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Drive-By Truckers performing in Nashville in 2017. (Getty Images)
Drive-By Truckers performing in Nashville in 2017. (Getty Images)

The flag bearers of southern rock

Drive-By Truckers are the undisputed stars of American southern rock. Their 12th album captures the fractured spirit of a country’s society in crisis

It has been nearly 20 years since Drive-By Truckers released their landmark album, Southern Rock Opera, but it remains their most important piece of work and an all-time compelling listen. The 20 songs on the two-disc concept album have a theme: It is about the rise of a southern rock band (based loosely on the legendary Lynyrd Skynyrd) but also about its abrupt demise when three of its members die in an aeroplane crash in 1977. That, however, is nowhere near an accurate description of the album because it is much more. Southern Rock Opera captures the ethos of American, guitar-driven southern rock like no other album—three lead guitars and passionate vocals with meaningful lyrics, accompanied by a welcome burst of supreme confidence.

Southern Rock Opera explores its theme through the experiences of a teenage music fan who eventually realizes his dream of playing in a southern rock band. But the stories in its songs also delve into the contradictions in the social culture of the south. Drive-By Truckers, now in their 23rd year, are the quintessential exponents of that genre. Led by co-founders Patterson Hood (guitar, vocals, songwriting) and Mike Cooley (guitar), the band had its origins in Alabama but got established in Athens, Georgia. In the beginning, their sound was more twangy country than hard-hitting southern rock and, in their early days, they got classified as an alternative country band. On their first two albums, Gangstabilly (1998) and Pizza Deliverance (1999), they played mandolins, banjos, fiddles, upright bass and harmonica. From the beginning, the lyrics were hard-hitting and riveting. But it was only on later albums that their sound transitioned into heavier rock.

A prolific band, Drive-By Truckers released 11 studio albums in the first 18 years of their existence, touring extensively and building an impressive fan base. Southern Rock Opera was followed by two other impressive albums, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, both consolidating and establishing the band’s trademark style—two-three guitars and an attitude teeming with pride in the south. Their songs offered a deep look at the American south’s culture. On Daddy’s Cup from The Dirty South, Hood sings about learning to drive and race from his father, a motor-car racer who had lost part of his eyesight: He would put me on his lap when he’d drive and I’d take the wheel/ He’d say what do you think about that son? How does she feel?/ You just wait till them little legs get long enough to reach the gas/ Once you put her on the floor one time there ain’t no turning back.

That song goes on to describe how he became a racer, wrecked many cars but also strove to win the cup that his father never managed to win. Stories such as these abound in Drive-By Truckers’ discography. In Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife (from 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark), Hood sings from the point of view of a man who has just died and is thinking of what happens to the family he has left behind.

Around 2016, the band’s themes became more serious and political. As the US witnessed the divisive politics of the Trump era and a surge in racism, hate and discrimination, the Truckers released American Band, an explicitly political album of protest songs. The southern ethos is still grittily intact on the 11 songs in that album but they are marked by consternation about what was happening in American society. One critic called the album an “op-ed column with guitars".

Four years later, Drive-By Truckers have released their 12th studio album. The wait has been uncharacteristically long, for the band is usually quicker to record new albums, but it has been worth the while. The new release, The Unraveling, with only nine songs that clock out at around 42 minutes, is short. But it is sharp. Like its predecessor, The Unraveling is again unapologetically political. Things in American society have not become any better since 2016, and the band notes its worries about campus shootings, opiate addiction and incarceration of immigrant children. It’s a dark album that is sombre and introspective but while the fun quotient—always an ingredient in the Truckers’ recipes—may be less evident in their latest offering, it is an excellent album with which they have evolved further from the turning point that American Band was.

The Unraveling is a remarkable chronicle of the current spirit of the times in contemporary America. Musically, it is uncompromising. The ubiquitous guitar solos by Hood and Cooley are eloquent, drums and bass create a fiery rhythm section and the keyboards dazzle. For those who are ardent fans of southern rock, this is bliss. There are notable southern rockers out there—some of them, such as the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gov’t Mule, are more celebrated than the Drive-By Truckers—but with this album, the band proves that it deserves its own place at the top. If there are bands that continue to carry forward the legacy of classic southern bands, Drive-By Truckers is certainly one of them.

The Truckers have always had a knack for telling stories and the songs on The Unraveling are no different. In 21st Century USA, Hood sings: In a town that’s named for razor blades/ All American but Chinese made/ Folks workin’ hard for shrinkin’ pay/ 21st century USA. The stories in these songs are about despair and sadness but they are real.

***

The Lounge List

Five tracks by Drive-By Truckers to bookend your week

1. ‘21st Century USA’ from ‘The Unraveling’

2. ‘Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun’ from ‘The Unraveling’

3. ‘Goddamn Lonely Love’ from ‘The Dirty South’

4. ‘Daddy’s Cup’ from ‘The Dirty South’

5. ‘Gravity’s Gone’ from ‘A Blessing And A Curse’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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