Over the first half of this decade, no American indie rock band has even come close to matching what the Drive-By Truckers have done. The Athens, Georgia (by way of Northern Alabama) band has been on some kind of a roll; between 2001 and 2004, it’s been nothing but knockout after knockout, the quintet spitting out the new releases at a prolific rate, living a seemingly constant life on the road, building a fervently devoted fanbase across the United States, their three-hour sets obsessed over by fans, each show recorded and hitting the bit torrents the very next day. Hey, when you put out three near-masterpieces in four years, albums that are embraced by fans and critics alike, that’ll happen. Last year’s dark The Dirty South, 2003’s elegiac Decoration Day, and 2001’s sprawling double disc concept album Southern Rock Opera (arguably the band’s best release) all brilliantly combine ragged, raucous rock numbers and introspective country-folk compositions, as singers/guitarists Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and recently, Jason Isbell, all delve into the heart of life in the American South, writing songs about murder, suicide, economic hardships, the joy of rock ‘n’ roll, the tough life of rock ‘n’ roll, and most memorably, what Hood so brilliantly described as “the duality of the Southern Thing”.
When Southern Rock Opera turned heads by placing high atop critics’ lists at the end of 2001, and when it was subsequently re-released in the summer of 2002, it seemed to many that these guys had dropped in from out of nowhere. Little did new listeners know at the time that it was their fourth release overall, and as newbies focused their attention on Southern Rock Opera and the two albums that followed, the Drive-By Truckers’ long out of print first two albums were known primarily by the most dedicated DBT devotees, leaving curious new fans scrambling to either download MP3s or pay for overpriced copies on eBay. The band’s switch to New West Records in 2003 has turned out to be a perfect match, and the label has taken it upon themselves to do the fans a huge favor by re-releasing those two discs, 1998’s Gangstabilly and 1999’s Pizza Deliverance, in swanky, remastered versions. What newer listeners will notice instantly is, to nobody’s surprise, really, the Drive-By Truckers have never, ever released a bad album.
Perhaps it’s because Hood and Cooley were already well into their 30s when they started a ragtag version of the band, because man, did they ever hit the ground running. Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance don’t possess the ambition of the band’s three most recent albums, nor are the songs as refined as their newer material, but the one reason why these two albums are so revered among the older fans is the raw, defiant feeling that pervades both discs. Although the sound of both records contain a combination bluntly honest, traditional country music with the roaring, distorted, wall-shaking garage rock of Crazy Horse, the one band the early incarnation of the Drive-By Truckers has the most in common with is The Replacements. From the boisterous howlers (“Bastards of Young” vs. “Buttholeville”), to the drunken melodrama (“Here Comes a Regular” vs. “Sandwiches For the Road), to the moments of pure sass (“Gary’s Got a Boner” vs. “Zoloft”), the band’s similarity to the lovable Mats becomes more obvious the more you hear the early material. Also, we can’t forget the albums’ irony-laced titles that poke fun at their redneck heritage (which, if the albums weren’t so damn good, would qualify as two of the dumbest album titles in recent memory), and the cheeky artwork by Jim Stacy, which adorns both albums.
Gangstabilly might be the most inconsistent album in the DBT catalog, and the most musically simple (the songs all adhere to country songwriting structure), but it’s still a very strong debut, and contains the band’s two longtime live staples, “The Living Bubba” and “18 Wheels of Love”. Arranged somewhat like Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Rust Never Sleeps, it’s divided into two halves, a more introspective, acoustically oriented side, and a loud, flat-out aggressive second side, with strong emphasis on the heavier side of Southern rock. The first half is decidedly ordinary, as “Wife Beater” is a decent, but plain-Jane ballad about marital strife, and the grim spoken word tale “The Tough Sell” is an unsuccessful attempt at the kind of narrated mood piece that Hood would later master. After a bumpy start, though, the rest of Gangstabilly cooks.
“Panties in Your Purse” is the first of what would be many first-rate ballads by Cooley, whose lyrics always contain great images (“Him calling you a whore and a tramp/You just stood there while your heels sank into the warm wet ground”), and “Sandwiches For the Road” has Hood nailing the sensitive tough guy shtick perfectly. The quartet of electric rockers that kick off the second half feature the hardest edged songs the band has ever done: John Neff’s pedal steel add a forlorn tone to Hood’s abrasive “Why Henry Drinks”, the charming, jubilant “18 Wheels of Love” tells the simple tale of his mother’s remarriage (“Mama ran off with a trucker”), the uproarious “Steve McQueen” is a fitting tribute to the late actor, and “Buttholeville” is a potent piece of vitriol, and will speak to anyone who has ever yearned to escape the hick towns of their childhood, only to learn they can never fully get away. It’s “The Living Bubba”, though, that remains the one real jewel on the album, and one of the greatest songs Hood has ever written. A loving ode to his friend and musician Greg Smalley, who died from AIDS days after the song was written, Hood paints a compassionate, heartbreaking portrait of a guy determined to keep rockin’ until the very end, singing in the first person, “I keep living just to bend that note in two/And I can’t die now cuz I got another show.”
While Pizza Deliverance doesn’t contain an undeniable classic as “The Living Bubba”, it’s the superior album of the two, as it shows the Truckers quickly coming into their own as a band. Bolstered by the more balanced production by Earl Hicks (who would eventually come on board as their bassist), this sounds more like a full band performance, the musicianship less stilted and more nuanced as a whole. With the exception of the awkward Bill Clinton lampoon “The President’s Penis is Missing”, which has no business being on the album, and guitarist Rob Malone’s bluesy, but middling “Mrs. Dubose”, it’s remarkably consisted and assured. Cooley turns in some of his greatest tunes, including the tragic “Uncle Frank” and the emotionally raw look at a father and son’s damaged relationship on “One of These Days”, both songs’ sadness masked by contagious, upbeat melodies. The solo acoustic recording of “Love Like This” is the kind of lovelorn balladry Cooley excels at; again, he shows a master at the memorable line, as when he sings, “You pack a purty mean punch for a purty little dish.”
Hood, always the principal songwriter in the band, contributes plenty of memorable songs of his own, his distinctive voice, which veers from a plaintive, heavily accented tenor to a full-on, scratchy-voiced wail, not as buried under the mix as much as on Gangstabilly. “Bulldozers and Dirt” is a gorgeous country song, highlighted by mandolin and pedal steel, while “Nine Bullets” is as nasty as he gets on the record, sarcastically singing about every single person he’d love to take his frustrations out on, including himself. He’s a terrific storyteller, and his first-person accounts always highlight each record; “Box of Spiders” is a loving, darkly comical tribute to his grandmother, the self-deprecating “Company I Keep” (“You’re dumber than dogshit is what my daddy said”) is an excellent, seven minute jam that greatly resembles Steve Earle and the Dukes, and the sloppily drunk “Tales Facing Up” effortlessly combines tragedy and gentle humor. Best of the lot is “The Night G.G. Allin”, an hilarious, oddly touching account of how infamous punk rebel G.G. Allin temporarily rescued Memphis from its doldrums, depicting Hood and Cooley sitting in a café, overhearing an elderly couple read a newspaper account of the show (“It says he took the microphone and shoved it up his ass!”), the two bandmates and best friends falling over in hysterics.
“G.G. Allin” encapsulates perfectly what makes these two albums so enjoyable; they’re both full of vitality, humor, camaraderie, sincerity, great stories, and a love of rock ‘n’ roll so pure and simple, that it’s impossible not to enjoy. Presented in snazzy, redesigned digipaks, along with new liner notes by Hood (and let’s face it, Hood’s liner notes are almost as entertaining as the albums themselves), Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance couldn’t have arrived soon enough.