It’s hard to say just when the Drive-By Truckers outgrew their name–or even if the jokey moniker ever really fit them. Somewhere along the way they just stopped being the band that would dare to commit a drunken hoot-fest like “The President’s Penis is Missing” to an album’s official tracklist and began to be the band that took what it did a little more seriously–sometimes, maybe, a little too seriously. From the transitional Southern Rock Opera on, it could be argued, no DBT studio album, however ambitious, has offered up the kind of comic relief that lent Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance much of their unpretentious charm. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when you consider what an ass-whuppin’ grown-up adult band they’ve become. It’s just that sometimes, well, you miss the funny.
Then again, the Drive-By Truckers are making music in the most un-funny of times.
If there isn’t much that’s hilarious about American Band, the eleventh studio album from the boys from Alabama, it’s because there isn’t much that’s hilarious about the divisive political issues it addresses. Even before its September release, DBT co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had suggested that this was going to be an album that might alienate a certain segment of their fan base. And they were okay with that. “I wanted to piss off the assholes,” said Cooley, in plainspoken Cooley fashion, just prior to the album’s release. If the comment threads on social media are any indication, he can consider the assholes pissed.
“Sell outs,” writes one Facebook troll. “Keep bitin the hand that feeds em…guess they are lookin for more blacks in the audience.”
“You guys have a case of white guilt!” writes another. “Hope you fade away into oblivion. Nobody wants your fucked up opinions…just play music, dance monkey.”
So, what’s the rhubarb? Well, apparently American Band is a “controversial” album, because it raises questions about sacred Southern cows, racist cops, and gun violence, among other hot-button issues. But, as the late writer Edward Abbey once said, how could anything non-controversial be of intellectual interest to grown-ups?
To be sure, American Band is music by and for grown-ups. It is “dad rock” in the very best sense of the term, inasmuch as Hood and Cooley both happen to be fathers and therefore stakeholders in the increasingly frightening world their kids will be inheriting. You don’t have to be a parent to understand that cops and overzealous neighorhood watchmen gunning down unarmed black boys is a problem, but maybe it brings the problem closer to home than does the “fair and balanced” reporting of Fox News.
Ultimately, what sets American Band apart from other DBT albums is the songwriting. If previously Hood and Cooley had approached their subjects as storytellers, here they seem to be essayists, sticking their necks out in a way that you can’t when you’re speaking through fictional characters who may or may not share your views. Here, on songs such as “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” and “Surrender Under Protest,” the colloquial voices have given way to language that is more studied, less ambiguous. Take the latter song, on which Cooley challenges his people to take a hard look at what their Southern pride has too often amounted to:
Does the color really matter
On the face you blame for failure
On the shaming for a battle’s losing cause
If the victims and aggressors
Just remain each other’s others
And the instigators never fight their own…
It’s as if, improbably, the once seventeen-year-old smartass from Zip City left home to see the world and returned with a much more mature and “woke” perspective, prepared to take on his callow younger self and the culture that made him.
Then there’s Hood’s “Guns of Umpqua,” where the fictional truths of earlier DBT songs (“Sinkhole,” “Puttin’ People on the Moon”) become creative nonfiction, relayed from the perspective of a potential victim in a very real mass shooting: “We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more/than being shot in a classroom in Oregon.”
This is a somber and earnest collection of songs. Even the apolitical tunes–“Sun Don’t Shine,” “Baggage”–are moody and introspective, unleavened by even the darkest Trucker-esque humor. Perhaps the album’s rowdiest and most lighthearted moment is “Kinky Hypocrite,” a catchy Cooley number that takes a shot at right-wing evangelical shysters with unabashed zeal. Seven songs in, it couldn’t come at a better time.
American Band’s cast of villains also includes late NRA leader Harlon “Bullet-head” Carter, who, in 1931, was convicted of murdering a fifteen-year-old Mexican boy in Laredo, Texas, only to see the conviction later overturned. “It all started at the border,” Cooley sings in “Ramon Casiano,” “and that’s still where it is today.” The ghost of a more famous gun violence victim, John Lennon, hovers in the background of “Once They Banned Imagine,” Cooley’s quiet rebuke of warmongering and song censorship in the wake of the 9-11 attacks: “Once they banned ‘Imagine’ it became the same old war it’s always been.”
But the heart of the new record may lie in its powerful first single, “What It Means,” a Patterson Hood composition that is as moving in its humanity as his earlier masterpiece, “The Living Bubba.” Yes, it’s another protest song, and yes, unlike Gregory Dean Smalley, it does have a political agenda, but the message is less diatribe than a bemused appeal for tolerance and empathy. Specifically addressing the shooting deaths of unarmed teens Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, it speaks directly to those who still refuse to see what is staring them in the face about these killings: “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks/Well, I guess that means that you ain’t black, it means that you ain’t black.”
Ever since their debut album and its irreverent assertion that “Hell’s filling up with Republicans,” the Drive By-Truckers have made no bones about where they stand on the political spectrum. Like R.E.M. before them, they have subverted our notions of what it means to be a southern band, without forsaking the better angels of their heritage, even as they acknowledge, as Hood does on “Ever South,” that “we sure can get it wrong for someone so devout.”