Let’s discuss The Dirty South, the fifth record by the unaccountably brilliant American institution known as the Drive-By Truckers, which turns fifteen (15!) this summer.
The Dirty South is an expansive record, 14 deeply-layered songs unfolding over the course of 70 minutes, every second of them earned. It contains several of DBT’s bona fide masterpieces, of which they possess perhaps more than any other contemporary band.
Despite this it is a difficult album in many ways – full of thick-skinned contemplations on life and death and shot through with an unflinching melancholy. It’s as close to a series of Chekhov stories as exists in the rock canon. The emotional palette is blue and grim. It’s Sticky Fingers stretched to Exile length.
The Dirty South is the second of three DBT records to feature songs from the preposterously-gifted triumvirate of Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell, an amalgamation of talent so rare that it is only a minor exaggeration to call them the country-rock Beatles. On The Dirty South, each of the three have astounding material to bring to bear, songs which complement one another in this context, but also hint at the ways in which three genius songwriters might experience difficulty co-existing in perpetuity.
By the time they made The Dirty South, the Truckers’ unlikely emergence from underground vagabonds to a widespread cultural phenomenon was in full effect. In that regard, the serrated anger and barely contained despair reflects Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, another seething record made at the first peak of a great artist’s fame.
To be sure, rage was always a mineral element in the band’s makeup. On The Dirty South, in certain moments, it threatens to boil over and cause casualties. Let’s take a track-by-track look at DBT’s knotty, tough-minded masterpiece.
Where The Devil Don’t Stay
From the ominous, death’s door knock of the kick drum to the Skynyrd-by-way-of-Sabbath minor key riff, Mike Cooley’s hard-driving tale of backwoods gambling in the prohibition-era sets the scene of overwhelming menace that will be the predominant mode of The Dirty South. A sort of American Grimm’s Fairy Tale direct from the darkest recesses of Alabama’s seedy underbelly, there is a Mekons-like obsession here with a corruption that lurks at history’s very core. Law exists only to better aid the rich in exploiting the poor, the poor who fight back are sent “down so far even the Devil won’t stay”. Hard-boiled, scary stuff.
While Cooley posits a nightmare continuum of endless exploitation, Patterson Hood’s “Tornadoes” is a far gentler if no less terrifying rejoinder – a matter-of-fact account of nature’s capacity for capricious cruelty, and a slightly dream-like recollection of playing a homecoming show with his old band the night of a massive and destructive tornado strike. Hood surveys the chaotic scene with an eerie, vaguely druggy remove: “Sirens were blowing, clouds spat rain/ And as the things came through/ it sounded like a train.” A beautiful song about the uncontrollable consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The subtext, of course, is that those with lesser means tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the crosshairs.
The Day John Henry Died
The man-beats-machine tall tale of John Henry has been referenced by everyone from Johnny Cash to They Might Be Giants, but Jason Isbell’s kinetic, exciting retelling of the original labor hero rings clear and true, over a fetching major key melody and a thousand-year stare of historical perspective. An elegy in the truest sense, it is a memorial to not just an icon, but a way of life. This is the sort of thing the Truckers do so well – tying together modern anxieties with the struggles of antiquity into a cohesive worldview. What is remarkable is the way in which Isbell – ten years the junior to Hood and Cooley – adapted the storytelling techniques of those two writers after joining the band three albums into the group’s run. The central truth here is that even genuine greatness is ultimately forced to bow to position of birth. “John Henry was a steel-driving bastard/ but John Henry was a bastard just the same.”
Puttin’ People On The Moon
Jesus, what a song this is. Hood’s desperate, raging, darkly funny Reagan-era story of a working class father who turns to dealing drugs to support his family came four years before Breaking Bad and equals the arc of that great show’s five seasons in six brilliant verses. Set to a brawling Bringing It All Back Home-style blues, the track’s jet black central joke revolves around the health care the narrator can’t afford for his cancer stricken wife, while NASA spends billions launching missions into space. When he is widowed and finally arrested for drug trafficking, the bitter irony isn’t lost on our protagonist: he too was just putting people on the moon, after all. A towering songwriting achievement.
Carl Perkins’ Cadillac
Rock & Roll hagiographies are a dicey business – the telling and retelling of early rock’s origin stories have a tendency to turn sentimental and treacly in the exact wrong proportion to the immediacy of the music it purports to honor. Consider Mike Cooley’s “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” the anti-matter “American Pie”, a song which revels deliriously and persuasively in the early days of Sun Records while rendering its mythic characters winningly human. Over the album’s most immediately infectious, late-Byrds-style melodic progression Cooley sketches the endless ups-and-downs of the Million Dollar Quartet and their benefactor Sam Phillips, capturing the exhilaration of poor boys suddenly getting paid good money to do what comes naturally. When Cooley joyously exclaims: “The money came in sacks!” it’s hard to imagine he isn’t reflecting with amazement on his own band’s longshot deliverance as well.
The Sands Of Iwo Jima
Hood’s third contribution is another corker. An ambitious retelling of childhood memories spending summers with his WWII veteran great uncle, it is at once a rivetingly detailed character study, an admiring tribute to a courageous loved one, and a subtle deflation of “Greatest Generation” mythos. Hood describes his uncle as a family man startled by the onset of the war in 1941, hopeful at first of getting a deferment and ultimately drafted despite it all. He serves with distinction but can’t unsee or even describe so many of the things he’s seen. He returns caring, equanimical but hardened. He compulsively visits veterans’ reunions and watches old war movies. John Wayne is always the hero, but he never saw John Wayne in Iwo Jima.
And then we arrive at the crusher. Isbell’s “Danko/Manuel” is one of the saddest songs I know – one that inspires waves of grief and guilt by dint of its very title. From its funeral march beat to its only too-obvious admission: “I ain’t living like I should/ A little rest might do me good” this is a bone-deep account of the spiral that would ultimately lead to Isbell’s dismissal from the group and subsequent reinvention as a mercifully sober, juggernaut country solo act. The recording of The Dirty South found a hard-partying and unflinchingly self-aware band at the crossroads of too much and not enough. This song, with its ghostly invocation of the group’s tragically lost patron saints from The Band, extrapolates in chilling fashion the price of choosing the wrong direction at a crucial time.
The Boys From Alabama
Hood’s long standing preoccupations with cinema and history come together in a wholly novel triptych of songs to begin The Dirty South’s second side, as he recounts the life of Sheriff Buford Pusser, whose attempts at cleaning up corruption in a small Tennessee county led to personal tragedy and was depicted in the 1974 crime classic Walking Tall. As a musical gambit, this works far better than it has any right to, again demonstrating the enormity of Hood’s gift for narrative songwriting. “The Boys From Alabama,” told from the perspective of the rough criminal syndicate who would target Pusser’s family in response to being targeted themselves, is all creeping menace and barely-veiled threats, an eerie organ figuring prominently over lines like: “They might find your body in the Tennessee River/ Or they might not find you at all.” An inversion of the folk and country tradition of romanticizing outlaw culture, there is nothing romantic about Hood’s bootleggers and petty crooks – they are simply vicious bullies. Clockwork Orange meets Flannery O’Connor.
Cooley’s contribution to the Pusser mini-operetta is a bare-bones acoustic ballad told from the perspective of a hardened criminal who makes no apology or concession for his life’s work. Referring back to the opener’s tales of false judges and survival at any cost, Cooley’s narrator is a murderous psychopath, but one who understands the nature of his transgressions: “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 key thematic and aesthetic reference point is Springsteen’s Nebraska, another record filled with criminals just clever enough to articulate the case for their misdeeds, but not smart enough to avoid their consequences.
The Buford Stick
Patterson Hood famously initially conceived of DBT’s breakthrough Southern Rock Opera as a movie before settling on a panoramic double LP. The Truckers’ own mini-noir in song concludes with this satisfyingly slinky Hood-penned rocker which details a criminal’s satisfaction at Buford Pusser’s real life auto fatality, around the time his tough-on-crime routine had made him a national celebrity. Whether the band ultimately views Pusser as the showboating, egomaniacal lawman gone-too-far depicted here or as a brave man arrayed against shadowy forces beyond his control is artfully left to interpretation. But re-casting this crucial piece of 20th century Southern mythology is an ambitious diversion on an album already flush with big themes, and one consonant with the recurring message that the ethical threshold between crime and the law is as fungible as the side of the street you happen to be standing on.
Lightening the mood ever so slightly is Cooley’s expertly rendered, relatively straightforward spitfire tale of a race car driver bred from birth to make his way to victory lane. Over an acoustic arrangement reminiscent of the Stones’ great take on “Prodigal Son,” the narrator recollects having a wrench in his hand before he could walk and takes us all the way through his desperate search for the checkered flag that will honor his father’s legacy. Another determined take on destiny, albeit one far less fraught than its companion pieces.
Never Gonna Change
Part gimlet-eyed character study, part surly, chamber of commerce travelogue, Isbell’s wiry rocker is told from the point of view of a proud South Alabama native, one who is both fully aware of the backwards nature of his lifestyle and absolutely intractable in his worldview. Like so much of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the clear inspiration at work here, this is intentionally tough stuff to grapple with. The extreme and deliberate provincialism of the narrator is at once funny and scary, romantic and verging on insane. However one takes it – and the deeper implications of the song’s fetish for continuity at any cost are certainly disturbing – “Never Gonna Change” has something crucial to say about the human temperament. Nothing stirs the blood like someone from the outside looking in, telling a community its customs and values are wrongheaded. From the twin scourges of Brexit and Trump, the consequences of doing so are manifold in our contemporary politics. What to do about this dilemma is perhaps the central question at the heart of the Truckers’ fascinating, complicated catalog.
A propulsive Hood-penned rocker which delivers another of the album’s seemingly endless supply of knockout riffs, “Lookout Mountain” is a suicide note from a rocky peak in Chattanooga, something like The Replacements’ “The Ledge” as re-imagined by the Allman Brothers. As dark and dyspeptic as a song with its thematic content necessarily merits, there is grim humor here as well. Sorting through the ramifications of taking his own life, Hood’s narrator wonders about the suffering, grief and potential financial strain that his actions will cause his survivors. Then he muses on the important stuff: “Who will get my records?”
Goddamn Lonely Love
A captivating soul ballad at the end of an album full of lost souls, Isbell’s “Goddamn Lonely Love” is a desperately pleading, ready-made classic, Gram Parsons by way of Otis Redding. On an album brimming with conflict and violence of every sort – physical, emotional and political – this is a prayer for hard won peace at any cost. When Isbell sings: “I’ll take two of what you’re having/ And I’ll take everything you got/ To kill this goddamn lonely love” the welter of the album’s tortured seventy minutes comes into crushing bold relief. History and its endless triage of exploitation and misery simply won’t fucking stop. Self-immolation seems like the only possible way off the ride. Or some days it seems that way. And then a small light flickers from the darkness of these bleak southern woods: “And I could find another dream/One that keeps me warm and clean/ But I ain’t dreaming anymore/ I’m waking up.”