The Drive-By Truckers steamrolled me to the asphalt the first time their 2001 opus, Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling ode to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the South, hit my ears, and then my head. After I managed to pick myself up from the blazing bed of triple-thick/triple-threat Lynyrd Skynyrd-meets-Thin Lizzy electric guitars that must have broken my fall (I was still in one piece, you see), they knocked me on my butt again. Here was a shit-kicking, hell-raising American gang of ’70s-style Southern Rock Traditionalists, but with a bracingly fresh, decidedly ambivalent take on the traditions they were writing about (but not the style of music they were playing).
I would go on to devour Decoration Day, The Dirty South, A Blessing And A Curse and the slew of terrific albums that followed. (Those floored me too). But I didn’t need to in order to know that DBT was no flash-in-the-pan fluke. These guys had a unique vision, a million stories to tell, and were building something worthy, honest, and proud from the ground up. The Truckers quickly became a favorite, especially after I saw their ferociously enthralling, truth-telling live show that convinced me they were one of the absolute top-notch bands to take a stage anywhere. I put my mind to writing about them and championing their music whenever and wherever I could.
My first interview was with co-founder and singer/bandleader Patterson Hood, for a profile piece aimed at introducing DBT to the broad readership of The Boston Globe back in the summer of 2003, just as Decoration Day was hitting record stores (remember those?). Coincidentally, that album became a constant soundtrack and backdrop to my life that summer. Not just because I was prepping for my interview with Hood (and immersing myself in an album I loved), but because my dad was terminally ill, and Decoration Day is an engrossing, deeply meditative work: a brooding landscape of bitter anthems about life and what it costs, and strewn with totems marking the loves and lives we lose in the exchange.
I’m still not sure whether it made me feel better or worse. The music, some of it scorching and some of it wistful, certainly made me feel everything harder and more acutely and intensely (if that was even possible). But its dark emotional core felt oddly soul-nourishing, strength-giving to the specific events of my life at that moment. In the layered weave of hard-luck songs and those melancholic but resilient voices I found a palpable poetry, a plain-spoken wisdom that made the grim circumstances (theirs and mine) somehow romantic, noble, even heroic.
But mostly, those raging guitars were instant catharsis. As hard as Southern Rock Opera had knocked me to the ground with the sheer force of its sound and ambition, Decoration Day pulled me up, got me to my feet, and shook me into fierce focus.
In the years since, The Drive-By Truckers have gone on to hard-earned success, a few lineup changes (most notably, the addition and departure of killer singer-songwriter turned solo star Jason Isbell, who penned the title track for Decoration Day), and a respected career with a loyal following and an enduring, and not infrequently brilliant, body of work. Now, after ten studio albums, comes word that a new three-month tour is getting underway (today, at the Ellnora Guitar Festival in Urbana, Illinois, as a matter of fact!), coinciding with a new epic live document that may play just as long on your hi-fi.
It’s Great To Be Alive!, a 5-LP/3-CD/35-track live package that chronicles the band’s three-night run at the Fillmore in San Francisco, is scheduled for an Oct. 30 release and pre-orders can be had here: http://drivebytruckers.shop.musictoday.com/Dept.aspx?cp=407_72052 An array of digital and hard copy configurations of the release will also be available, including a more moderate 2-LP/1-CD,13-track set titled This Weekend’s The Night).
“Part of the joy of this incarnation of the band has been digging back and seeing what this band can do with songs from various periods of our history,” notes Hood in the new liner notes to the album. “I’m proud of every lineup we’ve had and of the records that we’ve made, but this incarnation has brought a primal energy and personal camaraderie … we’ve been really excited about capturing that.”
Needless to say, I’ve been listening (and loudly) to an advance preview of the live stuff and trust me, it delivers everything you’d want (heart, soul, and swagger) and have come to expect (ditto) from a DBT album — except, of course, that it’ll make you wish you were actually there if you weren’t. (But hey, that’s what new tours are for, eh?).
In the meantime, here’s my conversation with Patterson Hood at a pivotal period in the Truckers’ evolution (and maybe my own too), when the group was just beginning its ongoing run as one of America’s premier rock & roll outfits. But it’s also a story about a band whose defining moment almost didn’t happen; a band that went broke after it got (semi) famous; and what finally finding a measure of success cost them (hint: almost everything).
There are eight grave markers planted along the darkened hills adorning Decoration Day, the new album by the Drive-By Truckers, a Southern-bred outfit of roadhouse rockers. A rifle, presumably loaded, leans against a drab wall in moonlit shadows on the back cover. A pistol rests a few feet away inside a dresser drawer. Disfigured trees at dusk, their gnarled limbs stripped bare and bent like broken fingers, lean crookedly into the gloom. Black crows are everywhere.
According to legend, Decoration Day is named for the occasion when southern churches place flowers on the graves of loved ones. It’s also the fitting title of the Truckers’ fifth album, which is strewn with ruminations on failed marriages (“Loaded Gun in the Closet”), broken families (“Your Daddy Hates Me”), suicide (“Pin Hits the Shell”), and catastrophic temptation (“The Deeper In”). Death, despair, and desperation, like those crows, hover close to these stories.
“That record was about the end of an era in our personal lives and in the band,” says DBT singer-guitarist Patterson Hood. “So much went down over the last few years that we’ve all just gotten back on our feet emotionally and physically. We’re all better now, but you can’t come out the other end without being changed by some stuff.” Decoration Day (New West Records), is the emotional follow-up to DBT’s landmark double disc, Southern Rock Opera, a conceptual work the Truckers released themselves in 2001 before the Lost Highway label reissued it a year later to wide critical acclaim.
Southern Rock Opera was, explicitly, a turbulent tribute to the majestic rise and tragic fall of Southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose privately chartered plane crashed on Oct. 20, 1977, killing six people onboard including singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steven Gaines. Only slightly less explicitly, the project doubled as a sprawling meditation on Southern mythology, identity politics, and history. It was an ambitious homage, replete with Skynyrd’s signature three-guitar onslaught, that could be heard as both proud testimonial and cautionary tale. It also almost didn’t get made, and when it did, it cost the band dearly.
The Truckers, a shifting lineup of old friends and running buddies from Alabama and South Carolina who formed from the vestiges of earlier local bands, began thinking about Southern Rock Opera even before they had recorded the three albums that would precede its release. During that period, the band played more than 400 shows.
“When you’re on the road, boredom is your enemy,” recalls Hood, 39. “After awhile, you get tired of all the tapes in the van, turn the stereo off, and start brainstorming together about this crazy idea. When it came time to record, we had been talking about it for three years. I’ve always loved a good story, and to kids growing up my age and slightly older than me, this was modern-day Southern mythology – a rock band that came out of the South and crashed into the swamp. And all these people misunderstood what that band was trying to say.” Casting Skynyrd as a metaphor for “the misunderstood South”, says Hood, seemed an ideal thematic paradigm.
“We knew we were doing something – we didn’t know if it was necessarily something good,” adds Hood. “Everybody we talked to thought we were crazy. Even if they were polite, you could see they were uncomfortably readjusting their weight and trying not to roll their eyes. When we finished it, we shopped it around and hoped somebody would put it out because we didn’t have any money – and nobody wanted it.”
Eventually, the band raised $20,000 through friends, fans and investors who believed in the project enough to help put the disc out independently. When Lost Highway offered to re-release Southern Rock Opera, the band hit the road for 14 months to promote it. The album was hailed by critics and fans as a watershed effort, but constant touring coupled with modest sales nearly blew the Truckers apart and all but decimated their home lives.
“We weren’t making any money and we’d come home from a three-month tour, three months deeper in debt,” says Hood. “(Decoration Day) was written during the big comeuppance from all of that, when we hit rock bottom.” For Hood, hitting rock bottom meant splitting from his wife, fighting with his band, and scrabbling to start over. “I was getting divorced and that was a major factor. We were so broke that we were having to sell off anything that was left, and when you get divorced you lose half of what’s left after that. I felt guilty, like I was a failure for ending up divorced, and I was questioning whether (the band) was worth it.”
Southern Rock Opera has caught on with a broad audience that includes hipster college kids, aging classic rockers, and ordinary folks who just love the sound of loud electric guitars set to lyrics that mean something. Hood says the album’s fared better in the North and West than the group’s home turf: “The South is our weakest region – I think it’s because it’s too close to home. We’re singing about stuff that’s right down the street, and nobody wants to hear that.”
Despite the sense of lurking dread, and a mournful melancholy that hangs over much of Decoration Day, Hood claims the band – which also includes singer-guitarists Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell (both of whom pen the lyrics with Hood); bassist Earl Hicks; and drummer Brad Morgan – had “a blast” recording the new album. If that sounds ironic, remember that Lynyrd Skynyrd – a hard-partying redneck rock band that preached gun control and the dangers of addiction – routinely trafficked in confounding expectations. So too, does DBT.
“We’re a bunch of guys who hate rock operas and think concept records are pretentious,” says Hood. “And yet we’re known for making this 20-song rock opera. The ridiculousness of that hasn’t escaped us either.”