A few years ago I heard about a band that was doing a kind of updated country-rock thing and went to seem them play Irving Plaza. They played for about an hour and half, dazzling what would otherwise have been a jaded New York crowd with their proud, aggressive songs and the brutal realism of their lyrics. After the last chord was struck and the world started spinning again I went over to their merch booth to pick up as many of their records as I could fit in my pockets.
The Drive-By Truckers have been touring and recording for about thirteen years. They’ve put out seven studio albums and a couple live sides, gently modifying their sound with each new release while staying true to the gritty subject matter they’ve chosen to depict. But no matter how much they tweak the arrangements they never give up the three guitars that decorate these records. The counter melodies these guitars contribute ebb and flow from left to right, supporting and complimenting the vocal part while never getting in its way. The rhythm section is equally restrained. They tend to choose just what’s right for the song whether they’re playing one of their famous “molasses in an igloo” dirges or an up tempo country punk rocker.
At the beginning of next month they release a collection of outtakes and previously unreleased material called The Fine Print. Most people tend to be skeptical of records like this because the songs on these musical grab bags weren’t released for a reason. However, the tracks that grace this compilation are the kind that most artists would build an album around. It’s hard to imagine why a tune like “When The Well Runs Dry” would ever hit the cutting room floor. This bleak portrayal of the people who we leave behind is exquisitely painful and is made even more so by the foundation laid by a churning, vibrato soaked organ. It’s a song that makes it mighty difficult to avoid hitting the repeat button.
This record also showcases Patterson Hood’s talent as an interpreter of other people’s material. It’s the first time they’ve released any covers on a full album and each one is better than the last. Like his take on Tom Petty’s “Rebels”. It’s full of that mix of tragic southern pride and bittersweet recklessness which has been such a landmark in Hood’s emotional range. Or there’s his interpretation of Warron Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” which talks about the low points of country life. In this tune they make a bold statement by contradicting Lynyrd Skynyrd. After three verses of visceral descriptions of the shame and agony which is ever present in poor southern life Hood growls Zevon’s words as if they were written just for him:
There Ain’t much to country Livin’,
Sweat, Piss, Jizz, Blood,
Sweet Home Alabama play that dead man’s song,
Turn them speakers up full blast,
Play it all Night long.
Also present on the album is a version of “Like a Rolling Stone” and a heartbreaking Tom. T. Hall story-song about a Vietnam vet coming home in a wheelchair called “Mama Bake a Pie”. Hood not only makes each song his own, but molds them to fit into the vision DBT follows.
The most convincing reason as to why The Drive-By Truckers, and more specifically this record, are special; is their fearlessness towards paradox. Songs on this collection have a tendency to tell both sides of the story, often all but directly contradicting each other. Like on the third and fourth tracks where Mike Cooley talks about Wilson Dam flooding the holler where a man spent his life. The loss of his home and the way he grew accustomed to living eventually drives him to suicide. The very next track is Jason Isbell thanking the Tennessee Valley Authority (The organization which built the dam) for giving his family opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Both songwriters make each argument sound so convincing that it’s hard to know who to believe.
It’s not that they aren’t making a clear statement. Hood, Cooley, and Isbell are full of strong, often subversive, positions not just on the south but on life in general. It just so happens that these perspectives don’t always agree with each other. As the last chord rings and the world starts spinning again, you end up thinking about the problem in a way that makes a lot less sense, and so ultimately is a lot more realistic.