Waxed: Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South
As a friend of mine recently said, "Drive-By Truckers, where have you been all my life?" Such is expected, though, when one first hears the opening stomp of "Where The Devil Don't Stay," the opening track from the Trucker's classic album The Dirty South. Except it doesn't stop there - that's just the hook to draw you in.
In 2004-2005 (memory is a little hazy as to the exact date), when I was engrossed in the wonderful Alt-Country (whatever that is) magazine No Depression, I kept hearing about this band called the Drive-By Truckers. I think I read a live concert review of one of the band's shows, or maybe a record review. I wanted to check it out, but didn't really want to make a blind purchase at the time - as all my friends can attest to, if I don't want to listen to something new, it ain't gonna happen. So, I did the next best thing to taking a chance on it - I convinced a friend to buy it.
There in the parking lot of the Shelbyville Wal-Mart, my friend (and, oddly and presciently enough, pastor) Andy popped the CD into his DiscMan (with the whole jury-rigged tape device to listen to CDs) and the opening notes of "Where The Devil Don't Stay" kicked up. Then the slide guitar hit. And then... by the end of the second track, "Tornadoes," I knew I had made a mistake. I should've bought that CD, not Andrew. I didn't let the mistake linger. I had my own copy of the record within a week. Such is the nature of The Dirty South.
Full of "y'alls" and out of tune and sometimes tuneless vocals, some out of tune instruments, with bad grammer, and fairly schizophrenic - except for the overall arching darkness that shrouds the record - The Dirty South is not a summer drive record, or a pleasant, warm winter listen. No, it is Southern Gothic Darkness personified by a band of vagrants tough enough to turn goat piss into gasoline, and just as caustic. Imagine, if you can, the best southern rock band meeting the tunesmith abilities of the great '70's songwriters. Kind of like a plane wreck/motorcycle accident between Skynyrd and the Allmans, but only if Billy Joel and Elton John were on the plane and James Taylor was on the back of the bike... and Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, and The Man In Black were all standing on the crossroads of the devil, right there where the accident happened.
You can attribute that notion to the strength of not one, not two, but three ace songwriters/singers/guitarists/multi-instrumentalists - Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the founders of the band, and relative newcomer Jason Isbell. Isbell made his debut on the band's previous album, Decoration Day, and made his departure on the album preceeding this one, A Blessing And A Curse. I am sure there are many who would argue the point with me, but this is the period of the band that I like to refer to as "Classic Truckers."
It is precisely because of that bevy of songwriting talent that this is my favorite DBT's album. While the Truckers have always been Patterson Hood's primary vehicle, the addition of Isbell and the emergence of Cooley makes this record one tough cookie, with nary a bad song or even a well-meaning dud in sight. In fact, I could probably write an entry on each song - it's that damn good. As I don't have that kind of time or patience, and likely as you probably aren't that interested, I'll stick to just one long-ass review, and the best of the best songs on the album.
"The only blood that's any cleaner/ is the blood that's blue or greener/ without either you just get meaner/ and the blood you gave gives you away." This stanza ends the last verse of "Where The Devil Don't Stay," an opening salvo of a song that both long-time Trucker fans and newcomers should instantly love. Cooley's voice and lyrics rip through this swamp-stomp of a rocker, with Isbell's slide guitar eating up line after nasty line, propelling this dark prohibition story from the soul to the grave to Hell itself. There is no quite easy way to describe this song. It was the first I ever heard, and to be honest, it took a long time to adjust to the fact that not every song the DBT's write and play sounds like this. There's not anything like this tune. It screams, kicks, hollers, pulls, tugs, fights for every inch, and pulls you down with it, laughing as you choke on the duality of the hard life of the south.
Still, even after such a dramatic opener, nothing quite prepares you for the beauty, grace, and power of "Tornadoes," Hood's first track on the album. Chorusy acoustic guitars, echoing piano chords, reverb-drench slide guitar, and Hood's "lower-register" voice all adding atmosphere that builds until the bridge. You might think this is where all hell breaks loose, but you'd be wrong. For those who have ever been in a tornado, you'll always remember that eerie half-silence, half buzz that comes right before it hits. Somehow, the DBT's manage to capture that sound on record perfectly. Buzzing piano, eerie guitar, distant vocals ("pieces of that truckstop littered the highway, I've been told/ and I hear that missing trucker ended up in Kansas/ or maybe it was Oz) ... it's perfect, absolutely strange and enough to make your hair stand up. "I can still remember the sound of their applause in the rain," Hood sings as his band plays an outdoor concert in their hometown. "As it echoed through them storm clouds, I swear it sounded like a train."
The expert story telling continues on Isbell's first tune on the album, "The Day John Henry Died," and goes on through Hood's "Puttin' People on the Moon" and Cooley's "Carl Perkins' Cadillac," the band navigating hard southern rock and low-key swampy dirge with equal grace and power. "The Sands of Iwo Jima" finds Hood spinning yet another spellbinding tale of the south, this one about a family man war veteran, who could afford a new car but always drove what was available, and still believed in God and Country, because "things was just that way." The off-kilter banjo and churning guitars lend this back porch tale a serene, reverent beauty, and it's the type of tale that Hood tells best.
Jason Isbell follows up Hood's acoustic tale with one of his own, the lullaby-like "Danko/Manuel." The gently loping drums and softly played acoustic guitar complement Isbell's tired drawl as he sings, "I ain't living like I should." The repetiveness of the song is one of its best assets, drawing you in and holding you while it tells its tale, like being held by a grandmother in a rocking chair. The subtle electric guitars and gentle horns punch up the chorus just enough. "First they make you out to be/ the only pirate on the sea/ they say Danko would've sound just like me/ is that the man I wanna be?" Isbell sings with quiet passion, and continues to draw you down into the dark southern soul of this record. Even the solo section, with it's twangy steels, echoy electrics and chiming keyboards, adds to this twisted lullaby. "Can you hear that singing, sounds like gold/ maybe I can hear poor Richard from the grave/ singing where to reap and where to sow/ when you've found another home you have to leave/ something else you can't believe."
Hood speak-sings his way through "The Boys From Alabama," a late blooming rocker that ups the ante as the Truckers introduce a small tryptich of songs concerning Alabama Sheriff Buford Pusser and his efforts to clean up a dry county. Cooley steals the show here, though, with "Cottonseed," a deceptively simple, calm song with lyrics as deep as a mile wide ditch and as dark as the stories preachers use to scare children straight. Told from the perspective of a criminal that the system just can't beat and keep locked away, Cooley sings "They say every sin is deadly but I believe they may be wrong/ I'm guilty of all seven and I don't feel too bad at all." The impact of this song can't be measured without listening to it. A scathing reprisal of law and church and champions the criminal's way. "I used to have a wad of hundred dollar bills in the back pocket of my suit/I had a .45 underneath my coat and another one in my boat/ I drove a big ol' Cadillac, bought a new one anytime I pleased/ and I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed." This is real true blue outlaw stuff, the kinds dark western legends and ancient religious tales are made from. Hood follows it up with the powerful "The Buford Stick," a song whose grindy guitars kick the band into full ass-kicking mode.
"Daddy's Cup" is Cooley's tale of racing, in a southern man's blood, and is followed by "Never Gonna Change," a rocker by Isbell that feels like a straight kick to the gut for anyone putting the southern man down, and "Lookout Mountain," which contains the most monster guitar riff on the album, sounding like some kind of monstrous combo of Metallica, pure electric blues, and Skynyrd. It also features some of the tastiest guitar licks on an album full of them.
But it's Jason Isbell's "Goddamn Lonely Love" that closes the album, and closes it so well. The lyrics, melody, and damn-near everything else about the song aches with broken beauty, from the warbling intro to the last notes. "I've got green and I've got blues/ and every day there's a little less different between the two," Isbell sings. "I belly up and disappear/ well I ain't really drowning 'cause I see the beach from here." He continues, " I could take a Greyhound home/ and when I got there it'd be gone/ along with everything a home is made up of/ so I'll take two of what you're having/ and I'll take all of what you got/ to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love." This sad lament is somehow classic Truckers, and Classic Country all at once. It's visceral, dark, and hard, while being so descriptive you can feel the words as much as see them. Passionate sex is followed by bad regrets and hard drinking. It's a tale of loss and brokeness anyone can relate to, and Isbell delivers it with such passion and gravity that you'll likely be left with a bit of a broken heart yourself.
While I haven't explore later era Truckers as much as I should, and haven't touched early releases like Pizza Deliverance, I think I can still say that, so far, The Dirty South stands as an incredible band's best album. And, at the risk of starting arguments, I wonder if the band will ever get this level of greatness back with Jason Isbell. By now you've probably figured I am an Isbell fan, and you'd be correct. I was and am enthralled with his first solo album, Sirens Of The Ditch, an eclectic rock tour-de-force with nary a bad tune to be found. Still, the promise of Hood, Cooley and Isbell together is what made The Dirty South so amazing, so deep and so dark and visceral and emotional.
For the uninitiated, do yourself a favor, and stop by your favorite local record store and pick up a copy of The Dirty South, and drown your worries in the dark and lonely tales of the broken South. Just be sure thank me later, and don't forget who your friends really are.