I was born from good Mount Ida hillbilly stock and I’ve been studying southern culture for more than 30 years. That said, I can’t stand the fact that about half of what the Drive-By Truckers have written, I wish I had written.
Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio did “folk music”-second-person accounts of real events. Folklorist Vance Randolph did six books of transcriptions of first-person folk songs, about town drunks, whores, evil bankers, carpetbaggers and bank robbers. The guys and gal in Drive-By Truckers talk first-person at least half the time.
DBT’s Patterson Hood in particular writes about his five generations of dirt farmers. Mike Cooley evokes daddy, uncles and cousins, moonshining, gambling and building hot cars. The now departed Jason Isbell gives funky southern advice like, “We ain’t never gonna change — we ain’t doin’ nothing wrong.” Even bassist Shonna Tucker has now gotten into songwriting. Most of their stuff is real oral history in the great tradition of southern storytellers.
What about their music, you ask? Well, take some Crazy Horse, add some Skynard, some Texas outlaw music, add a couple of dashes of country, maybe even a pinch of hillbilly. You get a potent stew of “southern grunge.” It even has the smell of dirt and outhouses, with a three guitar line-up. In a nutshell … man, they rock.
They have put out eight albums in the last 11 years, gaining momentum with each release. Their last album “Brighter than Creation’s Dark” smashed its way to 37 on the charts. If Yankees weren’t so scared of ’em, it probably would have been No. 1.
Their 2001 release “Southern Rock Opera” is about Lynard Skynard’s rise and fall as a scream to arms. Could there be a second secession? It makes all other rock operas seem insipid and impotent. It actually rivals Gershwin in the American canon. The song “The Southern Thing” is a crash course in what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
If you want a master’s degree in southern rock, listen to the DBT’s whole catalog. If you want your butt kicked, just dare to show up at George’s on Friday when they play. Have your fists ready to pump.