2020 began in a familiar way for the Drive-By Truckers. They were gearing up for the release of their latest studio album, The Unraveling, and a long tour for it. The writing process for that album had been excruciating because of one simple, yet profound question: With another presidential election on the horizon, how could the Truckers follow up 2016’s politically charged American Band with an LP that managed to break through the noise?
They had no idea that The Unraveling would end up addressing many more, unexpected questions as the world reckoned with the reality of COVID-19 and America reckoned with its own racist past. For the sake of both their livelihoods and their sanity, the Truckers aren’t allowing The Unraveling to be their last word in 2020. What started as an idea for a quarantine EP of recordings from The Unraveling sessions expanded to include newly written and recorded songs reacting to the moment. On The New OK, their 13th studio album, the Truckers continue to speak truth into the lies, racism, and agony they see all around them.
The new record opens with the title track, a song Patterson Hood wrote in Portland, Oregon, over the course of a few days near the end of July. As he sat witnessing the federal invasion of his adopted hometown, he penned some of his most poetic and most anguished lyrics to date: “And I wonder if the life we lived / Will be around when the weight is lifted / Off the ground when the plates have shifted / And it’s all burned to the ground / Will we rise up from where we’re planted / With our fists up to the sun / Or will we settle for tear gassed eyes / Staring down the gun?”
The New OK is comprised of eight other tracks that find Hood and co-frontman and songwriter Mike Cooley traversing not only the last few months, but the last few years. “The Perilous Night” — originally released in 2017 as a stand-alone single a few weeks after the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — receives a fresh mix for 2020. “The Distance” is a track Hood first wrote in 2011 during the English Oceans sessions and now has finally earned its place in the Truckers’ catalog. Unsurprisingly, Hood’s voice rings true today just as much as it would have nine years earlier as he sings, “You got to know who you can trust and whose ass you should bust.”
Cooley contributes only one song to The New OK, but it makes an unmistakable impact. “Sarah’s Flame” puts the band’s focus on Sarah Palin and her contribution to the rise of white supremacy-fueled hatred in America. “She made it look so easy, all Fat Donnie had to do was wear the pants,” Cooley sings. Though Palin’s 2008 vice presidential candidacy seems like a lifetime away, Cooley reminds listeners that her legacy reigns to this day: “The tikis would’ve never hit the streets if it weren’t for Sarah’s flame.”
The New OK features bassist Matt Patton taking lead vocal duties on “The Unraveling” and on the band’s take on The Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” Originally written by Joey Ramone and released on 1981’s Pleasant Dreams, the song has become a fan favorite at the Truckers’ live shows, and so they decided to record it while in the studio for The Unraveling. Though they didn’t use it for that record, it rounds out The New OK, closing things with a crystal clear and unforgettable lament that feels a little too relevant today.
Perhaps the most gut-wrenching song on The New OK is “Watching the Orange Clouds,” a song written the weekend after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. “I watched the whole country rise up in a chaotic firestorm of anger and calls for a righteous change,” Hood says in the liner notes. Those feelings saturate the track, leaving the listener with a choice to either confront the evil that lies in front of them or ignore the pain and suffering of their brothers and sisters. This is a struggle Hood elevates in the song, singing with a certain kind of yearning, “I’m trying really hard to find a way to help to make it all better / As I struggle on how and if I should share these stories that are so upsetting / But I’m starting to doubt my own facility of even comprehending my place / It’s too late to try for shelter as the helicopters give it away.”
Before COVID-19 ravaged the globe and a spotlight shone on the racial divisions and hatred that have existed in this country for centuries, The Unraveling proved to be one of the most important albums the Drive-By Truckers ever made. Given the realities of 2020, it’s now matched with the honest and irreplaceable follow-up of The New OK, an album that serves as a manifesto of grief, righteous anger, frustration, and, in a way only the Truckers can spin, a bit of hope.