Leaving The South: The Truckers strive to broaden their music’s regional context beyond the Dirty South
Patterson Hood sums up Drive-By Truckers’ new album, A Blessing and a Curse, in one line of the closing track: “To love is to feel pain, there just ain’t no way around it.” The song, “A World of Hurt,” actually expresses deep hope. It’s one of the Truckers’ trademark spoken-word narratives wherein Hood, in his sing-song Alabama drawl, has an intimate conversation with his listeners over a haze of loud, shimmering guitar rock. In this one, he comes to terms with the pain and loss that have driven his life and music; the pain and loss that drive some to suicide and push others into adulthood. It’s the pain of love, pure and simple. Hood ultimately decides real love is worth the agony we suffer getting to it.
He and his songwriting bandmates Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell have been baring their Southern souls in the Truckers’ dirty-ass rock ’n’ roll for some time now. But unlike the pretentious gloom-and-doom of goth or emo, their downcast twang rock hasn’t grown tiresome or embarrassing. The band’s most celebrated disc, Southern Rock Opera, used the narrative thread of a tragic plane crash involving the Truckers’ childhood anti-heroes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, as a metaphor for the South and a jumping-off point for their own collective coming-of-age during a particularly thorny period of Southern history—the post-desegregation 1970s, in which young people were faced with issues of race and class at every turn. The band followed that ambitious behemoth with the even stronger—and much tighter—Decoration Day, a set of tales, told from different perspectives, about living, loving and dying in the beautiful South. If Southern Rock Opera was a novel, Decoration Day was a collection of taut short stories. Then came The Dirty South, another brilliant turn, this time with short stories focusing on the blood, sweat and tears of Southern characters living on the fringes of society: a poker-playing daddy, a rockabilly star, a glorified vigilante. “Welcome to the Mythological South,” Hood wrote in the liner notes. “Welcome to the Dirty South.”
On A Blessing and a Curse, the band seems to be saying, “Welcome to our own private Hell.” The difference between this collection and previous ones is that, in the lyrics, the Truckers appear to be trying to bust out of the Southern typecast they’ve built around themselves. But without the regional context, their prickly stories of hard times and lost love feel less grounded, less defined. The opener, “Feb 14,” spews invective against Valentine’s Day and comes off like The Replacements doing Dinosaur Jr. (without the guitar heroics); the song could’ve been written by any scruffy post-punk band. Same with the generic “Easy on Yourself” and the Stones-inspired “Aftermath USA,” a balls-out, cartoonish rocker about waking up from a blackout to the repercussions of too much partying. Without the character sketches we’re used to getting from this band, the references to blood and crystal meth don’t resonate like they would’ve on, say, The Dirty South.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of solid, DBT-worthy songs here. Take “Gravity’s Gone,” in which Cooley—in the clipped vocal style of Texas garage-rock legend Roky Erickson—sings about spiraling out of control: “So I’ll meet you at the bottom if there really is one, they always told me when you hit it you’ll know it / But I’ve been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m just floating.” At its best, Blessing soars from the sweet delirium of Isbell’s hopeful “Daylight,” to the melancholia of Hood’s “Goodbye,” a six-minute-long slow-burner that rides a bed of funky keyboards, drums and guitar, and wobbles around the singer’s reminiscences of a friendship that fell apart. It’s Hood’s reflections on relationships that pull the album together into a semi-cohesive meditation on love, both lost and found. His exasperated cry on the title track
perfectly encapsulates both the highs and lows of this uniquely human emotion: “It’s a blessing and a curse, wish it didn’t hurt so much, wish it didn’t hurt so much.”
Of the two acoustic-based songs—Hood’s “Little Bonnie” and Cooley’s “Space City”—the latter, in particular, packs an emotional wallop. Sung from the perspective of Cooley’s grandfather after the death of his wife, one bittersweet couplet finds the old man reflecting on the pain he put her through: “Sometimes the words I used were as hard as my fist / She had the strength of a man and the heart of a child, I guess.” But it’s grandpa’s acceptance of his own mortality that reveals how important the longing for love and the strength of a romantic bond really is. “Somewhere,” he ponders, “she’s wondering what’s taking me so long.”
Too often, the Truckers are described casually as a Southern-rock band, which is too bad, because they’re more than just Skynyrd funneled through R.E.M. But it’s true that when DBT wraps its songs around a familiar Southern theme, its work jumps from being good, solid rock ’n’ roll to being great American music as deep as a country well and ancient as an old-time Appalachian love song or murder ballad. Blessing is merely good, solid rock.