They Caught Me Smilin’ Agin
Forged in the fabled hamlet of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Drive-By Truckers are magnificent in concert. Magnificent, that is, if you’re among the serious show-going minority capable of assessing what constitutes a fine performance. You’re used to technical delays, the occasional flubbed notes, some of the singers going flat now and then, and the offending screech of feedback not intentionally harnessed (see Neil Young). Perhaps it seems too obvious, snide, and condescending to make such a statement. But this critic worries about the State of the Show and live rock culture in general. With each worthy triumph of the Neptunes and soul-corroding sonic nadir of the Destiny’s Child brigade, the precarious space allotted to “real” music seems to shrink.
The Drive-By Truckers are well aware of this. Their current release’s liner notes clearly states: “There is still tons of great music being made. . . . Please support live music. Turn it up”! Southern Rock Opera (available from www.drivebytruckers.com) is a masterstroke. The double-disc is an always moving, often brilliant meditation on the rebel aesthetics of the South and the uvre of second-tier hybridity philosophers Lynyrd Skynyrd (who fall in line after the Kings, the Allman Brothers Band). This long-player serves as a summation of the progression of our benighted southern rock/boogie genre in all its ragged glory. In addition to Skynyrd paterfamilias Ronnie Van Zant, rogue Canada-to-Canyon dweller Neil Young is the man of the hour. The oft-misunderstood relationship between these two icons is the subject of one of the collection’s best songs, “Ronnie And Neil”, which wowed ‘em in the close, funky room that is Brownie’s in Manhattan’s East Village.
Throughout the show, the bulk of Southern Rock Opera‘s material was given an airing, buoyed by the intertwined sonic signatures of Young (a certain plangent, slow-drag tempo) and Skynyrd (an army of three guitars and a punkish edge). Typically, lead singer Patterson Hood prefaced tunes with colorful tales that provided back-story for the songs’ protagonists. Among the most affecting was a recollection of Hood’s great-great grandfather, a “dirt farmer” from Lauderdale County in the North of Alabama who “never owned no slaves” and was forced into battle at Shiloh, shot clean through for his troubles. Like the somewhat ambivalent and sharp Shiloh warrior, his great-great grandson—who “never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd . . . but sure saw Molly Hatchet and .38 Special . . .”—is a survivor of the sort Beyoncé Knowles and her clueless audience (fans and post-soul intelligentsia observers alike) could never fathom. Hood’s band, the Truckers, are independent in the best sense of the word, in sound, flesh, “biniss” and mind. The vibe of “keepin’ it real” and truth and earthiness they projected at Brownie’s cannot be bought and sold as conveniently as hipster threads at Urban Outfitters. Whereas the promising Beachwood Sparks often come off like they’re playing dress-up with their burnout Uncles’ vintage threads which he used to don onstage at the Palomino, there is a plain folks sincerity to this five piece that a whole bunch of folks, Kid Rock and Nashville “Big Willies” Montgomery Gentry chief among them, are reaching out for.
Alas, this purist groove can be corrupted and marketed. This is the devastation fans of the genre saw come to pass in the cases of the two previous generations of southern rockers, most notoriously in the demise of the Allman Brothers Band and Skynyrd. Whether or not the Truckers align themselves with the current southern rock renaissance that encompasses bands as disparate as Nashville Pussy, Montgomery Gentry, and the Derek Trucks Band, they obviously have a hard row to hoe in staying true to their mission. Meanwhile, they have done an honorable job of dragging this form of expression into the 21st century.
Along with jazz and the blues, it could be argued that so-called southern rock, as distillation of those forms recombined with the Scotch-Irish antecedents of country & western, is the truest of American musical stylings. The genre is hardly ever recognized for its beauty, vitality and, above all, hybridity—this last a sonic and cultural feat that is quintessentially American and the very lifeblood of the amber waves program. Nevertheless, southern rock/boogie is one of most important cultural productions, typically denied its due because of the wrong-headed and outdated racial attitudes and myths held by (often Northern) bourgeois liberals who’d never rate scuppernong wine over their Cristal and likely think Peachtree runs conveniently into an alligator-infested swamp. Such prevalent ignorance, even after the Allman Brothers Band’s Rock Hall induction (however dubious an honor), causes bands and other artists from the Southeast and environs to have to break through a wall of taboos.
In his brilliant 1996 story about Atlanta-bred rock & roll band the Black Crowes, Stanley Booth, one of the West’s greatest writers and an exemplar of the southern gentleman, applied the following passage to describe a son of the South’s audacity, reluctance to be gainsaid and fierce independence:
“Advised that there were Yankees on his troops’ right and left flanks, legendary Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest said, ‘Charge both ways’”. Like those troops, the Drive-By Truckers have got to “march both ways”—across the racial divide and into the hostile unknown policed by highbrow gatekeepers. The Southern Rock Opera clarifies their position. As band member Patterson Hood’s commentary says, “We wanted to examine people’s misconceptions of the South, and study some modern-day southern mythology”.
The region the Truckers spring from can be characterized by its tension between elegiac beauty and live, lurking evil; rich tradition and horrific violence; fiercely independent spirits and intertwined nations of ghosts that haunt the American imaginary. Specifically, Muscle Shoals figures prominently in the dreams and hopes of music fans and connoisseurs, largely due to the associations of Skydog Duane Allman—plus the Rolling Stones (“White Horses”), various Stax stars (like the Staples Singers & Otis), the endeavors of house band the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and famed Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler—with the studios at 3614 Jackson Highway. Yankee, urban, armchair John Lomaxes can peep the current bubble-under surrounding Muscle Shoals in the New York Press’ recent cover story and elsewhere.
Southern Rock Opera on disc and in performance self-consciously evokes this tradition and history. Even the incongruity of lead guitarist Jason’s baby face and fiery licks is somehow redolent of this lore (the Ghost of Allen Collins bows ‘neath the proscenium ). The tension is probed on songs like “Birmingham” and “The Southern Thing”: “Ain’t about my pistol / Ain’t about my boots / Ain’t about no northern drives/ Ain’t about my Southern roots . . . Ain’t about excuses or alibis / Ain’t about no cotton fields or cotton picking lies / Ain’t about the races, the crying shame / To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same” (From “The Southern Thing” (Hood/DBT))
But the boys’ glory lies in a great ability to render vivid songs about the personal, as well as the political. “18 Wheels Of Love”, an audience favorite at Brownie’s, started off with a Hood monologue about his mother, a trucking company dispatcher, and traces the saga of her poverty, misfortune, and eventual romance with a trucker anti-hero. This is the type of song that ought to be powering (classic) rock radio along with Skynyrd’s finest, rather than endless retreads of Jethro Tull and Yes.
Like the South Philly champions-turned-potential Limeys in Marah and the aforementioned SoCal rockers Beachwood Sparks who spent a fair chunk of the year touring with the Crowes and assaying The Boogie, the Drive-By Truckers hark to the best truths of rock & roll in general; to the swampy, lush (if bloody) specificity of their southern milieu in particular. The quintet does not indulge in the great Seventies/redneck/road-centric sonic pastiches of the recently imploded, Virginia-based giants Royal Trux (who featured Artimus Pyle’s son, Chris, on traps) . . . but there are echoes. Though one of the Trux’s cycle of albums exploring the early 70s, heavy rock groove (Thank You, Sweet Sixteen, Accelerator) used famed Neil Young producer, the late David Briggs, it is the Truckers’ whose stagecraft and approach reflect both the acoustic and electric Young, while also invoking the attitude of Van Zant’s hardscrabble lads.
Not only songs like “Let There Be Rock” and “Cassie’s Brother” (referring to Skynyrd Prometheus Steve Gaines) spark these ears, but the spirit the Truckers were able to summon in that small room was so heartening. What with the holiday season upon us, the record industry in turmoil, and several months’ public outcry and commentary on what the “new, post 9/11” America will become all piling up, Southern Rock Opera is a breath of much-needed fresh air. Missing the boat on releasing an opportunistically patriotic tune to swell rockbiz coffers, the Truckers’ road songs and blues effectively and insightfully describe the lost Americana everybody ought to be so nostalgic for. Since this country wasted its chance to engage in meaningful dialogue about the real nature of America over the past few months, once again it’s left to the “redneck” boys to ride in on their axes and save us, as the Allman Brothers did at the turn-of-the-Seventies, wielding songs sympathizing with gifted glue-sniffers and calling for clarity on the era of Civil Rights Movement.
They ain’t the world’s greatest rock band, locked in some ritual expectation of spectacle. They’re just a good band, the band you need right now to cope. And that’s gift enough. Right now, on the box, Neil’s singing, “When you dance, I can really love”. With their heroic guitar trio and thundering rhythm section, the Drive-By Truckers seconded that emotion in concert. While they played, we could love and feel freedom anew, safely tucked away from the general pall cast over Gotham inside a sweaty, smoky joint. We can believe, wave the flag (Stars’n Bars or otherwise) and smile again.