One of the hardest-working bands in the business, the Drive-By Truckers combine the sounds of Southern rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers), old-fashioned country, and traditional American folk, and cram it all into one monstrous, fat, loud blast of homespun rock ‘n’ roll that, thanks to years and years of touring, has become a sound all their own. After three albums that garnered critical praise, the band hit the big time (okay, more like a smaller, indie-rock version of the big time) with their 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera. A sprawling epic concept album about Skynyrd, growing up in the South, George Wallace, and pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll, among other things, it was easily one of the strongest records to come out that year, and the praise from the critics came quickly. The band signed a new deal with Lost Highway Records in early 2002, and Southern Rock Opera was re-released to a wider audience.
By the time their follow-up album, Decoration Day, was finished, their relationship with the bigger label had soured. The album was all set to be released, but the band wanted out of their deal with Lost Highway; they got their wish earlier this year, they bought back their new album from the label (not before some advance copies started to appear on eBay), and, at long last, they signed with the considerably more independently-oriented New West Records. So here it is. Finally.
According to the band, “Decoration Day is the day many southern churches set aside to place flowers on the graves of their departed loved ones.” An apt title for such a dark, brooding, deeply introspective album such as this one. It’s not exactly a quote-unquote “concept album” like Southern Rock Opera was, but it’s surprisingly more focused. The subjects of the songs are bleak, weary ones: incest, suicide, the hard life of a touring band, divorce, and murder, but all of the songs on Decoration Day have one common thread, the choices every person makes in their lives, their ultimate after-effects, and the fact that we all have to live and deal with those choices, no matter how good or bad they might turn out to be.
Few bands today are as good at telling a simple, straightforward, from-the-gut story like the Drive-By Truckers are. Led by guitarist/principal songwriter Patterson Hood, and featuring contributions by the band’s other two guitarists, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, these guys can spin a good yarn, tossing off brilliant phrases and quips like a bunch of old coots in a small-town coffeeshop. The songs are smart, genuine, and direct, with no hint of irony, satire, or oblique hipster blathering that masquerades as profound poetry. Hood, Cooley, and Isbell cut straight to the heart of the matter, and the results on this album are often devastating.
It’s fitting that an album as desolate as Decoration Day opens with Hood singing the first verse of “The Deeper In” a cappella; the effect is jarring, as he sings, in that ragged, road-weary, Don Henley-esque voice of his, a true story about the only two people in America currently serving time for consensual incest. Hood takes a subject that is often used to make fun of Southerners, but addresses the story with compassion and sadness, as the rest of the band plays at a dirge-like pace, featuring some stirring accents by Isbell on electric mandolin. The wrenching jilted-bride tale “My Sweet Annette” is more upbeat, but still low-key, and Isbell’s terrific “Outfit” is one of the best songs about fatherly advice that you’ll ever hear (“Don’t let me catch you in Kendale/With a bucket of wealthy man’s paint”). Meanwhile, Cooley’s “Sounds Better in the Song” features just him, an acoustic guitar, an upright bass, and his baritone voice, and is peppered with some great country lyrics, climaxing with the phrase, “I might as well have slipped that ring on your finger from a window of a van as it drove away.” You can all but see the ghost of Hank Williams nod in approval.
The boisterous “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” depicts both the tough life on the road with the band and the perverse love musicians have for that lifestyle (“Bout 80 cities down, 800 to go/Six crammed in, we ain’t never alone/Never homesick, ain’t got no home”); on the flipside, though, is the scorching rocker “Marry Me”, in which Cooley’s narrator chooses to settle down with his woman instead of staying with his quarrelsome bandmates, yielding yet another great line: “Rock ‘n’ roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies.” Both Hood and Cooley offer their own opinions of a friend’s suicide on two separate songs, and neither mince words. On Cooley’s ragged ballad “When the Pin Hits the Shell”, he’s compassionate, but unforgiving (“It damned near killed me too/So I ain’t gonna mourn for you”), while Hood’s harder “Do it Yourself” is downright angry, as he bluntly sneers, “You’d rather die than take a stab at living.”
The real heart of Decoration Day lies in three songs. Hood’s “Sink Hole” is one of the best songs about a farm foreclosure since John Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow”, a nasty combination of the darkest Southern rock riffs, psychobilly, and traditional folk narrative, as Hood’s narrator fantasizes about inviting the heartless banker to his home for supper, and burying the man in a sink hole on the foreclosed land. On the other hand, “Heathens” is more of a straight-up country song, featuring gorgeous harmonies by all three guitarists; Hood sings of love and a life of constantly being on the run, culminating in the lines, “It’s so hard to keep between the ditches/When the roads wind the way they do.” The most powerful song, though, comes from Isbell, whose “Decoration Day” is a stirring song that mixes gritty hard rock with the old traditional murder ballads from a century ago, as Isbell sings of the futility of a decades-long feud between families, climaxing in a stunning coda, a swirling storm of three-guitar harmonies by Hood, Cooley, and Isbell.
With its ragged, Crazy Horse-style production, thanks to former Sugar bassist David Barbe, Decoration Day proves that Southern Rock Opera was no fluke. Though it’s not quite the rousing album that its predecessor is, Decoration Day works just as well, in its own quiet way. As the album closes with the alarming poignancy of “Loaded Gun in the Closet”, it drives home the fact that the Drive-By Truckers are easily one of the best independent rock bands in America today. Nobody writes and plays such honest, thoughtful, loud rock ‘n’ roll as these guys do, and with this, their fifth album, you get the feeling that they’ve only just gotten started.