I was reared in a one-traffic light town a stone’s throw north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where I spent my formative years drinking beer in a juke joint in Taneytown with “The Klan Is Watching You” stickers in the urinals (seriously, watching me piss?), swallowing Placidyl and swigging Wild Turkey with a pig farmer buddy whose chief joy resided in gunning his El Camino through the high corn in the dead of a moonless night with the headlights off, and sneaking dad’s .22 cat rifle into the family’s small unfinished basement with my brother Jeffrey to fire rebounding rounds off the close brick walls in a suicidally stupid sport we called “Dodge the Ricochet.” (We had to call it quits when the old man asked, “What are all these dings in the water heater?”)
With a youth like that, of course I loved Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was in my DNA. But as the years passed and punk hit the sticks, being a Skynyrd fan began to be seen as a symptom of congenital idiocy or worse, and I was forced into hiding like a redneck Anne Frank. While my friends and I were listening to The Minutemen’s “Little Man with a Gun in His Hand,” I was still harboring a secret love for “Gimme Back My Bullets.”
And so things went until 2001, when vindication came in the form of the Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera, an ambitious concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Southland in all its faded glory. Southern Rock Opera—a double album which recounted the Skynyrd story from their early days practicing in the Hell House until their fatal plane crash in Gillsburg, Mississippi—finally gave Ronnie Van Zant and company the respect they deserved, and I loved it and so did the critics. At long last, it was safe to come out of the Skynyrd closet.
If Southern Rock Opera was the Drive-By Truckers only album, it would be enough for me. But over DBT’s long career—the Athens, Georgia band have been at it since 1999′s Gangstabilly—they’ve written an amazing body of iconic songs about the South: thundering rockers and country numbers about moonshining hillbillies and hard-boozing bubbas, feckless ne’er do wells, and working class stiffs just trying, as chief songwriter and singer/guitarist Patterson Hood sings, “to stay focused on the righteous path.”
Hood has also written sympathetically about the human cost of America’s wars and the rapacious industrial and banking practices that have destroyed the way country folk have lived for countless generations. And DBT are obsessed with the folklore of Dixie—not only have they written a three-song suite about legendary McNairy County sheriff Buford “Walking Tall” Pusser, they’re probably the only recording artists on earth besides Randy Newman to write a song about brother/sister incest. (Alas, Randy’s is both better and funnier.)
Some things have changed over time, however. Such as the band’s line-up. Since Gangstabilly the Truckers have gone through almost as many personnel changes as Menudo. The most important departure was that of Jason Isbell, whose songwriting skills rivaled those of Hood and songwriter and guitarist/singer Mike Cooley, in 2007. In 2011 Shonna Tucker, the band’s long-time bass player, quit. And just days ago John Neff, who played guitar, pedal steel guitar, and vocals, decided to call it a day. But Hood and Cooley remain, along with Brad Morgan on drums, Jay Gonzalez on keyboards and vocals, and Mike Patton on bass.
Another thing that has changed over the years is the band’s sound. Starting with 2006′s A Blessing and a Curse, the Truckers have attempted to shed the southern rock label by writing songs more in the classic rock mode. It’s tough, for example, not to hear the Tom Petty sneaking into A Blessing and a Curse’s “Wednesday.” But even I was unprepared for the surprise that is DBT’s latest, 2011′s Go-Go Boots. Out are the loud and blistering guitars, and in is “Used to Be a Cop,” with its syncopated drum beat and slicker, more contemporary sound. And it’s the closest thing to a rock song on the LP. I like both the sunny pop song “I Do Believe” and the cover of straight-out sweet soul number “Everybody Needs Love” by late Muscle Shoals guitarist Eddie Hinton, but neither sounds anything like DBT.
More characteristic of the band—but subpar—are not just one but two sluggish Hood numbers about preachers and murder, the title cut and “The Fireplace Poker,” the latter of which is not just dull but clocks in at an interminable eight minutes plus. Throw in a pair of so-so songs by the departed Tucker, and a couple of Cooley country songs that aren’t quite up to his usual stellar standards, and what you’ve got is an LP that is not just all over the place, but may mark the nadir of the band’s career.
So I arrived at the 9:30 Club on Sunday, December 30 not knowing what to expect. A new, smoother Drive-By Truckers, or the band whose delirious live shows have audiences singing along word for word? My only real hope was that they stayed well away from “The Fireplace Poker.”
I needn’t have worried. DBT played but one song off Go-Go Boots (“Used to be a Cop,” which sounded about the same as it does on record) and delivered a fantastic set from opener to six-song encore. The guitars were every bit as deafening as the time I saw them at SXSW, and the band didn’t seem to miss Neff. They opened with two populist numbers, “Uncle Frank” (from 1999’s Pizza Deliverance) by Cooley and “Puttin’ People on the Moon” by Hood. “Uncle Frank”—about a farmer who commits suicide rather than be forced from his land by the construction of a hydroelectric dam—featured some finger-burning solos by Cooley and fine Gonzalez keyboard work, while “Puttin’ People on the Moon” was told in the voice of a bitter working man (“Goddamn Reagan’s in the White House/And no one there gives a damn”) who loses his job at the Ford plant and has to turn to dealing drugs.
DBT then played “Women Without Whisky” (“If I make it through this year/I think I’m gonna put this bottle down/Maybe as time goes on/I’ll learn to miss it less than I do now”), which Cooley sang in his most doleful voice, and came complete with a nice organ solo by Gonzalez. It was followed by the funereal “Plastic Flowers on the Highway,” about the only song I didn’t need to hear that night, although towards the end the band broke into a jam featuring some intense interplay between guitar and organ and ending with a truly fierce guitar solo by Cooley. The upbeat “Self-Destructive Zones” included a couple of raucous Cooley solos—the man is truly an ax svengali—and some lyrics that I don’t understand, but love: “The night the practice room caught fire/There were rumors of a dragon headed straight for Muscle Shoals/”Stoner tries to save an amplifier”/And it’s like the dragon’s side of the story is never told.”
“Sinkhole”—the opening guitars and beat of which brought to mind those neglected Southern rockers, the Outlaws—was another populist number by Hood. He interrupted his story of a farmer who kills a banker, buries him in a sinkhole, then says, “Damned if I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday/And look the preacher in the eye” to take the opportunity to denounce Congress and trickle-down economics at length, before singing “Bury ‘em all in the old sinkhole.” Meanwhile, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”—a song about the perils of moonshine—was backed by a giant drum beat and a mean brace of guitars, and was closed out by yet another frenetic guitar jam.
Drive-By Truckers returned to Pizza Deliverance for the meandering and hilarious “The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town,” which Hood delivered in talking blues mode. The song tells the story of Hood and Cooley slumped hung over in a café the morning after the Allin show, listening to an outraged old man read aloud from The Memphis Star about G.G.’s outrages to his appalled wife: “It says he took a shit on the stage and started throwing it into the crowd.” And, “It says he took the microphone and shoved it up his ass!” And concludes with Hood’s observation: “The old man and his wife were aghast.”
Cooley’s cheerfully upbeat “Carl Perkins Cadillac”—a number about the heyday of Sun Studios which came complete with a cool organ solo and is an instant classic if ever I heard one—was followed by the double-time “Get Downtown,” which included some very Skynyrd-sounding keyboard work and more guitar mayhem by Cooley. Hood then introduced the pretty “Heathens,” with its simple guitar strumming, quiet organ work, and defiant observations of the poor white trash in the neighborhood: “We were heathens in their eyes at the time/I guess I am just a heathen still/And I never have repented from the wrongs that they say I have done/I’ve done what I feel.”
Cooley laid blistering guitar over crashing drums on the stripper ode “Birthday Boy” (“Which one’s the birthday boy?/ She said, “I ain’t got all night”/ What your momma name?/ You can call me what you like”), then Hood broke into “Girls Who Smoke,” a crowd-pleaser in which the chiming guitars got louder and louder before breaking into a tremendous three-guitar free-for-all. Cooley’s rip-roaring “3 Dimes Down” also got the three-guitar treatment, along with a nod to Bob Seger: “Three dimes down/And 25 cents shy/Of a slice of the Doublemint twins/Come back baby, Rock and Roll never forgets.” DBT then launched into a cover of the late, great Warren Zevon’s rocker “Play It All Night Long,” with its comic lyrics and salute to Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Sweet home Alabama/Play that dead band’s song/Turn those speakers up full blast/Play it all night long.” The speakers were indeed up full blast, and Cooley rode a great solo atop some excellent organ by Gonzalez.
The band then left the stage, and returned to perform an encore that began with “Zip City,” a midtempo number boasting a chunky organ fill and a great distorted guitar solo by Cooley. They then performed Hood’s languorous and beautiful “World of Hurt,” with Hood speaking the verses and the whole crowd singing the chorus before Cooley launched into a slow but delicious guitar solo that went on and on, and that you wished would go on forever. After that Gonzalez launched into the big Tom Petty organ riff that introduces the GTO-fast “Marry Me,” the loudest proposal ever made. Cooley played a mean guitar solo over Hood’s power chords, and everybody in the audience said “Yes.”
DBT then played the slow “Road Cases,” and followed it up with the breakneck “Shut Up and Get On the Plane” off Southern Rock Opera. Cooley tossed some superfast Chuck Berry guitar licks over Van Zant’s fatalistic words to a band with forebodings about the plane ride they’re about to take: “When it comes your time to go/Ain’t no good way to go about it/Ain’t no use in thinking bout it/You’ll just drive yourself insane/There comes a time for everything/And the time has come for you/To shut your mouth and get your ass on the plane.”
Me, my favorite song of the night was the show closer, “Angels and Fuselage,” the final track on Southern Rock Opera. A slow and intensely moving song, it has Van Zant reminiscing about old times, knowing his end has come: “Strapped to this projectile/Just a blink ago/I was back in school/Smoking by the gym door/Practicing my rock-star attitude.” Some wag says, “Last call for alcohol,” but death awaits, and Van Zant sees frightening visions: “I’m scared shitless/Of what’s coming next/And I’m scared shitless/These angels I see in the trees/Waiting for me.” Hood then played some harmonica before Cooley kicked in with an otherworldly guitar solo over Hood’s power chords that seemed to go on, wonderfully, forever. Then the band members left the stage one by one until it was just Cooley, who sat his guitar squalling feedback on the stage and walked off too.
What can I say? It was a magnificent conclusion to a magnificent show. And it reminded me that, while like DBT, I’ve taken great strides from my redneck upbringing, it will always be with me. Part of me will always be riding with Billy Harrison through the high corn at midnight with the headlights off, hoping to hell we don’t plough into an unseen electric fence or find ourselves submerged in an unexpected farm pond. And I’m proud of it. So you’ll have to excuse me, because this review is over, and I have “Free Bird” to listen to.