Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Let the Drive-By Truckers Proselytizing Commence

A few years ago,  some of my friends went to see Son Volt play the Filmore in San Francisco. They were sharing the bill with an outfit called the Drive-By Truckers, a band none of us had seen or heard of. I stayed home with my girls.

Everybody told me the next day that the Truckers had played the best rock show they'd ever seen, and most of my friends bought a bunch of their records. 

I listened, reluctantly. Southern Rock Opera appealed to my wife more than it did to me; she grew up in a southern household enamored of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Her cousin played with The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Southern rock seemed natural to her, while I favored the Neil Young side of the debate between "Southern Man" & "Sweet Home Alabama." I guess I'd always harbored a Midwesterner's disdain for the stereotypes of the South: racist, provincial, anti-intellectual, backward.

But living as a Nebraska native in California subjected me to a small dose of my own medicine. Left coasters sometimes made assumptions about the Midwest and its people that I tried hard to dispel. And while much of what Californians disparage about conservative red-state mentality is based in fact, most folks in and around Omaha are kind, generous, and straightforward. I wish some Norcal Progressive politics would mix with Omaha no-bullshit pragmatism, but there you go.

I guess what I mean is that many Midwestern ideas about California are crap, and most Californians have no idea about Nebraska. Reaching out to another region's culture can teach us a lot about our own. And listening to the work of Southerners while living in California eased my sense of exile.

However, The Drive-By Truckers don't play "southern rock." They deconstruct it. They temper it with rock influences from The Band, punk aesthetics borrowed from The Clash, and radical politics found in The Jam. Three-axe assaults alternate with ballads of melancholy folk.

By the time I finally saw them play a live date in Sacramento, I had devoured three of their albums. I think The Dirty South is a Romantic and Marxist masterpiece. The things I love about early Wordsworth (and Springsteen)--his close examination of the rural poor and his attempts to imaginatively ease their suffering-- also permeate the Trucker's songs. Lyrics about the personal cost of being an artist surround songs about the dehumanizing implications of economic upheaval. The Truckers' narrators are often bootleggers, gun-runners, meth-heads, and unemployed machinists -- voices of the underclass of American prosperity, emerging from the shadows. And they're pissed about what their lives have cost them. Yet these same characters also raise their voices to the heavens and wail about the beauty of their existence.

While the songwriter whose work I liked the most has struck out on his own, the last two 'Truckers albums still resonate with fist-in-the-air rock sensibility and that-ain't-right political anger. And the anguish of loss or leaving a loved one behind still seeps through.

They play the Slowdown in Omaha on October 26.  You should go.

Nobody told me it'd be easy
Or for that matter, it'd be so hard
But it's the livin' and learnin'
It makes the difference
It makes it all worthwhile
It makes it all worthwhile

Sometimes I dream that I had aimed my life in different ways
But there was nothin' to show me a way to get me outta this place
So I just did what my daddy did before me
Only to find the only door I found was closed to me


  1. The DBT really are one of the great southern bands of the last 30 years. Whenever I get homesick I crank up the DBT's, fry some chicken, and indulge in that great southern tradition of front porch drinking (on a couch that I carried out of the living room)

  2. EOB I was in the same situation, just that my moves were in the opposite direction. My experiences with regional bias were much the same.