Soundtrack to the New Old South
Sometime in the early 1990’s, while attending an event called a “song swap” in Athens, Georgia, I met an extraordinarily gifted songwriter named Patterson Hood. The swap itself was essentially a weekly gathering of aspiring tunesmiths sharing their latest creations; we would sit in a circle and each play our songs, the other musicians joining in if they had the chops or the inclination. Everything was going fine—just another evening of pleasant mediocrity—until the slightly pudgy guy with a five-o’clock shadow and food stains down his shirt had his turn. Stomping his foot on the wooden floor in time with the music, he strummed his battered acoustic guitar and sang:
My roommate’s gun got nine bullets in it
Gonna find a use for every last one
One for the girl who chose to betray me
Better aim that sucker true
One for the guy that she betrayed with
A nice enough fella, she’ll betray him too
At that point, we all should have just got up and gone home, but we continued on, the rest of us noticeably subdued and slightly ashamed when it came time for our offerings. Then it was back to Patterson. “Mama ran off with a trucker!” he shrieked, playing a beefy, Stonesy guitar riff. “They got married . . . in Dollywood! / By a Porter Wagoner lookalike.”
Murder ballads and backwoods love—delivered with conviction and humor. Patterson’s music was all the more stunning because, at that time, the Athens music scene was in the throes of a rather odd psychedelic rock revival. A loose patchwork of bands calling themselves the Elephant 6 Collective ambled about town in garish clothes and—in their various hovels and broken-down rented duplexes—banged out a Dadaist racket with all the sweet earnestness of kids who had just discovered their parents’ dusty Beatles LP collections. The scene had attracted the attention of Rolling Stone, and it seemed as if every musician in Athens was busting his britches to be associated with Elephant 6. Not so Patterson. While he was friendly with all of these people, he steadfastly continued to follow his own Deep South muse. Out of this determination, he and childhood friend Mike Cooley formed the Drive-By Truckers.
[amazonify]B000068FUS[/amazonify]Considering the talent that had already been on display at the song swap, it was no surprise that the Truckers picked up a loyal audience virtually overnight and began touring and cutting albums, eventually landing a deal with the prestigious Austin, Texas, record label New West. Along the way, Patterson and Cooley began stringing together increasingly elaborate “song suites”—sequences of two or more songs exploring a single theme from various perspectives. As a lyricist, Patterson had moved beyond his rogues’ gallery of Flannery O’Connor outcasts and was beginning to grapple with the meaning and identity of the South itself, a quest that culminated in a double album entitled Southern Rock Opera. It is safe to say that there has never been anything quite like it in the annals of either rock or country music—a “musical novel” that, among other things, infuses the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd with the gravitas of a Shakespearean tragedy.
A little over a decade earlier, the band R.E.M. had come out of Athens and had been very closely identified with the South. They certainly did not sound like country or bluegrass or anything demonstrably Southern, but Michael Stipe’s barely discernible lyrics contained just enough folksy turns of phrase and references to colorful local characters (such as artist/preacher Howard Finster) to inspire a number of critics to anoint the quartet the Voice of the New South—a South which, in the hands of that particular post-punk band, came off as a fuzzy and nonthreatening “progressive” place with just enough eccentricity to make it interesting.
By contrast, some mused, the Drive-By Truckers represented the Old South and were a sort of rejoinder to R.E.M. But the label is not entirely appropriate, at least not in the way Old South is generally understood, for there is little antebellum splendor in the band’s lyrics. Rather, most of the Truckers’ songs focus on the farmers and hardworking country folk who got left behind when Henry Grady’s New South really began to take hold—when the smokestacks and factory farms pushed those who had once lived off the land into lives of desperation. Hood, Cooley, and post-Southern Rock Opera addition Jason Isbell present these people as dynamic human beings with strengths and foibles, not as the ignorant hicks they are so often portrayed to be in movies and TV. And yet the songwriters are not afraid to look at the dark side of things. On Southern Rock Opera, Hood tempers his regional pride with an honest appraisal of the South’s shortcomings. The track “Ronnie and Neil” serves as a sort of manifesto, in which he uses the Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd feud as a metaphor for the distorted prism through which many non-Southerners view the South:
And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs
About the bad sh-t that went down
“Southern Man” and “Alabama” certainly told some truth
But there were a lot of good folks down here
And Neil Young wasn’t around
His view of George Wallace is similarly multifaceted. In an extended spoken-word piece titled “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” he muses:
[Wallace’s] track record as a judge and his late-life quest for redemption make a good argument for his being at worst no worse than most white men of his generation, North or South.
And yet he rues the long-term effect of Wallace’s 1960’s legacy:
You know, racism is a worldwide problem, and it’s been since the beginning of recorded history, and it ain’t just white and black. But thanks to George Wallace, it’s always a little more convenient to play it with a Southern accent.
[amazonify]B0002E5OIW[/amazonify]Certainly, there are aspects of Southern Rock Opera and the equally adventurous follow-up, The Dirty South, that some Southerners may take issue with (the notion that George Wallace is now drinking sweet tea in Hell being just one), but no one can deny Hood the authority to explore these topics: He and his band mates are native sons of Alabama. In assessing Wallace, Patterson is simply sizing up the man who governed his state (both directly and through the proxy governorship of wife Lurleen) for most of his life. Hood is no “rock star from Canada” passing judgment on a region in which he has never set foot.
On the whole, what is most striking about Patterson’s ruminations is that they are almost entirely without precedent in popular music. While novelists have long explored the nuances of the South—many to great acclaim—songwriters have tended to render the region in black and white, offering up hackneyed clichés in an attempt to explain it. Even Bob Dylan could not resist penning the screed “Oxford Town,” in which his usually stately lyricism gives way to a sort of “See Spot Run” banality:
He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town
The South has certainly seen its share of great pop songwriters—Johnny Mercer, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash spring immediately to mind—but they often tend to write either in universal terms (Mercer’s songs were rarely region-specific) or about individual characters. And although Hood’s beloved Lynyrd Skynyrd gave us “Sweet Home Alabama”—a fine effort, to be sure—the Truckers, in articulating and defending the legacy of that earlier band, have done them one better; in presenting Skynyrd, Bear Bryant, and George Wallace as a sort of regional holy trinity, they have tied together the disparate threads of “the Southern thang” in a way that is unique.
The Truckers have released three albums since Southern Rock Opera, the best of which is The Dirty South. What really strikes me is the ascendancy of both Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell as songwriters par excellence. Indeed, “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”—Cooley’s paean to the 1950’s Memphis label Sun Records—contains more quotable phrases than any other song in recent memory. Like Hood, he is obsessed with the South—the myth, the reality, and what it means to be Southern. The Dirty South finds these two songwriters (along with Isbell, who would subsequently leave the band to embark on a successful solo career) working closely together to take the concepts of Southern Rock Opera even further. By the final ringing guitar note, the manifesto is complete.
After The Dirty South, there was nowhere to turn but left, and so the next album, A Blessing and a Curse, consisted of stripped-down, melodic songs with decidedly less twang. Some fans have not been happy with this new direction, but the band is simply doing what good bands are supposed to do: stretch, explore, evolve. Perhaps the title of the album reflects the complexity of the Drive-By Truckers’ own reputation.
After all, once you have been anointed the Voice of the New Old South, it is hard to set that aside and just rock. At any rate, over the course of several challenging and rewarding records, Patterson & Co. have given us all a lot to think about regarding region, history, personal identity, and outside perceptions of such.
After that first meeting at the song swap, Patterson and I sent letters and tapes back and forth for a time, keeping each other updated on what we were up to. I am sure he had many such pen pals back in those days, as he liked to carry around boxes of demo tapes and hand them out to whomever would accept them. And I will bet that anyone who listened to those tapes immediately dashed off a note to the P.O. box listed inside the case, requesting more. As for me, I drifted off into that psychedelia I mentioned earlier; consequently, it took me a while to appreciate the simplicity and elegance of the Truckers’ music. In fact, it really did not click until I left the South, at which point they became a lifeline.
[amazonify]B000ZKRFDA[/amazonify]No one talks about the Elephant 6 Collective anymore. But I have a hunch that, many years from now, people will still be listening to Southern Rock Opera and The Dirty South. Maybe those albums will inspire folks to read up on such colorful characters as George Wallace, Bear Bryant, Ronnie Van Zant, Buford Pusser, Sam Phillips, and Carl Perkins, or to research Patterson Hood himself. The music is loud, lewd, relentless—the songs, giant shards of electrified Southern rock only rarely giving way to the occasional bluegrass-tinged ballad—and the sustained sonic assault can be tiring at times. Yet amongst all that sound and fury is soaring poetry and an unerring portrait of a distinct time, place, and people.
The Drive-By Truckers’ latest album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, is available at the iTunes Music Store. Robert Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached (forthcoming from Verse Chorus Press).
This article first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.