Drive-By Truckers Albums From Worst To Best
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 Make the competition a little stiffer by expanding the criteria to bands no longer active — the Velvet Underground, Big Star, Sonic Youth — and they still make the top ten.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.
Debut albums are often tentative steps to future greatness, and though Gangstabilly exhibits many of the growing pains we commonly associate with still-incubating groups, it is also far better than its puerile title would suggest. Featuring a bunch of besotted pals including upright bassist Adam Howell, drummer Matt Lane, and guitarist and future full-time Trucker John Neff, the album is mostly Hood's show: His heart-rending "The Living Bubba," which remains a concert staple and fan favorite, is a life-affirming tale of an AIDS-afflicted musical peer; the slow-burning "Why Henry Drinks" is a preview of the sort of acute character studies Hood would perfect on future albums; and the robust, nose-snubbing revelry of "Buttholeville" is the band's very own "T-Bone," for better or worse. "Panties In Your Purse," Cooley's lone songwriting contribution, introduces his trademark rapier wit with this bon mot: "You asked me if I could play some Dylan / I said 'Dylan who?'/ And you told me to kiss your ass." Like Nirvana's Bleach, Gangstabilly sounds less like the work of a great band than a damn good first try.
A Blessing And A Curse (2006)
A Blessing And A Curse is no Drive-By Truckers fan's favorite album, but it remains a crucial piece of the puzzle, providing one of the clearest depictions of a great band in turmoil since Let It Be. Growing rifts within the band are reflected in an album that is disjointed and lumpy. It is the first Drive-By Truckers album since Pizza Deliverance to not contain some thematic element threading each songwriter's contributions together; as such, the album feels less like a cohesive work than a collection of odds and ends. Isbell's increasingly commercial songs prove particularly incompatible, and his Ryan Adams-sounding contributions to A Blessing And A Curse prove, for the first time, to be more curse than blessing. Still, the album is by no means a stinker: "Space City" is Cooley's attempt to recapture the magic of his own excellent "Zip City," and comes within spitting distance; Hood's "Feb 14th" opens the album with a sterling pop-rocker that would have fit snugly on any great Replacements disc; and closing track "A World Of Hurt" is a wistful talking-blues that seems to confront, perhaps in code, some of the alienation occurring within the band. Still, the album is marred by a feeling of transition teetering on spiritual bankruptcy; even the runtime -- a relatively paltry 47 minutes -- is nearly ten minutes shorter than any other Drive-By Truckers album to date. Cracks were showing.
The Big To-Do (2010)
Over a period of several months in early 2009, Drive-By Truckers recorded enough material for two records, to be released eleven months apart. The first album to be issued from these sessions was The Big To-Do, an album of galumphing guitars and grandiose arrangements whose parallels between the life of a rock and roll band and a traveling circus did not stop at its artwork (created, like every Drive-By Truckers album since Southern Rock Opera, by Wes Freed). The album is appropriately named; everything about The Big To-Do is writ large, even when the material doesn't always deserve capital letters. Though now-legendary mastering issues add an unwelcome layer of distortion to several songs, David Barbe's sumptuous production crackles; songs like the Wurlitzer-assisted "Fourth Night Of My Drinking," and the melodic-but-muscular "Daddy Learned To Fly" provide some of the band's best sounding material to date. Cooley's "Birthday Boy," written from the point of view of smartass stripper, is mandatory 'best of' material, while "Get Downtown" rather brilliantly uses the template of a 70s-era sitcom to personalize, to the beat of 70s boogie, the recession's effect on the hoi polloi. Album highlight "The Wig He Made Her Wear" is a riveting account of a trial involving an uxoricidal preacher, complete with swooping guitars and tasteful accompaniment, thanks in no small part to new keyboardist Jay Gonzales. Unfortunately, the album also features some of the band's least memorable material since Gangstabilly: Bassist Shonna Tucker's two lyrically light contributions are her most frustratingly insubstantial yet; Cooley's sentimental "Eyes Like Glue" is conspicuously and uncharacteristically trite; and Hood's reach slightly exceeds his grasp on the circus-themed "The Flying Wallendas." The Big To-Do's moody and atmospheric counterpart Go-Go Boots would soon follow, and any attempts to reconcile the shared provenance of these two very distinct albums makes the band's prudent decision to release them separately seem especially wise in hindsight.
Pizza Deliverance (1999)
Released in May of 1999, Pizza Deliverance marks the end of an era for Drive-By Truckers. Songs about presidential phalluses and punk rock heroes shoving objects up their asses would soon give way to less scatological (though no less successful) attempts at humor, while the blowsier sonics of this lo-fi era would henceforth be replaced by larger ambitions and an almost single-minded professionalism. This is not to the band's detriment, as Drive-By Truckers would make many better records than Pizza Deliverance, though it could reasonably be argued that the album features the band's highest concentration of great and enduring songs. Though many of the tunes on Pizza Deliverance pre-date the recording of Gangstabilly (earlier recordings of the former's "Bulldozers And Dirt" and "Nine Bullets" actually comprised the band's debut 7"), the album holds the distinction of being the first great Drive-By Truckers album; it practically bulges under the weight of songs most budding tunesmiths would give their fretting hand to have written. There is a great scene in the 2009 Drive-By Truckers documentary The Secret To A Happy Ending in which Temple University Professor of American Studies Bryant Simon praises Cooley's "Uncle Frank," featured here, for better articulating the collateral damage caused by the TVA than any thesis he's read. "Bulldozers and Dirt," appearing here in a less folksy version than appears on the band's prohibitively rare first single, is like a fully developed film treatment disguised as a sleazy sing-along, while the confessional and equally anthemic "The Company I Keep" might be the finest loser anthem not penned by someone named Westerberg. Best of all is the late-album pairing of Patterson's poignant and perfect "Tales Facing Up" with Cooley's "Love Like This," one of the most honest and emotionally bracing portrayals of alcoholic coupledom ever written. The album was recorded in the old farmhouse Hood's family was renting, and sounds it: instruments bleed into vocal mics, chairs creak, mistakes are made. The charm of Pizza Deliverance is in its deceptive simplicity; it's the kind of record that sounds easy to make until you actually try. Old school fans occasionally bemoan the band's shift away from the gloriously raw approach of these early days, but Hood and Cooley left this style behind with good cause: on Pizza Deliverance, they'd already perfected it.
The Dirty South (2004)
If the divorce-themed Decoration Day examines the destruction of a relationship, the glacial, smoldering The Dirty South sounds like the monstrous diesel engine garbage truck that comes to collect the detritus and run over the small pieces. The darkest of the nine official Drive-By Truckers releases, The Dirty South is a jewel of an album that captures the band at their yowling, howling best. Patterson's "Puttin' People On The Moon" is an update on Gil-Scott Heron's "Whitey On The Moon," and is nearly as excoriating. Like the Heron classic, Hood personalizes the issue of wasteful government spending, paralleling Heron's rat-bitten sister Nell with his own cancer-stricken Mary Alice, to lacerating rhetorical effect. Cooley's "Carl Perkins Cadillac" is rock history in six immaculate verses, and Hood's fittingly vertiginous "Tornadoes" rivals any song in his catalog; but The Dirty South belongs to Isbell. If Drive-By Truckers fans initially viewed the young songwriter as an untested arriviste, his songwriting contributions to The Dirty South left any remaining naysayers picking crow from their teeth. "Goddamn Dirty Love" is an idiosyncratic love song that recalls nothing so much as barroom mystic-era Tom Waits, while the wobbly atonement described in "Danko-Manuel" is the sound of a gifted writer discovering his voice and composing well beyond his years. Coupled with his two contributions to Decoration Day, the three Isbell-penned songs on The Dirty South (the third is the frosty "Never Gonna Change") distinguish Isbell's narrative voice from those of his bandmates. Though still maintaining the Drive-By Truckers modus operandi — romaticism with a caveat, heritage with an asterisk — the Isbell of The Dirty South is the sound of a man desperate to seek his own path, and discovering it alone. The album's second half is dominated by a suite of songs about Buford Pusser, the real-life inspiration for the 1973 film Walking Tall, and continues the band's trend toward parallel narratives told through different points of view. If the album falls just short of reaching the vaunted highlights of its nearest sonic analogue Southern Rock Opera and seems mysteriously less than the sum of its parts, it is only due to the disparity of the three principle songwriters' contributions. Regardless, The Dirty South deserves a place of honor in any rock history book yet to be written.
Go-Go Boots (2011)
Even the band was surprised by the success of Go-Go Boots, the smuttier, spacier follow-up to "big rock record" The Big To-Do, recorded during the same sessions. Go-Go Boots opens with "I Do Believe," which begins, like Pizza Deliverance and Decoration Day before it, with an a cappella vocal by Hood, before launching into an ever-modulating song of familial love. The lyrics masterfully conjure time and place with references both specific ("Percy Sledge on the radio") and universal (the healing effect of the ocean on "scraped-up knees"). An earnest cover of Eddie Hinton's "Everybody Needs Love" may have added many new names to the band's mailing list, but it is the original songs here that shine brightest. Hood in particular steals the show: added to his growing collection of "unscrupulous clergymen" songs are the keening and bluesy title track and the noir & B churn "The Fireplace Poker," sequels in a sense to The Big To-Do's "The Wig He Made Her Wear." Even better is "Used To Be A Cop," a palm-muted, slow burn of a song whose musical tension mirrors the paranoia of the song's protagonist. Go-Go Boots also finds the band tipping their hats to influences beyond Muscle Shoals: "Mercy Buckets" is the album's "Miracle Mile," a sweet-not-sappy love pledge that generously offers to become an accessory to murder, while Cooley's vaguely ominous "Pulaski," long a bootleg staple, reminds us of country music's long tradition of ultra-grim narratives from "Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town" to "(Margie's At) The Lincoln Park Inn." The excitement only dips during Tucker's two contributions, which do show improvement over the feckless Fleetwood Mac imitations on The Big To-Do, but still stand in stark, unforgiving contrast beside even Hood and Cooley's lesser contributions. Barring this, Go-Go Boots is a superb album, one on which most bands would be happy to hang their reputation. Magnificently, it doesn't even make the band's top three.
Southern Rock Opera (2001)
Recorded using loans solicited from family, friends, and fans, Southern Rock Opera could be considered one of the first 'crowd-funded' albums, predating Kickstarter by over a decade. Ostensibly a rock opera relating the trials and tribulations of fictional rock band Betamax Guillotine, whose trajectory loosely parallels that of Lynyrd Skynyrd in microcosm, or something, the enormous and occasionally endurance-testing Southern Rock Opera is the band's breakthrough album, the one that introduced Drive-By Truckers to the world. It is inarguably deserving of its sterling reputation. The album's storyline is, as with most rock operas, somewhere between puzzling and inscrutable, but it hardly matters. The sonic palette, widely expanded from the home-recorded Pizza Deliverance despite a shoestring budget, magnifies the band's strengths as a wholly committed, formidable rock band: guitars become primeval thundercracks, the suddenly bulky rhythm section swings for picket fences, and vocals cut through the din as if the lyrics were being read off scraps of sandpaper. Still, all this synergistic chemistry and dauntless ambition wouldn't amount to much without great songs; luckily, Southern Rock Opera is quite literally full of them. Hood's autobiographical "Let There Be Rock" is the Drive-By Truckers song that launched a hundred message boards, while Cooley's equally personal "Zip City" features one of his most quotable -- nay, tattoo-able! -- lyrics: "I got 350 heads on a 305 engine/ I get ten miles to the gallon/ I ain't got no good intentions." Elsewhere, "Women Without Whiskey" is the sound of a man with hands too shaky to write a Dear John letter to the bottle that let him down; Hood's "The Three Great Alabama Icons" drafts a team comprising controversial segregationist and original flip-flopper Governor George Wallace, legendary University of Alabama head coach Bear Bryant, and doomed Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalist Ronnie Van Zant to help testify of the "duality of the Southern thing"; even two serviceable songwriting contributions by third wheel Rob Malone move the story, and the album, along nicely. The entire album seems to lead up to "Angels and Fuselage," which concludes this opera not with a fat lady, but with a harrowing plane crash. This masterwork of mood and menace, which tops out at just over eight minutes, is alt country's "Expressway To Yr Skull." It's a song that encapsulates Southern Rock Opera's recurring themes of determination, salvation, and penance that doesn't forget pride. These are songs encrypted with allusions cultural, historical and personal, combining to create a rich embroidery of allegory and tall tales. We're a long way from Buttholeville, folks.
Brighter Than Creation's Dark (2008)
While many Drive-By Truckers fans will view the placement on this list of Brighter Than Creation's Dark over Southern Rock Opera as heresy, I intend to make a case for the former as the better album, as well as the Drive-By Truckers album with which to win over prospective converts. Bouncing back from the loss of Isbell, the band makes their longest (non-double) album yet, promoting bassist Shonna Tucker to third songwriter, as well as adding legendary Muscle Shoals pianist Spooner Oldham and returning guitarist John Neff to the ranks. The larger band seems to really wrap themselves around these songs: Spooner's gentle touch renders every Wurlitzer note a resonant raindrop, while Tucker's melodic and frequently underrated bass playing is better suited to these songs than any previous batch. Brighter Than Creation's Dark is an embarrassment of riches, boasting an unprecedented seven songs from the usually underrepresented Cooley, with nary a weak track to be found. Singling out any of the nineteen tracks is a fool's errand, but permit me some foolishness: Cooley's "Three Dimes Down," whose title was tellingly adopted by the Drive-By Truckers online discussion board, is a musical valentine to the rowdy Stones of Some Girls; Hood's seething, gargantuan "The Righteous Path" re-imagines Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World" for a post-Cheney and Bush America; even Tucker, making her songwriting debut, contributes at least two winners in the form of the soulful "I'm Sorry Huston" and "The Purgatory Line," a piece that describes the spurning and yearning of a failed relationship with exceptional insight and heart. The album picks up momentum as it goes along, saving some of its best tracks for last: Cooley's deceptively heavy "A Ghost To Most" confronts mortality while shopping for Levi's, and Patterson's "Goode's Field Road" plays out like a James Crumley story set to a smoldering Hill County blues (the comparatively hopped-up rendition found on the band's B-side collection The Fine Print is even better). Subtle and stony, Brighter Than Creation's Dark is perhaps the most Drive-By Truckers-like of any Drive-By Truckers album, and though it's expected that some will compare it to the similarly ambitious but comparatively eviscerating Southern Rock Opera, the only album in the Drive-By Truckers canon that boasts a longer running time, surely there is room enough for both; I suspect individual preferences may boil down to something as innocuous as whether you'd rather tie one on or catch a fire.
Decoration Day (2003)
Its title referring to the day southern churches place flowers on the graves of departed loved ones, Decoration Day is a song cycle about family, choices, and the sacrifices demanded by each. Written largely during a two-year marathon of touring in support of Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day vividly describes the consequences of this distance. Perhaps even more than the concept album Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day is marked by motif; Each of the band's three songwriters contributes a song to Decoration Day that references wedding rings, and the song titled "Marry Me" isn't even one of them. Both Hood and Cooley refer in separate songs to being 'outgrown' by a partner, and the marital tensions described in Cooley's "Sounds Better In The Song" are echoed in Hood's "(Something's Got To) Give Pretty Soon" and "Heathens," proof of the synchronicity that occurs between collaborators who've spent so much time together, their preoccupations begin to intertwine. All three songwriters repeatedly reference stubborn, principled patriarchs, whether characterized by Isbell's wraithlike Daddy Lawson on the album's title track, Hood's landowning father spinning in his grave in "Sinkhole," or Cooley's unrepentant, prophylactic-shunning progenitor in "Marry Me." It also contains a lot of 'firsts:' Most importantly, the album marks the debut of third guitarist/vocalist Jason Isbell, who replaces Rob Malone and arrives with a writing style that meshes far better with Hood and Cooley than any previous songwriting band members. Almost as crucially, it is the band's first album recorded at Chase Park Transduction Studios in Athens, Georgia with producer David Barbe, with whom the Truckers would henceforth enjoy a long and fruitful working relationship. The album also features the first appearance on a Drive-By Truckers record of bassist Shonna Tucker, who contributes upright bass to Cooley's "Sounds Better In The Song"; pedal steel guitarist John Neff returns as a guest after sitting out Southern Rock Opera, and Spooner Oldham debuts on Wurlitzer. All three would soon become full-time members of the band in some capacity. Decoration Day also significantly closes a chapter: the album is the last to include longtime Truckers bassist Earl Hicks, who'd be replaced by Shonna Tucker for the following year's The Dirty South. Following as it does the wildly successful Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day is the first Drive-By Truckers album recorded with the knowledge that people would be listening; in the three years between the release of Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers went from soliciting loved ones and friends for donations to finance their recordings to a band with an audience eagerly awaiting a follow-up. Fans were not disappointed: Decoration Day is not only stronger than its predecessor, it is the strongest of the band's entire career. It begins with "The Deeper In," a harrowing tale of incest, forbidden love, and a life on the run that plays like a prurient tale from Donald J Pollack's groundbreaking novel Knockemstiff rendered in waltz time. The chthonic nine-note melody of "Sinkhole," equal parts Blue Oyster Cult and Thin Lizzy, sets the mood for Patterson's raucous rap of propriety and punishment, inspired by Ray McKinnon's Academy Award-winning short film The Accountant. The tune that introduced the world to 24-year old Alabamian Jason Isbell, "Outfit" is an auspicious debut by anyone's standards, and one the gifted and prolific Isbell has yet to live down. Isbell is a shrewd observer with a tendency toward regionalism, a combination that puts him alongside great writers, from Lou Reed to Harry Crews, with similarly indivisible geographical tethers. Finally, the ever-irreverent Cooley's "Loaded Gun In The Closet" ignores playwright Anton Chekhov's famous declaration that a gun introduced in the first act needs to fire by the end of the play, ending this masterpiece of an album not with a bang or a whimper, but with a riddle.