The lore on Drive-By Truckers‘ The Dirty South is that it was arguably the peak of the band’s career. It capped off a three-album run that found them going from little-noticed Southern rock misfits in the nu-metal era to critical darlings carrying the torch forward from the genre’s 1970s heyday. De facto frontman Patterson Hood acknowledges much of this in the new liner notes of The Complete Dirty South, a deluxe edition released by New West Records just shy of the album’s 19th anniversary.
Hood, though, would prefer to let the listener/reader in on some of the warts and all messiness behind the scenes. Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 release, Southern Rock Opera, got them noticed and signed to Lost Highway Records, which rereleased the record in July 2002. Hood mentions their relationship with the label immediately soured when their only advocate got promoted within Universal Music Group and away from Lost Highway. So they signed with New West Records, which put out Decoration Day in 2003 June. Essentially this amounted to two albums in less than a year for Drive-By Truckers, and New West was ready to promote Decoration off of the buzz from Southern Rock Opera.
They did this, but Drive-By Truckers’ problematic manager somehow never let New West know that the band was already deep into recording their next album. Hood still has a lot of hard feelings for this manager, and he mentions that the band fired him before The Dirty South touring cycle was finished. However, there was also a specific person at New West at the time that was difficult for the band to deal with, and it sounds like this contentiousness continued until Drive-By Truckers left the label in the late 2000s.
Eventually, New West discovered that Drive-By Truckers had a new album almost ready to go and wanted it to be released in 2004. Instead, the label planned to promote Decoration Day for a little longer and much arguing led to a compromise. New West would put out the record, but the band needed to cut songs to make it fit onto one compact disc, not the double album they intended. The result was Drive-By Truckers’ third critically acclaimed record in a row and the capper of a pretty amazing start to the century for them.
This is excellent background information for fans and is typical of Hood’s engaging storytelling style. He wraps it up by saying Drive-By Truckers have a much better relationship with New West these days and were more than happy to work with them for a new edition of the album. The Complete Dirty South features all 17 songs recorded for the record in their original intended order. That means the first version of “Goode’s Field Road”, which was reworked for Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, is here, as are “TVA” and “The Great Car Dealer War”. None are new to fans of the band. Each was included in the rarities compilation The Fine Print, but having them where they were first meant to be is nice.
Greg Calbi, who mastered the original album, returns for a remaster of The Complete Dirty South. The differences are small but noticeable. Everything sounds a little crisper. For a record this grimy, that means the guitars snarl even more, the lonely background piano notes stand out more distinctly, and the drums pop and snap more strongly.
This may be the band’s most democratic album. Hood has always been the primary songwriter of Drive-By Truckers, but Mike Cooley usually contributes a few. For this version of the record, though, Hood has eight songs, Jason Isbell gets five, and Cooley receives four. Each writer is firing on all cylinders, and despite Hood’s recollection of the time as a difficult transition period, the creative juices were really flowing amongst the group.
The Complete Dirty South opens with “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”. A gnarly, ringing guitar chord and Brad Morgan’s steadily thumping kick drum. Cooley’s rich voice comes in, singing, “My daddy played poker in the woods they say / Back in his younger days / Prohibition was the talk, but the rich folks walked / To the woods where my daddy stayed.” Right from the jump, Drive-By Truckers tell stories of events in the South that weren’t exactly legal. There’s just enough sparseness in the opening to let Cooley get his footing, and then the full band kicks in after 35 seconds. Three guitars plow away but back off just enough whenever Cooley sings. Backing vocals on the chorus from Isbell, bassist Shonna Tucker, and Kimberly Morgan add a subtle layer of sweetness unusual for a Cooley song.
Not to be outdone, Hood and Isbell each bring a top-notch song to follow Cooley. Hood’s “Tornadoes”, one of the most atmospheric tracks, begins with a gentle acoustic guitar and ringing snare hits from Morgan. Piano notes and sparse guitar noise add an eerie layer to undermine the pleasant ballad. After Hood declares, “It sounded like a train,” a second time, the song shifts, becoming more sinister.
After that opening darkness, somehow, Isbell lightens the mood with “The Day John Henry Died”. Despite the title and Isbell’s retelling of the folk tale, the music to the track is a bright pop-rocker. The verses are catchy, the chorus is even catchier, and it’s great to hear Isbell rock out. His first two Truckers tracks (he joined with Decoration Day) were the nostalgic ballad “Outfit” and the angry ballad “Decoration Day”, so this is a different side for him.
From here, The Complete Dirty South winds through several different aspects of the South. Hood’s “Puttin’ People on the Moon” is as angry as it comes. It’s a fierce rocker about economic collapse told from the point of view of a man who loses his job in the early 1980s, turns to drug running, and watches things get worse. Having “Goode’s Field Road” next makes sense, as it’s about a man with a legitimate business but one foot in the underworld who’s convinced he won’t return from a meeting at the titular road. The more rollicking country-rock take here keeps the mood from sinking too far into misery.
Cooley’s “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”, a joyful and snarky retelling of the story of Sun Records, is as fun as ever. It now precedes Isbell’s affecting “TVA”, a seven-minute, rambling tale of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s positive effects on his family’s history. Hood’s equally affecting “The Sands of Iwo Jima” is a love letter to his great uncle, who fought in the Pacific in World War II. The first disc ends with Isbell’s “Danko / Manuel”, a lovely minor key track connecting two deceased members of the Band with Isbell’s life.
The second volume opens with Hood’s Buford Pusser duo. The iconic Tennessee sheriff, immortalized in the early 1970s movie Walking Tall, was the stuff of legend around north Alabama, where Hood grew up. These songs, though, imagine it from the other perspective, from the Alabama-based criminals that were the villains in Pusser’s story. This is an excellent songwriting challenge, but the results in terms of quality are middling.
Isbell’s “Never Gonna Change” was the single from The Dirty South, although it didn’t become a hit. It’s a hard-edged rocker and a tribute to doing what you want, regardless of whether it’s strictly legal. This song has grown on me over the years, largely due to some of Isbell’s lyrical turns of phrase.
Cooley’s “Cottonseed”, also from the perspective of an unrepentant criminal, is far more successful than Hood’s Pusser songs. It’s almost entirely just Cooley singing and strumming an acoustic guitar. This puts the storytelling in the foreground. The liner notes find Cooley explaining his inspiration, an actual local career criminal who once gave a talk at a local church. It seemed intended to set the town’s teens on the straight and narrow, but this man had no remorse or desire for forgiveness for his actions. “Cottonseed” follows this lead, with Cooley popping off lines like, “The meanest of the mean you see / You lock away and toss the key / But they’re just loudmouth punks to me / I’ve scraped meaner off my shoe.”
The record escapes criminals at the end, with a track each from Cooley, Hood, and Isbell. Cooley’s excellent “Daddy’s Cup” is a jangly country song about car racing. Morgan’s kick drum and closed hi-hat pound along in the background while Cooley tells the story of a kid who learned everything from his father and grew up as a racer. Hood’s “Lookout Mountain” may be the record’s heaviest rocker, a barnburner with a hell of a riff. Hood contemplates suicide by jumping off the titular mountain, which is dark, but mostly it’s just a hard-hitting rocker.
Isbell finishes things off with the lovely ballad “Goddamn Lonely Love”. Organ chords and acoustic guitar provide the main bed, where Isbell discusses drowning his sorrows in a bar as he pines away for an absent lover. It’s emotionally affecting and hitting much differently now. Isbell’s drinking led to him being fired from Drive-By Truckers a couple of years later, and he finally got sober a few years later. His newfound clarity led to his career-boosting record Southeastern; these days, he plays much larger venues than his former band.
Beyond the aforementioned introduction from Hood, The Complete Dirty South liner notes include the original text intro from Hood that came with the initial release. There are also new explanatory footnotes on some of the lyric sheets for individual songs. The original Wes Freed artwork has been newly scanned and reconstituted in crisper forms, and there are many archival photos from that time. Freed did the art for many of Drive-By Truckers’ albums and passed away from colorectal cancer in September 2022. This album edition also serves as a wonderful tribute to a unique and talented artist.
The Dirty South is an absolute gem, and The Complete Dirty South is an upgrade over the original version. However, it may be that this edition only appeals to Drive-By Truckers’ hardcore fans. The physical two-CD set is wonderful and the best available version of the record.