Rolling Stone magazine recently graced the public with one of their annual “best of” music roundup issues, highlighting their choices for the hottest, hippest, most noteworthy music currently available. Everything from Best Live Act to Best Indie Hip Hop Artist was highlighted in detailed, authoritative prose by writers for, supposedly, the end-all and be-all of up-to-date music journalism.
Nowhere in this once distinguished tome, however, was there any mention of what, to this writers ears, may just be the single most important American band currently working.
The Drive-By Truckers are a five-piece rock outfit whose members hail mainly from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama. Although sometimes held up as the leading lights of the so-called “alternative country” or “Southern rock” movements, the breadth of the groups work argues for a band whose importance lies far beyond the shackles of labels or genres.
Over the course of seven studio albums the Truckers have grown from a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, punk-influenced country act, into a band who can rock as ferociously as AC/DC or choose just the right bent note to break your heart on a soulful, folk- influenced number.
But where this band truly excels is in their gift for storytelling. Founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, who’ve been writing and performing together for over two decades, have developed into two of rock’s premier yarn spinners. Whether they’re chronicling the whistling-past-the-grave yard courage of a musician dying from AIDS (The Living Bubba) or the devastation wrought by the suicide of a close friend (When the Pin Hits the Shell), the duo have laid claim to a lineage that stretches from the wry, furious humor of Mark Twain to the gothic horrors of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy.
Their lyrics are littered with small, descriptive details more than worthy of their literary predecessors. Whether they’re singing about the plastic flowers on the highway marking the spot where an accident victim died; a small spot on a man’s head where the hair never grew back from a beating he received long ago; or a woman sitting in a silent house after her husband’s left for work, trying hard not to think about the loaded shotgun in the closet, the band is without peer in using rural imagery to investigate what it means to be not only southern, but economically and spiritually depressed, desperate and scared to the point of hopelessness. The protagonists of these songs inhabit a land of myth that works to both nourish their sense of identity and trap them in a vicious cycle of poverty and self-destruction.
As impressive as their lyrics may be however, they would have little impact without the superb music the band surrounds them with. Loose-limbed and even at its darkest conveying a sense of the sheer joy of shared experience and creativity, their music has grown in scope and complexity while maintaining its earthy, gnarled rawness.
While much has been made of their superficial similarities to groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band, the Truckers are actually closer in spirit to a gang of gothic troubadours spinning a modern version of 18th-century protest songs and murder ballads. Besides, calling a band “Southern rock” is simply redundant: All rock, whether intentionally so or not, has a common, southern ancestor.
One area where this band does call to mind classic acts of the past is their dedication to the concert stage. Having seen the Truckers twice, I can attest to the fact that their reputation as one of the best live acts on the planet is well deserved. Running nearly three hours in length, the band’s concerts somehow manage to maintain an intensity and connection with the crowd that would make many young punk-rock bands green with envy.
And if the music’s not enough, it’s well worth attending one of their shows just to take in the eclectic mix of the fans. Somehow cow-punks, goths, rednecks, emo kids and hippies have found a common thread that ties them to this music.
One could go on at term paper length about the Truckers artistic and cultural merits, but frankly, to over-intellectualize their work is to miss the point entirely. Their talent is there for anyone with a pair of ears and a little patience to appreciate.
Like all great artists, it’s easy to take what they do for granted because they make it seem so effortless. The mix of chemistry, intelligence, confidence and god-only-knows what other ingredients that go into the makeup of a successful band is a strange witches brew that even the keenest scientist could probably never unravel.
In the end, what makes the Drive-By Truckers work so beautifully is simply a mystery, just like the South itself.
Apparently, it’s a mystery the editors of Rolling Stone Magazine have yet to unravel.