My True South, Or, Kick Ass with the Drive-By Truckers
Once upon a time, there was Carl Perkins. Not so long after that, there was Ronnie Van Zant. In subsequent years, various listener factions extended the boundaries to rely on southern vanguardists as diverse and unorthodox as Alex Chilton and Michael Stipe. Now, we’ve got the feisty upstarts in fictional Betamax Guillotine, given voice by the Drive-By Truckers’ twin pillars of Dixie-fried Renaissance Mike Cooley & Patterson Hood. From the heart of what may eventually become No South (thanks to Wal-Mart etc), the Drive-By Truckers’ music is intellectual modernism sonically dismantling what Paul Gaston called the New South Creed in his 1970 tome of the same name, while wrestling with their southern identity.
How I wish I could say that the idea for the Southern Rock Opera (originally released by Soul Dump, 2001; recently reissued by Lost Highway, July 2002) rose up in me out of a long-festering sense of frustration over what I’ve heard, read and seen about the thorny relations between the white and black races and the construction of the New South. Yet I cannot, since the glory goes to the Drive-By Truckers: Cooley (vocals, guitar) aka The Stroker Ace, Hood (vocals, guitar), Jason Isbell (guitar, vocals), Brad Morgan (drums) & Earl “Bird Dog” Hicks (bass). The quintet, mostly from Alabama, blazingly brought their collective brilliance to bear at an absolutely perfect (if bafflingly underattended) show at the cavernous North Six in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on 28 July 2002.
It is impossible to divest any examination of the Truckers from the extremely personal for I can argue that the Southern Rock Opera goes toe-to-toe with 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as the work that’s had the most profound influence on my life and aesthetic.
Audiences gaining awareness of the double album probably don’t know that they are listening to a masterpiece that in a world both real and ideal would: launch countless equally fruitful and insightful imitations, spark a revolution in the record business, and open the floodgates to unceasing cultural debate. Hell, it took me about six months of virtually non-stop listening to approach the core of the disc, despite having more or less declared it a classic on this very site. When the Truckers last came to town in December, I had long been abroad; was quite ill and jet-lagged, digging them from afar in a fog. Sister Traci in Nashville mercifully conveyed the record that next week and Patterson’s “The Southern Thing” made me cry, something I never ever do. Shortly, I realized that the mysterious personages behind the thick accents and the shimmering surfaces of Acts I & II were some new, heretofore unknown kind of good ol’ boys and I ought to do my prone-to-suspicion black ass a favor and wade into the mud of our nation’s central struggle in their company. As witness to the Truckers’ latest three New York City concerts, I am still undergoing a form of baptism from some progressive, grown-ass men whose rebel yell is all about dispensing truth:
Ain’t about no hatred better raise a glass
It’s a little about some rebels but it ain’t about the past
Ain’t about no foolish pride, Ain’t about no flag
Hate’s the only thing that my truck would want to drag
You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright
You wonder how I sleep at night
Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the southern thing
—“The Southern Thing” by Patterson Hood / DBT
And heartrending defiance:
You say you’re tired of me taking you for granted
Waiting’ up till the last minute to call you up and see what you want to do
Well you’re only 15, girl, you ain’t got no secretary
And “for granted” is a mighty big word for a country girl like you
You know it’s just your Daddy talking
Cause He knows that blood red carpet at the Salem Church of Christ
Ain’t gonna ever see no wedding between me and you
Zip City it’s a good thing that they built a wall around you
Zip up to Tennessee then zip back down to Alabama
I got 350 heads on a 305 engine
I get 10 miles to the gallon
I ain’t got no good intentions
—“Zip City” by Mike Cooley / DBT
The band’s newest member, Jason, possesses an angel face and fingers, his slide playing arresting enough to bring you to your knees at every gig and his contributions to the next record beyond promising. The rhythm section is right up next to my African heart (and ass), of course (Cheers Earl!). Brother Morgan is one of those drummers whose work is so on point and subtly stunning that by the time Patterson introduces him, you almost like where has that motherfucker been all night? like, what’s brothaman doin’ at the back?! And I am endlessly dazzled by this seemingly simple and straightforward group’s ability to contain the learned wit and goodnatured universality of Hood’s compositions so complexly counterbalanced by the darker humor and almost melancholy depth of Cooley’s.
Beyond the continuous keening of nationwide critics, it remains to be seen whether the Opera and the Truckers’ forthcoming follow-up will turn the tides in the current sorry rock ‘n roll climate. Predictions may be impossible but I don’t think so. Not many artists will have the guts and ethics to follow in them boys’ boot prints and produce something of this magnitude. Besides, the hot stories in rock these days are teen girls who navel-gaze (think Avril Lavigne & her “deep lyrics”) as opposed to bearing their navels & blacks from the hip-hop generation who have belatedly picked up guitars, according to last Sunday’s New York Times Arts & Leisure feature (most of these latter types, like the Bay Area’s Martin Luther, are brothas in their early thirties which makes them hopeless fogeys in the rock arena doesn’t it? Oh, silly l’il ole me: I forgot it’s perfectly okay for The Who, authors of a song which snarled “Hope I die before I get old!”, to keep touring even beyond the grave).
The Truckers are not wispy lasses tethered to pianos nor are they ‘heads making tentative baby steps beyond the safety net of Prince’s mid-period hybrid soul (talk about yer cultural amnesia—don’t any of these prodigies recollect Seal also-ran Ephraim Lewis from the UK or, for that matter, Jesse Johnson?). While they are hip-hop fans—they dig OutKast, as well as Nelly (to an alarming degree!)—the Truckers bring the undiluted, never-to-be-bested Rock N Roll Show to town. When they kicked off “Let There Be Rock”—even at Central Park Summerstage, where ordinances accomodating Fifth Avenue faux aristos prevented the band turning up to 11—well hot damn! Talk about hot in heerrre!! Surely the overrated Sir Mick couldn’t mount a better spectacle these days. And the beauty of it all, as evidenced at the Truckers’ slightly flawed Mercury Lounge show two nights earlier on Thursday (an amp blew up but no major mishaps), is that the band achieves this with little more than their hearts, guitars, a steady flow of cocktails and the unseen beneficence of Steve McQueen & Jesus.
If you reckon it’s disingenuous for a pseudo-Yankette like myself to align myself with this work, the Drive-By Truckers, in these eyes, are certainly valiant knights (Arthurian legend rears its’ ugly head) after a fashion, sonic-spurred descendants of the “redneck tricksters” in nineteenth century literature (Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes) and twentieth century entertainment media (Beverly Hillbillies) who employ their music to outwit both “New York critics and redneckers”, as Hood sings in “Life In The Factory” a great, concise summary of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s inexorable rise. If not calling for a widespread return to geophagy as hip trend, I do strongly feel that the majority of northern lefty academics and limousine liberals deserve a portion of the Truckers’ metaphoric whup-ass. Y’all can stay comfortably this side of Jim Goad yet still release the spawn of the New South from relentless indenture as national scapegoats. To my fellow sisters & brothers, I’ll quote that Master Jester Eddie Murphy: “put some (‘Bammy) boogie in yo’ butt!”
The Drive-By Truckers have offered their Opera up as an integral component to the American mythology, challenging “people’s misconceptions of the South” in process. Some of us in the land of the free crave only the best depiction—that is the upright, omnipotent, law-abiding Yankee who has historically controlled the bulk of America’s wealth and media. Although DeTocqueville decried the lack of substantive culture in nineteenth century America, it’s the Puritan visions of the Northeast from them till now that have largely set the definitions for what is aesthetically acceptable on this side of the Pond, their reach evidently now extended to rock n roll, that anthropomorphosized, Africanized Thang that crawled from the South. And at this time, most of what passes for rock and country (dare I say, some borderline Americana too?) reflects what Chris Robinson once referred to as “the Aryan ideals of sobriety and health” (or something such).
What ClearChannel and their partners in monopoly dole out to you daily glamorizes sunny, pedestrian suburban experience. Sure, the “The” bands studiously strive to revive the urban anomie of their ‘60s garage and Punk-era progenitors and the single-monikered Ostrogoths from Nickelback to Creed who consider Eddie Vedder the first-ever rock vocalist have Oedipal angst to spare. Yet the upshot is that these children of Y (and some of X) have the luxury and leisure to whine. Unlike the aging rock heroes of the ‘90s—positively fetal Billy Corgan and Jeff Tweedy, rendered as virtual Babbitt-style tyrant in current Wilco cinematic puff piece I Am Trying to Break Your Heart—Cooley (whose dark hair, handsomeness and laidback cool had everybody from a Haitian friend to my Fillmore veteran doctor and her husband sighing in the close confines of Mercury Lounge) and Hood (whose scintillating grin is a barometer of the degree of populist groove to be dropped on any given night) got as much game as Shaq, as much integrity as poor Patrice Lumumba, as many hidden capabilities as the late Jim Varney and as enough fiery passion in their guitar playing and showmanship to resurrect Malcolm, Martin and Hood’s paternal ancestor that was wounded at Shiloh whom he memorably eulogizes in “The Southern Thing”.
From the exquisite (slightly less than) gallows humor of “Road Cases” to the skewered fire-and-brimstone preaching of “The Southern Thing” which recurred in various sets throughout the week of the Truckers’ claim on Gotham, this ain’t no disco and it ain’t no foolin’ around (let them and The Strokes take it to the stage and see who comes out swinging). Are the Truckers blasting their three-guitar army to signal the rebirth of a genre (since the talented Cody ChesnuTT and Santi White will have far more of an uphill battle) or are their songs mere memento mori in decibel feedback disguise?
Is “southern rock” genre or Myth? Perhaps that can never be answered. Seems I have spent my entire life without benefit of the velvet cloak of Academe in critical examination of the themes so effortlessly rendered in the compositions of Hood & Cooley and their brotherhood.
A’ight I am overstating the ease with which the band arrived at the Southern Rock Opera but Lawd, it does make this freelance Topsy trapped in the shaky cell of her own rockist vanitas rather want to hang up her quills. Or at least return to the kitchen where she belongs with her greasy, out-of-print copy of The White Trash Cookbook. Can I get an Amen again?
The aforementioned Ephraim Lewis (doesn’t it sound like a Deacon’s name?) once sang, “Is my skin just a veil I’m wearing, protect me from the world?” Those veils that trap us across the yawning maw of the Mason-Dixon line, across racial and class lines are what the Drive-By Truckers rend with their music, particularly songs as dissimilar on the surface as “The Living Bubba”, “Birmingham”, and perennial audience favorite “18 Wheels Of Love”. So please let them “ol’ boy” anti-heroes (the bastard offspring of Gil Scott-Heron & Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth)?) continue to talk back. Somebody got to do something when Charlie Daniels can follow the Truckers onstage and sing about lynching “dope smokers” with impunity. Rock on, Sass on, brothers.
Let them guitars blast out of the dark, kudzu-shrouded frontier of the New South, the necessary locus of murderous, secessionist rednecks and clueless trailer trash—Marshall Frady once called the South the “peculiar dream-province of the Republic”—a place as remote and alien to non-southern whites today, as my Africa was to their forebears—Ishmael Reed once described Africa (I paraphrase) as “that dark continent so shaped like a human skull, the planet’s unconscious ”.
Just like us, they treat you like illegal aliens in your own land. Just like us, snakehips and a song has most often been the sole passport out.
They say “Space Is The Place”. Likely the only place where blackfolks and hillbillies can get truly get along, achieve socioeconomic parity and harmony. If so, then The Stroker Ace is nigh ready for his last high-speed chase to lead us up yonder, new, shining black flying-V and all. “Rocket 88” gives way to “Let There Be Rock”
PS: Shameless authorial plug on behalf of the band—Check out Academy Award-winning film The Accountant directed by Ray McKinnon at Ginnymule.com.
PPS: The Drive-By Truckers dedicated the Southern Rock Opera to Lynyrd Skynyrd, “America’s Greatest Rock N Roll Band”, but this critic thinks they are more than gaining on them.