‘The Dirty South’ – Drive-By Truckers
New West Records 6058
The album comes with instructions, as if you needed them, "Turn it up to 10
and rip off the knob." It sounds like you could tear the words out of the
liner notes of a Ratt record, but with three guitars and a stompin' rhythm
section, the Drive-By Truckers back it up. It may be Southern in theme, but
the music is straight, tooth-crackin' rock 'n' roll. The band's three
songwriters (Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and the comparatively clean-voiced Jason Isbell) write the record from the bottom up.
The narrators are on the
wrong side of everything – the over-zealous law, Reaganomics, funnel clouds,
the draft, cancer, and plain old bum freakin' luck – but there's no
resignation. Hood's tunes in particular bristle with unfiltered
indignation, a restless fury that matches the music when it doesn't top it.
"Puttin' People on the Moon" follows a laid-off auto worker turned
small-time pusher in the Reagan '80s. The jobs run out, the cash blows off,
the cancer creeps in, and Hood gets more furious. His strained voice is on
the verge of complete fall-apart as he blisters, "And all them politicians,
they all lyin' sacks of shit/ They say better days upon us but I'm sucking
left hind tit." As protest music, it's about fifteen years too late, but as
a character study it's dead-on.
A chunk of the album circles around Tennessee's Buford T. Pusser. Looking
from the top, Pusser is a tough lawman who saw graft, corruption, and
low-down bootleggers and stomped them in turn. He became the heroic subject of the 1973 movie Walking Tall. (The story was recently tweaked to suit the Rock’s many talents.) Of course, looking up from the bottom as the Truckers do, Buford’s just like any other crooked bastard of a lawman. Hood’s "Boys From Alabama" bears the law’s threat ("Ain’t nobody gonna stick anything up your ass/ If you remember who your friends are") while Cooley’s "Cottonseed" delivers the rejoinder ("I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed"). Hood’s "The Buford Stick" closes the trio of songs with Pusser’s fiery demise, and the whole of it would feel like a cheap gimmick of each of the songs weren’t so well-written.
And that's really the trick. The Truckers don't do anything fancy. In fact
they try hard not to. The album's best moments are raw and unpolished and
as such get by on attitude and the strength of the songwriting. Every
cylinder of Cooley's "Daddy's Cup" fires. It's "How to Raise a Stock Car
Racer 101," and it's perfect. Hood's "Tornadoes" is one unnecessary
parenthetical lyric away from its equal, and the echo-effected bridge, when
the rain-soaked and clapping audience is, "sucked out of the auditorium,"
may be the album's highlight. Isbell's tunes generally turn down the amps,
and as the band's newest writer he may have some catching up to do, but he
doesn't embarrass himself in strong company and drops one of the album's
better lines in, "John Henry was a steel-driving bastard but John Henry was
a bastard just the same."
Hood has repeatedly said in interviews that this album's subjects never had
choices, and there's some truth to it. The catch of course is that they
could always choose defeat, and they never do. They may be pissed off and
beaten, but they are never crushed. There's something worth saying here
about indomitable will, about resiliency, that whole "can't keep a good man
down" idea, (and maybe even that damn South will rise again thing) but I'd
just make it sound like schmaltzy crap, and the true strength of the
Drive-By Truckers is that they never do. No tricks. No gimmicks. Just a
kick in the ass from the voices down on the bottom.