It’s been a long road for the Drive-By Truckers. In the nearly 20 years since the Truckers formed in Athens, Ga. the band has worked with a half dozen members rotating through the roster, released 10 studio albums and a handful of collections, and seen their stock rise from “those alt-country guys that sing about good ol’ boy debauchery” to one of the most respected acts in rock and roll.
The core of the Truckers has alwfays been the dual voices of chief songwriters and guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and these two Southern boys mix a reverence for the sound of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet with a lyrical darkness and penchant for tales that would be at home in a gothic novel. It’s a heady mix that was further deepened when a third voice (and third guitar) Jason Isbell joined the band for a trio of excellent albums between 2002 and 2007.
The stories told in the Drive-By Truckers catalog would make good fodder for a gritty HBO drama series, as the band covers ground from murders to drinking to crooked politicians. They like to tell the other side of stories from history or reveal secrets of their own family’s past, and even though the subject matter is dark, the music is lively and catchy (and they put on one hell of a live show).
If you’ve written the Drive-By Truckers off in the past as just another silly alt-country act, we at Paste humbly suggest giving the group another chance. Here’s a dozen songs that exemplify the essence their career.
12. “18 Wheels of Love”
The Truckers’ first albums, 1998’s Gangstabilly and 1999’s Pizza Deliverance are artifacts of a band discovering thied their voice. The songs are filled with humor and jovial debauchery layered over pretty straightforward alt-country licks and lots of slide guitar. While at first “18 Wheels of Love” seems barebones and easy to shrug-off, it demonstrates the band’s skill at building a narrative populated with compelling characters in minimal space. The refrain of “Mama ran off with a trucker” is also catchy as hell, and even though it’s sung for laughs it establishes one of the unifying theme of the Trucker’s oeuvre: desperate characters make rash decisions. The extended version here adds Hood’s autobiographical background to the song.
11. “Used To Be A Cop”
Go Go Boots was the second release from a spate of recordings that band made concurrently throughout 2009. The band found a more soulful sound for this record, finally released in 2011, which draws on their Muscle Shoals connection (nominal frontman Patterson Hood is the son of celebrated Shoals session man David Hood). The narrator of “Used to Be a Cop” rattles off a litany of misdeeds and remembrances while the rhythm section lays down a deep groove shot through by dual guitar leads that twist and tangle into a prolonged outro, carrying the songs sombre mood through the entire seven-minute runtime.
10. “A Blessing and a Curse”
Off the 2006 album of the same name, “A Blessing and a Curse” is a raw look at emotional breakdown presented as a thrilling hard rock tune. It feels like a band that’s laying its own demons bare for their fans, and it’s mesmerizing. It actually doesn’t sound much like a Trucker’s song at all (more like the late-’90s hard rock sound that they rebelled against), and that makes it all the more compelling. With straightforward hard rock licks and heavy guitars, “A Blessing and a Curse” demonstrates that the Truckers are not beholden to their Southern rock sound; they just use it as a storytelling tool. Hood’s vocals are even more Neil Young-tinged than normal as he almost whimpers, “When it all comes down / There’ll be nothing left to catch you but ground.”
9. “The Southern Thing”
The Drive-By Truckers earned their big breakout in 2001 with Southern Rock Opera, and it’s sometimes hard to grasp that the refined and layered offering was created by the same band that so many wrote off as a humours detour through alt-country. The double disc is a concept album that tries to explain not only Southern rock as a genre, but also the duality of being from the South— the pride and the shame that comes with being born into such a tumultuous region. “The Southern Thing” might as well be the band’s anthem. Hood’s ragged voice and ‘Bama accent lends authenticity as he turns away from the levity of the first two albums. Hood wants to celebrate the South’s glory and culture while still calling out the injustice and shame, and he wants the listeners to know that a lot has changed in the four generations since Robert E. Lee.
You know that movie Walking Tall where The Rock beats up a bunch of Southern gangsters with a two-by-four? That was a remake of a 1973 movie of the same name that told the story of the Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser who went to war with the Dixie Mafia and other Tennessee gangers. “Cottonseed” is part of a three song cycle on the 2004 album The Dirty South that tells Pusser’s story from the other side. The narrator of “Cottonseed” is a bad man telling his story of crimes and sins, and Cooley pants the man as more pragmatic than evil. An acoustic guitar is the only accompaniment as Cooley deftly runs through some chilling lines (“Somewhere I ain’t sayin’ there’s a hole that holds a judge / the last one that I dug myself”), and by the time the song wraps up you can’t help but share the narrator’s frustration with an hypocritical system.
7. “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife”
The opening track on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark—an album that saw the Truckers return to a more sedate, country-focused sound—starts with gently strummed acoustic guitars and sombre piano before a staccato banjo begins to ring out the melody. The song is set in the aftermath of a very real murder, the 2006 killing of Bryan Harvey. Harvey was a founder of the two man minimalist folk/rock band House of Freaks, and “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” imagines what he experienced “when he reached the gates of heaven” and sees his friends gathered for his wake. It’s a haunting ballad that takes on more weight knowing the history, and it’s another demonstration that Drive-By Truckers are at their best when they draw from the ample well of real life pain.
6. “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”
Adapted from a poem written by Mike Cooley’s uncle, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” is a driving folk-inflected fable of backwoods gamblers. It’s one of the Truckers more foot-stomping numbers, as Cooley’s earnest, pleading vocals hold the song together over intense slide guitar licks and a frantic overdriven solo at the end. The track opens the 2004 album The Dirty South, and it foreshadows the album’s more urgent, driven sound. “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” drips with the dark atmosphere that the Truckers often trade in, and it’s a great example of how well the three guitar format worked for the band.
5. “That Wig He Made Her Wear”
A straight-up murder ballad that tells the story of a preacher killed by his downtrodden wife, “That Wid He Made Her Wear” is a highlight of the excellent album The Big To-Do. “Was she crazy or just plain ol’ mean to have gone and done it?” asks the narrator of a crime that no one in town could foresee or understand. Hood speak-sings the lyrics, which drip with patois as the shuffling drums and staccato rhythm guitar build a grove underneath. A trill guitar weaves between the words and the drum beats, gathering intensity and distorting as the tale unspools. As Hood gets to the story’s twist, the dual guitar attack swells as a reminder that there are two sides to every story. A Truckers’ signature prolonged outro concludes the song, and by the time it’s over you’re not sure if the wife was justified or if she cheated justice.
4. “Ronnie and Neil”
After the intro track to Southern Rock Opera concludes its tale of graduation night tragedy set to the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the momentous album kicks off in earnest with “Ronnie and Neil.” The hard rock tinged anthem tells the story of Skynyrd recording “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to the skewed perspective that Neil Young demonstrated in “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” The story goes that Young and Van Zant shared mutual respect and planned to collaborate on a song, but fate wouldn’t have it and Van Zant was killed before they had the chance (that story is told later on the album’s final track “Angels and Fuselage”). “Ronnie and Neil” is a rollicking tribute to Skynyrd’s sound, and it’s a great tune even without the layered meanings in the dense lyrics. It sets the tone and expectations for the greatness of the rest of the Trucker’s most lauded album.
3. “Grand Canyon”
The moving finale of 2014’s English Oceans, “Grand Canyon” is an elegy for one of the band’s longtime friends and companions on the road, Craig Lieske. It’s not only the best song on that uneven album, it’s one of the best Truckers songs in a decade. A celebration of the comradery and friendships forged on tour and the indelible marks that lost friends leave behind, the track is yet another example of the band turning pain and sorrow into a compelling song. Hood’s emotional delivery meshes with a medley of acoustic guitar, electric piano, and plentiful plaintive riffs. The seven-minute opus is becoming a staple at Truckers concerts, and it’s a breathtaking way to end a show.
2. “Decoration Day”
Singer/songwriter Jason Isbell lent his guitar, voice, and songwriting to the Truckers from 2001 to 2007, and one the first songs he contributed was the title track for 2003’s Decoration Day. It is a sombre tale (and a true one from Isbell’s own family history) of a Southern-fried family feud and a cycle of violence that the narrator is trying to escape. The song waivers between angry, sad, and even hopeful, carried by Isbell’s gravel-toned delivery and some guitar solos following in the excellent tradition of Southern rock. “Decoration Day” crescendos into a three-guitar lament as the narrator finds some peace while contemplating his father’s unmarked grave.
1. “Zip City”
The penultimate song on Southern Rock Opera’s first disk, “Zip City” is a poignant Southern love song told from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy struggling with his place in society and his frustrations with his girlfriend. It checks all the boxes for Truckers songs—hard luck characters, whip smart lyrics delivered by Mike Cooley in his signature sardonic drawl, and a dual guitar attack that’s laid on as thick as sawmill gravy over supper’s biscuits. The song will embed in your brain like a fishhook and transport you to the 26-mile stretch of Alabama Highway 17 that runs through the Zip City community on a dark and steamy night. The song segues into the the reverb-drenched conclusion of Southern Rock Opera’s first disc, and any of next nine songs on the album could also have made this list. “Zip City” is a high water mark on of the the classic rock albums of the 21st century, and it’s about a horny teenager on a booty call. Such is the duality of the Drive-By Truckers.