Drive-By Truckers

The Dirty South

(New West; 2004)

By David M. Goldstein | 8 September 2004

Confession time: I kind of like the latest Lenny Kravitz single. This is something I can’t say about anything the man has released to radio since “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” Its companion video portrays a groupies n’ blow fantasy that’s Vincent Gallo-like in terms of offensive self-indulgence, but its chunka-chunka riff sounds plenty hot soundtracking Sportcenter’s “Ultimate Highlight Reel” or blasting over the P.A. at Fenway whenever Manny Ramirez jacks one over the Green Monster.

The All Music Guide gave Kravitz’s recent Baptism one and a half stars, and according to the tracklisting, song two is called “I Don’t Want to Be a Star.” Man, soul brotha’s got chutzpah! I’m guessing this will force even the most ardent Lenny fan to roll his eyes and utter a "yeah, right" (dude’s on TV rockin’ a Gap ad with Sarah Jessica Parker as I type, even). “Under the Bridge” is rightfully classic, but I don’t want to hear Anthony Kiedis sing about how he’s “standing in line to see the show tonight” anymore than listening to Usher or Ma$e whine about how they can’t score. Exceptions abound; Robert Smith’s anguish can still sound convincing despite his supposedly rock solid marriage. But for the majority of artists, writing about experiences and feelings that 99% of your audience knows you will never have is borderline criminal.

And therein lays Drive-By Truckers' greatest strength. Never for a second does the listener believe that their three songwriters don’t have first-hand knowledge of their subject matter. Because while Drive-By Truckers happen to be a completely kick-ass rock band, they’re storytellers first and foremost, with a staggering eye for detail that can only be the product of a Southern upbringing and years of hard living on the road (it’s no exaggeration to say they’ve played the New York Metropolitan area at least ten times in the past three years). The rare group that would probably encourage you to read the lyric sheet while you listen along, Drive-By Truckers have released The Dirty South, their latest successful foray into celebrating the mythology of the American South while painting a sympathetic portrait of its denizens.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” de facto head Trucker Patterson Hood’s dead on sketch of a man in Reagan-era Alabama reduced to selling cocaine to feed his family while his wife withers from cancer. The song title references “rocket envy,” which according to the band’s website, is shorthand for the mindset of an Alabama citizen who can’t comprehend how NASA is firing off rockets in Huntsville, a mere 60 miles away, while he lives in squalor. And I’m almost ashamed to say that until I purchased The Dirty South, I had no idea that the recent Rock movie Walking Tall was a remake of a 1973 feature, and I surely didn’t know that it was about mythological redneck lawman Buford Pusser. Fortunately, Patterson Hood offers up not one, but two songs on the aforementioned subject, lovingly rendered from the bad guys point of view.

While Drive-By Truckers boast three songwriter/vocalists, Hood and Mike Cooley take the lion’s share of songwriting duties, which is unsurprising considering they’ve been making music together since the mid-'80s. Of the two, Hood’s songs tend to be more literal, usually alternating between character sketches (e.g.; his WWII veteran great uncle) and virtual diary entries (“Tornadoes”). While his gruff vocals aren’t entirely incapable of carrying a tune (“The Sands of Iwo Jima”), the majority of his compositions wisely sacrifice melody for crunch, and his best songs are positively Crazy Horse-like. Hood has openly expressed his admiration for Neil Young in the press (and on wax, check “Ronnie and Neil” from 2001’s Southern Rock Opera), and a song like “Lookout Mountain” could easily pass for a Ragged Glory-era B-side, reveling in the overdrive of the Truckers’ three guitar lineup.

In contrast, Cooley’s contributions are a little more along the lines of what a layperson would deem “country-rock,” which is to say up tempo and delivered with a killer twang. He too expounds on a variety of topics indigenous to his home, ranging from the history of Sam Philips’ Sun Records label on “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” to the Southern obsession with NASCAR on “Daddy’s Cup.” Cooley is also responsible for opener “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” a hellfire stomp featuring some fantastic slide work by Hood.

But the Truckers’ not-so secret weapon has to be 25 year old Jason Isbell, young enough to be Patterson Hood’s son, but possessing a sonorous voice and songwriting ability usually associated with men twice his age. The Dirty South is the second Drive-By Truckers record on which he’s a full-fledged member, and just like he took top honors on last year’s Decoration Day with the title track and “Outfit,” he does so here again with “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love.” The former is a plaintive lament utilizing the untimely deaths of the two Band members in its title as a metaphor for the life of a traveling musician. The latter closes out the record, and it is as traditionally C&W as these guys get; a pedal steel augmented, cry-in-your-beer song as effective as anything by Willie Nelson.

The Dirty South takes a little longer to sink in than previous Drive-By Truckers albums; there isn’t anything here as immediately catchy as “Marry Me” or “My Sweet Annette” from Decoration Day, and the raucous sense of humor evident in earlier songs such as “Steve McQueen” and “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)” is more or less absent. At fourteen songs and seventy minutes, The Dirty South is not without filler (the first of the two Buford Pusser songs comes to mind), and though it’s not as relentlessly bleak as its predecessor, a little of the levity evident on 2000’s smoldering live disc Alabama Ass Whupping would have been welcome.

But I’m really just nitpicking here, and it’s unquestionable that The Dirty South easily qualifies as Drive-By Truckers third excellent album in four years. A good thing, too, seeing as the number of American bands capable of weaving a good yarn while rocking you on your ass appears to be severely limited. While purposely not the sprawling opus that Southern Rock Opera was and maybe the slightest bit weaker than Decoration Day, comparing The Dirty South to the last two Truckers’ records is like arguing over the merits of the first two Godfather movies. Either way you win.