck chic itself perhaps embodies this anxiety . . . maybe serving cornbread and black-eyed peas with our pan-seared salmon will save “our” regional identity.
The parentheses are the problem. What is “our” identity? Unfortunately, “Southern” to often serves as a synonym of “whiteness”, maybe even a very self-conscious whiteness. Too often its been a self-consciously elite whiteness. Forgotten is the fact that the American South has always been a biracial phenomenon or, as W.J. Cash put it, it’s the black experience entered into white experience, a racial intermixture forged of black oppression and “subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude” (The Mind of the South, New York Vintage Books, 1991). Sparxxx understands this, his celebration of inveterate redneckyness also challenges the boundaries of whiteness and subverting the narratives that shapes those boundaries.
Looking at these artificial boundaries in our rear views mirrors reminds me that we can never tie to southern identity to a single narrative; and efforts to link it to a specific race, class and style belong in the nearest cultural dustbin. In truth, globalization in an earlier (and darker) form created the modern South. The winds of trade and commerce, capitalism dripping with blood, to paraphrase Marx, brought Africans in the millions to the new world. Drawing on traditions that owed as much to West Africa and the Caribbean as Europe, the southern United States enwombed a biracial culture, born of both pain and the power of human creativity that transmutes that pain.
The region’s music still reflects this dark and bloody history, indeed, has always drawn its power from that history. The Blues began as a haunted wail out of the work camps and Delta plantations of Mississippi while the black gospel tradition bore on its sinewy back all the hopes and sufferings of African-American people crying to God in small rural congregations, Sunday after long, hot Sunday. Country music, despite it current vogue in the yuppie-fried, suburban South, came from Hank Williams’ and Jimmie Rodgers’ world of red dirt and calloused hands. Drive-By Truckers and Bubba Sparxxx have chanted up these lost worlds, twanging and drawling out the stories of southern people and their sorrows. The proletarian South has made its voice heard, hollering from places like rusty old trailer parks: Scarlett is dead! Long live Bubba!