There was no “ah-ha” moment, no single, stunning, towering track that triggered the thought -- the Drive-By Truckers’ music of late is too unassuming for that. It was more like I was gradually remembering something I’d forgotten. Two songs left, nothing pressing, I pulled into my parking space, killed the engine, and sat in my car until new album “Go-Go Boots” finished.
Then I said to myself, “This is the best band in America.”
Now is as good a time as any in the last ten years or so to ponder that point. The lead singer of “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” now spends half his week leering at teenagers from behind a folding table. Jack and Meg White just ended America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band (emphasis on the lack of quotation marks). Upstarts like TV on the Radio, the Hold Steady, the Dirty Projectors, and Girls don’t have the body of work yet. Animal Collective is fucking terrible. The Flaming Lips and Wilco aren’t quite as exciting as they used to be. The Strokes might break up tomorrow, no matter how good “Angles” is or isn’t (Check back later this week!). The global crown probably rests in England (Radiohead) or Canada (Arcade Fire).
If it sounds like I’m anointing DBT by default, well …
Well, that wasn’t my intention. I guess my point is DBT have been our best band for a while now -- they just haven’t made that big, world-changing, attention-grabbing gesture that’s made the public at large, or even big fans like myself, appreciate the scope of their accomplishments. They came closest with 2001’s mock-Lynyrd Skynyrd epic “Southern Rock Opera,” which, despite its acclaim, was a limited release that got lost in the OH MY GOD ROCK ISN’T DEAD!!! hysteria ignited by the Strokes, the Stripes, and a handful of lesser garage punks. In the shadow of the Twin Towers we only had room for one silly little music story.
For an encore, DBT merely topped themselves: 2003’s “Decoration Day” and 2004’s “The Dirty South,” which, despite deconstructing Southern walking tall pride and working class struggle with even more poignant songwriting, didn’t have that hook, that selling point, or even, to get really superficial about it, that title that “Southern Rock Opera” had. You might say the novelty was gone, but the novelty was never there to begin with -- this band was dead serious about the music they loved and the music they were making. Skynyrd and George Wallace aside, the real concept of “Southern Rock Opera” was a double album about growing up too fast in a place defined by its conflicting values, surviving the wreckage, and turning those experiences into art you might be able to ride to a better place. In a way, “Decoration Day” and “The Dirty South” formed a conceptual double album too, this one about all the folks left behind, dealing with the sins of their fathers, and the sins of pretty much everybody else between here and the county line. In some meaningless order, these three albums rank with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” “Is This It,” “Elephant,” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” at the peak of our country’s turn of the century rock. These are the albums that saved music as the music industry lay dying.
In the years since, DBT have weathered line-up changes -- most notably the departure of “Outfit” auteur Jason Isbell -- and at least one near-break-up, without any noticeable dip in quality or loss to their signature sound: guitars grumbling like thunder on the horizon, lightening solos crackling across the sky, aching bass, wrath of God drums, Patterson Hood’s coyote yowl, Mike Cooley’s sly drawl. The band’s output is so consistent and prolific that at this point shuffling through their catalog is like flipping through a short story compendium by a favorite author. You might skim some tales (2004 on) more than others (see above), and revisit certain favorites more regularly (I listen to “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” and “Let There Be Rock” at least once a month), but there’s no doubt everything between the covers matters.
New release “Go-Go Boots” is, like last year’s “The Big To-Do,” -- really, like everything they’ve done since “The Dirty South -- just another solid Drive-By Truckers record, and instead of waiting around for another rock opera to get epically excited about, it’s time to start appreciating the Truckers’ dogged, novelistic commitment to unravelling “the duality of the Southern thing” -- the tenderness laced with violence, the hope dashed by despair, the pride in home and the dreams of escaping, the passing down of family values, including some values best left buried in the not-so-distant past.
“Go-Go Boots” does contain the Truckers’ most ambitious song cycle of late, Hood’s two-part story of a lusty preacher who gets bored with his wife and pays two thugs to kill her so he can shack up with his kinky mistress. In part one, the title track, rumors about the murder and the preacher’s bedroom proclivities trickle through the small town until they reach the preacher’s son, who’s scared of what he might find out if he confronts his father. Part two, “The Fireplace Poker,” might go down as alt-country’s “In Cold Blood.” Hood’s voice cracks and fails as he details the pitiless murder blow by agonizing blow, culminating in father and son closing the circle of violence by, of course, perpetuating it. Musically, it’s one of the simplest songs the Truckers have ever done, and also one of the most powerful, a guitar and drum beat charting an inevitable course from one act of violence to the next. Some might say it’s nothing new for the Truckers, without realizing what a high compliment that is.
The Truckers remain primarily Hood’s band, and “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” and “Used to Be a Cop” are two more signature case studies of desperate, fragile minds wrestling with violent thoughts. But Hood’s band mates are developing a habit of stealing albums out from under him. Bassist Shonna Tucker has her two best vocal moments to date with a wrenching cover of Eddie Hinton’s “Where’s Eddie” and her own “Dancin’ Ricky,” an elegy that teases an over-the-hill and out-of-shape dancer while celebrating him for just being who he is, sagging gut be damned. And Mike Cooley’s rueful “Cartoon Gold” is my favorite song of the year so far, one of the great lost in a bar, thinking about the wrongs you did to the right woman songs in recent memory.
Should this be your first Drive-By Truckers album? Probably not. Uncharacteristically, Hood pours pop radio syrup all over closer “Mercy Boots” and another Hinton cover, “Everybody Needs Love.” “The Thanksgiving Filter” catches the small details of a big family gathering, but rather than build to any drama it builds to a big “It’s Thanksgiving!” chorus, like Hood was trying to write a new standard for a holiday that doesn’t need one. None of these are bad, exactly, they’re just songs like My Morning Jacket’s “I’m Amazed” that take you places you might not expect, or want, this particular band to take you.
That Hood and the Truckers can slip so easily out of their comfort zone only makes you appreciate that they don’t more often. Time and time again on DBT songs, decent people are tempted to take the easy way out. The Truckers continue to do the hard work, telling their stories, their way.
Circa “The Dirty South” I saw the Truckers at Shank Hall in Milwaukee, shoulder-to-shoulder with fans who waited over an hour for the band to get unstuck from Chicago traffic. DBT repaid our patience with the best concert I have ever seen, a 3-hour thriller in which they played every song you could possibly want to hear as passionately as you want to hear every band you see play every song you love. The next day, critic Bryan Wawzenek called that iteration of the Truckers one of the all-time great live acts, and warned fans to see them immediately -- “This won’t last.”
Wawzenek was right -- within months, Isbell was gone. And, as “Go-Go Boots” proves, to our mutual relief, he was wrong. Hood is still prowling the Southern crime beat. Cooley and Tucker keep getting better. And the Drive-By Truckers are still the best band in America.