Watching Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz on DVD, the sadness is inescapable. When you see the 1978 film, which documents The Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving Night, 1976, you couldn’t care less about the nattily-clad Robbie Robertson and his clean-cut rock star posing; rather, you find yourself drawn to the two guys over to Robertson’s right. You smile as pianist Richard Manuel sings self-effacingly on “The Shape I’m In”, and you get goosebumps when bassist Rick Danko takes a solo turn on the astonishingly beautiful “It Makes No Difference”, and damn, if it isn’t next to impossible to prevent tears from welling up when you see Manuel and Danko asked by Scorsese what they’re going to do next, and the poor guys have no idea. Performing was what they did, the road their home. They’d been doing it for more than a decade, and that bastard Robertson was yanking their world from beneath their feet. Richard Manuel hung himself in 1986. Rick Danko battled heroin addiction, and died in his sleep in 1999.
Following in the footsteps of The Band, the Drive-By Truckers are today’s version of rock ‘n’ roll journeymen, touring with a relentlessness that few independent bands can match, playing marathon shows night after night. While the tandem of hardened veterans, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, have been doing this for ages now, third singer/guitarist Jason Isbell is the “kid” of the band, having joined a couple years ago, and in “Danko/Manuel”, his astounding, heartwrenching tribute to his dead heroes in The Band, he wonders aloud if he’s made for this kind of life, singing a voice that’s eerily similar to a certain guy from Simcoe, Ontario, “They say Danko would have sounded just like me/Is that the man I want to be?”
Last year’s Decoration Day was a very bleak, subdued, almost solemn piece of work, as the mighty Truckers turned down the volume a bit, turned up the country influences, and focused on stories about relationships gone horribly wrong. Death and misery abounded, as listeners were hit by songs about murder, incest, suicide, divorce, the band channeling the rich past of American folk music, the songs paralleling the great murder ballads of the turn of the 20th century. Barely a year later, the band still isn’t ready to release us from their own twisted tour of the back roads south of the Mason-Dixon line, and this time, The Dirty South takes a slightly different direction; the pedal steel’s gone, the rock is back, and the stories now offer specific depictions of life in the Deep South as opposed to Decoration Day‘s examinations of the dark side of the human psyche.
While the majority of the songs on the last album were fictional narratives, most of the 14 tracks on The Dirty South are about real people, namely the residents of the economically ravaged area of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where all but one of the band’s five members grew up. Hood, Cooley, and Isbell all delve deep into their pasts, emerging with a collaborative portrait of a region that’s bitter, angry, passionate, and above all else, fervently proud, as each song leaves an indelible impression on the listener. A man resorts to selling moonshine during the Depression to make ends meet. A tornado rips through a rural town, leaving folks to deal with yet another hardship in their lives. Smalltowners in the 1980s, disenfranchised from the Republican government, see their town deteriorate, and their neighbors die of cancer. A loving father resorts to dealing drugs just to feed his kids, and then is forced to stoop even lower by working at a Wal-Mart. An old World War II vet lives out the rest of his life on the old homestead. A redneck cop buys into his own self-made myth. After his father’s passing, a son desperately tries to live by his dad’s example. And a young musician expresses self-doubt about his chosen profession.
Patterson Hood remains the heart and soul of the Drive-By Truckers, and his compositions continue to cement his status as a rock ‘n’ roll storyteller of the highest order, rivaling Steve Earle. “Tornadoes”, a song dating back to 1988, powerfully evokes the aftermath of a natural disaster, as the refrain of, “It sounded like a train,” perfectly describes the incredulous reactions of the storm’s victims. “Puttin’ People on the Moon” is venomous in its anger towards the late President Reagan, while “The Sands of Iwo Jima” is an eloquent tribute to his veteran great uncle. Legendary Tennessee sheriff Buford T. Pusser is the subject of two songs, “The Boys From Alabama” and “The Buford Stick”, as Hood attempts to tell the other side of the Pusser story, as opposed to the Walking Tall legend everyone knows.
Mike Cooley’s tracks are more predictable in their arrangements, but the man still fires aces, as he proves here with the ferocious hard rock of the Depression-era tale “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”, and the upbeat tribute to Sam Phillips, “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”. The outlaw ballad “Cottonseed” and the heartfelt NASCAR tribute “Daddy’s Cup” sound like your usual, acoustic folk ballads, but Cooley’s attention to detail in his lyrics remains his strongest asset, his workmanlike baritone voice always managing to knock you over with his trademark homespun philosophy (“Tell me why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad”).
It’s young master Isbell, though, who steals the show once again, providing four of the album’s best songs. “The Day John Henry Died” is a brilliant modern retelling of the classic Southern folk song “John Henry”, while plowing along at a fiery, Springsteen-style pace. “Never Gonna Change” tweaks the Truckers’ sound, as the distortion is toned down, in favor of a sleeker, Tom Petty arrangement. The heartbreaking “Goddamn Lonely Love” features a gorgeous vocal performance by Isbell, but it’s that one song of his, “Danko/Manuel”, that is the clear-cut winner on this record, a work of astonishing simplicity, and undeniable beauty.
The Dirty South eschews the balladry in favor of pure, raw emotion on the last three tracks, which provide a devastating climax for the album. “Never Gonna Change” is brutally hostile, encapsulating the staunch defiance of Northern Alabama residents, whom Isbell describes as being, “strong like the people from South Alabama and mean like the people from here.” “Goddamn Lonely Love” is pure, raw, alcohol-fueled loneliness, as Isbell croons, “I ain’t really falling asleep, I’m fading to black.” Darkest of all is Hood’s “Lookout Mountain”, its level of despair frightening, as Hood’s narrator (or perhaps Hood himself) contemplates ending it all for good, thinking, “If I throw myself off Lookout Mountain, who will ever hear my songs?”
Robustly produced by David Barbe, the album sounds much more imposing than the band’s four previous studio efforts; when the band isn’t firing on all cylinders, the three guitars of Hood, Cooley, and Isbell roaring away like that aforementioned tornado (or was it a train?), the threat of doom hangs over the slower tunes, as acoustic guitars are often shadowed by threatening, distorted electric guitar chords, sounding like distant, rolling thunder coming from dark clouds on the horizon. More keyboards are used on the album as well, as Barbe and Isbell add healthy touches of piano, organ, Hammond B3, and Rhodes piano to further enhance the brooding tone of the record.
Skeptics will undoubtedly complain about the lack of blunt, blistering rockers that the band specialized in five years ago (the days of songs like “Buttholeville” have long since passed), and some longtime fans will raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of older tracks like “Tornadoes” and “Lookout Mountain” (the latter of which has already appeared on the 2000 live album Alabama Ass Whuppin’), but the fact remains that the Drive-By Truckers have undergone such phenomenal artistic growth during the first half of this decade, that you’d be hard pressed to find an American band from the same time period who has been able to equal the sheer quality of Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South. With Barbe firmly ensconced as their ideal studio collaborator, bolstered by the addition of bassist Shonna Tucker, and boasting Hood’s most affecting vocal performances yet, the band has never sounded stronger on record as they do here.
“Can you hear that singing? Sounds like gold,” muses Isbell on “Danko/Manuel”, as you picture him sitting on the messy, cramped tour bus, enroute to the umpteenth Drive-By Truckers show in a month, thinking about Danko’s smooth, sweet, unbelievably sad voice while staring out the window at the blur of images rolling by at 60 miles per hour. You can envision Isbell blinking the highway hypnosis out of his eyes as he concedes, “Maybe I can only hear it in my head.” Is he made for this kind of wayward life? Will he ever reach the emotional breaking point like Richard Manuel did? Like every character on The Dirty South, you just have to play the hand you’re dealt, and live the hell out of life. “Fifteen years ago they owned that road,” he muses. “Now it’s rolling over us instead.”