Drive-By Truckers are perhaps the greatest extant American rock and roll band. Make the competition a little stiffer by expanding the criteria to bands no longer active — the Velvet Underground, Big Star, Sonic Youth — and they still make the top ten.
The band is as misunderstood as it is loved: Drive-By Truckers is not and has never been what is pejoratively known as a “southern rock” band, unless one considers every rock group from south of the Mason-Dixon line in such terms (hello, R.E.M.). The use of “southern rock”to describe Drive-By Truckers, then, is lazy shorthand the way “all girl band” is: it boils a group’s essence down to dull and non-descriptive qualities that have little, if anything, to do with music. Besides, three-guitar-attack notwithstanding, any connotations of good ol’ boys and rebel flags can be swiftly silenced by auditioning any of the nine Drive-By Truckers LPs (not including at least three live albums, a B-sides collection, and several singles), which all contain some of the sharpest and most exhilarating Modernist-Primitive rock music produced since a certain Canadian first pointed his beloved hearse at the Pacific Ocean.
Led by songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Drive-By Truckers’ sound is a behemoth of unique and spellbinding power, undiminished by frequent personnel changes (Hood and Cooley are the only remaining members from the original lineup) and periods of transition. As a group they embody the rare combination of chemistry and alchemy that distinguishes great bands from merely good ones. A hefty and under-discussed rhythm section (led by longtime drummer Brad “EZ-B” Morgan) ably underlines each power chord, each stoned twinkle of a Fender Rhodes, every ragged, heart-worn harmony.
But where Drive-By Truckers truly diverges from the many milksop ’classic rock with punk roots’ combos is in the songwriting of Hood and Cooley. Like Woody Allen’s re-telling of the same story through the respective lenses of comedy and tragedy in Melinda & Melinda, Drive-By Truckers songs provide the facts but impishly scramble the contexts, pitching moral hypotheticals and questioning notions of objectivity. Ambiguities dangle; hypocrisies are scrutinized; heroes and villains trade places. Often, Drive-By Truckers songs eulogize as they condemn, and vice versa. No entity is spared the band’s panoptic view of good and evil: everyone from judges and preachers to marginalized no-counts get their say. And while it is customary for rock and rollers to side with outlaw archetypes, Hood and Cooley are less likely to valorize Jesse James or Pretty Boy Floyd than to uncover the skeletons in the closet of their respective accusers. “Rubin ’Hurricane’ Carter is innocent,” they might have sung, “and, by the way, get a load of what we found in Miss Patty Valentine’s trash.”
Drive-By Truckers fans represent a wide spectrum: young and old; men and women; hipsters and frat boys; professors and rednecks; novelists and stock car racers. Such universal affection for any rock and roll band is as rare in 2013 as it is unlikely; for a rock and roll band this smart and this uncompromising, it is miraculous. Taking this into account, I don’t believe it is too optimistic to view the band’s success as indicative of rock music’s continued power as an ecumenical and equalizing force. Submitted for your approval, Drive-By Trucker’s albums from worst to best.