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Anyone who’s ever believed in the redemptive powers of guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll has gone through plenty of losing-his-religion moments. Me, I risk apostasy every time I turn on my radio. But the darkest night of the rock ‘n’ roll soul I’ve experienced in recent memory was at this year’s South by Southwest music festival back in March. Imagine traveling all the way to Austin, Texas, to find yourself surrounded not by the hippest bands in the ever-shrinking rock universe, but by people only slightly hipper than you are. Come Saturday, it looked as if my fondest memory of SXSW would be watching some happy fool at the convention center dance around in an animal suit to Starship’s “We Built This City.”
But at the overcrowded Cedar Street Courtyard on the festival’s final night, I saw a band from Athens, Ga., called Drive-By Truckers. Truth be told, I’d come to the club expecting good things. Southern Rock Opera, the band’s 2001 concept album based on the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, was smart, passionate, pissed-off, and funny. A defiant one-finger salute to anyone who ever sneered at Ronnie Van Zant and his fashion-challenged bandmates, the album did more than lend new life to Southern-rock tradition; like “Sweet Home Alabama” before it, Southern Rock Opera was an ambitious defense of the Southland itself.
The live show was even more impressive. My morning-after jottings are an embarrassing tangle of hackneyed phrases leading to one overwhelming cliché: Through the sheer joy they took in throwing themselves at their microphones and moving their fingers along their fret boards as if nothing else in the world mattered, singer-guitarists Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell reminded me of why I’d become a convert to this rock ‘n’ roll thing in the first place.
Yeah, right. Still, having stood stone-faced through who knows how many hundreds of showsincluding many by bands you love, I’m sureI was amazed to find myself suddenly covered in six-string-induced gooseflesh. These days, you could hardly ask for more in the way of transcendencesomething the Truckers, God bless ’em, probably know better than just about anyone. On “Do It Yourself,” a more-bitter-than-sweet goodbye to a friend who committed suicide, off the band’s new Decoration Day, Hood explains how he gets through “those times when the night’s so long/The dead-end life just drags you down”: “You lean back under the microphone/And turn your demons into walls/Of goddamned noise and sound.”
Having experienced the Truckers’ walls of goddamn noise and sound firsthand, I’m here to tell you they know whereof they speak. My own hopes for Decoration Day were unnaturally highirrationally, sure-to-fall-from-the-sky-like-Skynyrd’s-plane high. For having managed to pluck the mystical chord connecting Bear Bryant, George Wallace, and a doomed Ronnie Van Zant, what does a band do for an encore? Release a four-CD song cycle about the War of Jenkins’ Ear?
Well, Decoration Day is an excellent disc, but it’s not likely to learn you anything about naval history. Because instead of trying to top Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers set themselves the equally difficultif less excitingtask of producing a regular old rock album containing a body of solid rock songs good enough to demonstrate that they’re not beholden to Lynyrd Skynyrd, high concepts, or anything else, for that matter.
Decoration Day opens with “The Deeper In,” a quiet lament for, as Hood puts it, “the only two people currently serving time in America for consensual brother-sister incest.” With its mournful pedal-steel work by guest John Neff, the song marks another step in the journey of a band of punk-fed boys back to their Dixie roots. Having saddled themselves with a novelty-band name and established their reputation with what could bebut isn’t by a long shota novelty record, the Truckers seem intent on proving they’re anything but some redneck parody act. And what better way of doing it than by taking on the ultimate joke at the South’s expense? Any number of actual Southern novelty actsNashville Pussy springs to mindmight play it for laughs, but to treat it seriously…well, that takes balls.
Of course, the concept of kin has always figured prominently in Southern rock. Whereas most rockers seem content to give the impression of having emerged fully formed from pods, the Southern-rock variety have tended to sing, talk, and even allow themselves to be photographed with their extended families. (Remember the inner sleeve of the Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters?)
On Decoration Day, that means we get “Outfit,” a slyly funny lullaby written and sung by newcomer Isbell that takes the form of a lecture from a didn’t-get-far-in-life daddy to his hotshot rock-musician son. “You want to grow up to paint houses like me/A trailer in my yard ’til you’re 23?” he asks. “You want to feel old after 42 years?/Keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.”
Dad, as it turns out, is a font of homespun wisdom: “Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit,” he warnsand more important, “don’t let me catch you in Kendale/With a bucket of wealthy man’s paint.” It’s a great and roughly tender song, one that perfectly encapsulates the band’s self-identification with the Southern-rock tradition, which espoused the same old mantra of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but, far from interpreting it as a call to renounce one’s elders, saw it as an opportunity to talk them into taking a puff or two off a left-handed cigarette.
In contrast to “Outfit”‘s positive take on the family tree, the title cut is an exploration of that tree’s sometimes dangerously twisted roots. In it, a son pours scorn on his late father, a violent cuss of a man who was killed in a long-running feud with a lumber baron’s family. Over a stark guitar lead, Isbell sings, “It’s Decoration Day/I’ve a mind to roll a stone on his grave/But what would he say?/’Keeping me down, boy, won’t keep you away.’” Then the drums kick in, electricity comes to Georgia, and the song’s narrator counts his “dead brothers in Lauderdale South” and “East Tennessee” before the band’s three guitarists come marching in like Sherman to burn the whole thing to the ground.
The track is about family as obligation, as a genetic debt that can be repaid only by shedding your own blood. This is the South of William Faulkner, of biblical curses called down upon the sons for the sins of the fathers unto many generations. That it’s articulated with such brute precision here is as good a reason as any to expect great things from the Truckers in the future.
The band’s knack for storytelling works less well when it wanders into the realm of pure protest. “Sink Hole,” which opens with an Outlaws-style guitar hoedown and features some galloping drum work by Brad Morgan, works just fine and dandy as a fire-and-brimstone rocker. Unfortunately, it features a set of noble-family-farm-in-danger-of-being-seized-by-rapacious-bankers lyrics right outta John Mellencamp. Listening to Hood sing, “Let him stand in my shoes and see how it feels/To lose the last thing on earth that’s real,” I’m not convinced. Whereas the Truckers’ tales of wayward fathers and sons seem genuinely felt, this foray into socioeconomics sounds like playacting. And who really needs the anthemic “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” rock’s umpteenth tribute to the tribulations of the touring musician, even if it is tough not to sing along with the chorus?
Cooley gives us a more novel take on rock nomadism in “Marry Me,” which melds the Eagles’ “Already Gone” to every Rolling Stones song ever written and, improbably enough, works. Whereas “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” is about the down side of leaving the dust of your shitty hometown behind, “Marry Me” extols the virtues of never leaving that hometown in the first place. I don’t buy itif I hadn’t left my hometown I’d be long deadbut I’m certainly sold on the riff, as well as on what may be one of the better two-liners ever written about the devil music’s dangerous charms: “Rock ‘n’ roll means well/But it can’t help telling young boys lies.”
Such flashes of outsized brilliance aside, Decoration Day is a modest record by Drive-By Truckers standards. Indeed, it’d be easy to write the disc off as a mere truck stop between Southern Rock Opera and wherever it is this band plans on headin’ to next. But it’s not. I like to think of it as a foray down a secondary road to avoid weigh stations: You may not travel as far and as fast as you would on the interstate, but there’s plenty of great scenery. Even better, you get to hear some damn fine stories along the way. CP