Seven or eight years ago, I heard or most likely read about, an intriguing rock album that I immediately decided I must seek out. It was/is called “Southern Rock Opera” an awful title and the band was/are called The Drive-By Truckers, a terrific moniker for a rock’n’roll band.
What intrigued me about the damned thing? It was billed as a double-disc concept album based round the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd, all three-guitar attack and balls-to-the-wall jams, with the “rock opera” tag conjuring up images of overblown seventies albums, like the decidedly iffy Tommy or Rick Wakeman’s excerable steaming pile of medievalist pooh “The Six Ice-skating Wives of King Arthur at The Center of The Earth“, or whatever those bloody albums were called. So I reasoned, much as I adore ol’ Skynyrd this had to be a massive train wreck, wrong of concept, overblown of execution, worth that one listen so I could shake my head, have a laugh and move on saying, “What were they thinking?
So much for pre-conceived notions…..
By now, you’ll know how this worked out. Damned if the thing isn’t excellent. Okay, so two discs is too much for any band to sustain (even London Calling and Exile and Electric Ladyland falter here and there), but there are more than enough good songs and good songwriting to keep the listener engaged. It loosely follows the trajectory of Skynyrd’s career, culminating with the disaster that destroyed that first great band, but not so closely that cameos by George Wallace, Satan and Neil Young can’t be expanded and tangents explored. The South itself permeates the album far more deeply and sharply than, say, on something like Randy Newman’s Good Ol’ Boys, but then the DBT’s are southern natives with a sharp sense of place and the people who inhabit that space.
The DBT’s Patterson Hood, as sharp a songwriter as has come along in the last few years and his bandmate Mike Cooley, improving exponentially with every album, present a picture of people struggling with the everyday and negotiating the highs as well as the pitfalls as best they can. Following on from Southern Rock Opera, the band gave us the magnificent The Dirty South and the excellent Decoration Day, and if A Blessing and A Curse faltered then Brighter Than Creations Dark was a stunning return to form confirming that this is a major American band with plenty to say and definite ideas how to present them.
The DBT’s songs range widely from the man at the end of his rope after losing his wife to cancer, to the hill family decimated by a backwoods feud, the pain of a small town resident hiding his homosexuality or a keen understanding of the party girl who is forever twenty-one. There are slice-of-life songs direct from their own experiences of family life and family history and tales of hillbilly gangsters and iconic musicians, of John Ford and Carl Perkins and Sheriff Buford Pusser, of backwoods card players and people blown away by tornadoes. The whole tableau is observed with a keen eye and shot through with sympathy, empathy and understanding and a humanism that wouldn’t be out of place in the films of the aforementioned Ford or even Jean Renoir. Indeed the songs have a strong visual sense and these vignettes ring as true-to-life observations. They rarely hit a false note.
So I’m excited to hear this week’s new release The Big To-Do from the most consistently interesting band I’ve listened to these last eight years or so. When I’ve mulled it over I may well have something more to say….meanwhile you should definitely check these guys out. So forget the schadenfreude of a sonic train wreck, this is something far more interesting.
Here’s a little flavor of the DBT’s and how they roll……
Here’s the band on The David Letterman show this week……
Here’s an older track that’s a fave of mine….