When tuning into the evening news, following the presidential race or simply scrolling through social media, it’s obvious that our nation is in a transitional phase. And it’s pretty messy. Politics and entertainment have always courted each other, and one band that’s never shied away from a political statement is the Drive-By Truckers. Though perhaps their perspective isn’t what you’d expect from a southern rock band. Last week, the band released their eleventh and most political album to date, An American Band. The album touches on everything from racial tensions to gun violence and political fear-mongering. More on that a little later, though.
In the meantime, there’s a good chance some people clicked on this article saying “Drive-by who?” You’re likely not going to hear Drive-By Truckers on any mainstream radio station or see them performing on a televised awards show. The Athens, Georgia-born band has been together for two decades, building a devoted following almost entirely through non-stop touring. In the 13 years that I’ve been listening to the band, I can’t recall a year when they weren’t on tour in some capacity.
Whether critically labeled as southern rock, Americana, or alternative country, the band is unrivaled in its detail-laden portrait of the American South. Often opting to skip go-to themes of personal longing or romantic heartbreak, the Truckers have become masters of musical character studies. Embittered ex-cops, struggling farmers, low-level drug dealers, lonely housewives, traumatized war vets, and dozens of other hard-luck characters litter their songs.
So, whether you’re a long-time fan or new to the group, to borrow from Patterson Hood “welcome to the rock show,” now let’s rank some DBT albums.
11 and 10. Gangstabilly (1998) and Pizza Deliverance (1999)
The first song introducing DBT on Gangstabilly is “Wife Beater” and it largely sets the tone for many of the band’s songs. Happy stories are rare. The band’s first two albums originally released on Soul Dump Records went out of print and were mostly unheard until they were re-released by New West several years later. While the albums feel more raw than later efforts, they successfully blend sad acoustic ballads laden with pedal steel guitars and raucous punk rock power chord crunch.
Both albums have the distinction of containing the band’s funniest song titles with gems like “Buttholeville,” “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)” and “Panties in Your Purse,” but that’s largely where the fun ends. Nobody can accuse the first two albums of being overproduced as they were recorded in just a number of days, but the clever songs helped to lay the path of Southern exploration the band would venture down.
9. Go-Go Boots (2011)
Let me start by saying that Go-Go Boots isn’t a bad album, the lyrics are on par with the band’s previous efforts. The song’s characters might even be more fleshed out than other offerings. The issue I have with Go-Go Boots is it’s so stripped down that it feels almost out of place compared to the rest of the group’s catalog. DBT frontman and primary songwriter, Patterson Hood was well aware of this calling the band’s previous album (The Big To-Do) an “action adventure summertime flick and this one a noir film.” Go-Go Boots leans more towards country and soul with nary an overdrive pedal to be heard. Like I mentioned, though, it’s not a bad album, “Used to be a Cop” plays like a well-done indie police drama, it’s just not the first album I reach for when I want Drive-By Truckers.
8. American Band (2016)
The Trucker’s most recent studio album has been out for a little over a week now and I’ve listened to it probably three times to completion. Maybe it would get a higher ranking with a little more time under its belt, but this is where it falls at the moment. Any band that finds itself with the good fortune of recording 11 albums has to take a look at what territory has already been charted. Opting to pass on examining decades of the past, this time around the band shifts focus to the present with their most political album. The debate over the Confederate flag and the shooting of Trayvon Martin both find their way into the album’s subject matter. It might not be the best entry point for diving into the band’s music, and songs about a murder committed by a future NRA executive (“Ramon Casiano”) likely won’t do anything to better the band’s radio play, but it’s a well-made record that’s truthful to the times. That’s what the heart of country music is, anyway.
7. A Blessing and a Curse (2006)
After the hot streak Drive-By Truckers had been on with their previous three albums (The Dirty South, Decoration Day and Southern Rock Opera, but again, we’ll get to those), A Blessing and a Curse failed to hit with the same power. Chalk it up to a non-stop touring and recording cycle or turmoil with then-married band members Shonna Tucker and Jason Isbell, but the album didn’t yield the same standout songs as previous efforts. To this day, many of its songs get ignored in live sets from both DBT and Isbell, who is no longer in the band’s lineup. That’s a real shame, because these are some solid songs that can stand their own alongside the “must-play” favorites. “Gravity’s Gone” has some of the funniest lyrics Mike Cooley’s ever written, and “World of Hurt’s” fine steel guitar work and hopeful lyrics about finding beauty in the pain of life make for an exemplary album closer.
6. English Oceans (2014)
The band followed up 2011’s Go-Go Boots by letting listeners know they hadn’t forgotten how to rock and delivered a guitar riff in “Sh*t Shots Count” that would make Keith Richard grin. The album marked another fresh start for the group that had let three years slip by without a proper studio album — an eternity in DBT years. Bassist Shonna Tucker and John Neff had left the lineup with Matt Patton stepping in for bass and multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzales flexing his guitar chops. This would also be the group’s first album with only Hood and Cooley handling lead vocals. I remember, at first listen it seemed a little amiss to not have a third vocalist every few songs, but it’s a feeling that’s quickly forgotten with songs like “Hearing Jimmy Loud” and “Grand Canyon.”
5. The Big To-Do (2010)
It’s easy to forget just how sturdy of a rock n’ roll album Big To-Do is when Brighter Than Creations Dark or Dirty South might be the first go-to choices. For the most part, the band plays it safe, opting to build a record made up of big hooks and wiry guitar solos. The down-and-out characters that litter the band’s songs are all there, from the hard-partying drunk about to go over the edge in “The Fourth Night of My Drinking,” to the true story of a wife who murdered her preacher husband in “The Wig He Made Her Wear.” Big To-Do might still not be top choice for the band’s best album, but it’s a far cry from their worst, and “Birthday Boy” and “Drag the Lake Charlie” will always be welcomed additions in a concert setting.
4. Brighter Than Creations Dark (2008)
The band’s seventh album marked a new beginning for the band and proved to be both critically and commercially more successful than A Blessing and a Curse. Jason Isbell had left the band to pursue a solo career and original founding member John Neff had returned. The result was an album just one song short of the group’s double album Southern Rock Opera that had a more stripped-down tone. It still has its share of gritty rockers, but works in some of the more country ballads that seemed to call back to the group’s first two albums.
“That Man I Shot” is one of the heaviest songs the band’s written to date and deals with the mental consequences that haunt a solider. On the flipside, the twangy “Lisa’s Birthday” feels like it came from a Nashville recording studio straight out of 1965. Perhaps the biggest noticeable change with Brighter Than Creations Dark is bassist Shonna Tucker stepping up to the mic. Her presence doesn’t make up for the lack of a few Isbell songs, but “Purgatory Line” doesn’t feel out-of-place among songs like “Daddy Needs a Drink” or “Ghost to Most.”
3. Southern Rock Opera (2001)
For a band at the time that had only been recording for three years and managed to put out two under the radar albums, releasing a double concept album might have seemed a little over-ambitious. Southern Rock Opera almost never saw the light of day, as the band eventually ran out of funding for the project and had to call upon fans and the Athens music community to help raise funds. The determination and support from their community paid off in huge dividends, though, and resulted in the group’s first four-star review from Rolling Stone and effusive praise from other national music outlets. Clocking in at a hefty 94 minutes, Southern Rock Opera marked the group’ first cover art collaboration with artist Wes Freed and is anything but a casual listen. The album largely covers the deep South of the 1970s through the context of Southern rock’s kings Lynyrd Skynyrd. The 20 songs paint pictures of racial spouts of violence and corruption in songs like “Birmingham” and “Wallace,” while also tackling lighter fare like the grandeur of arena rock itself in “Let There Be Rock.” The album certainly would have had a tighter feel if trimmed down, but its meaty songs and subject matter marked the beginning of the band’s golden era.
2. Decoration Day (2003)
Decoration Day was the first DBT album that I bought after hearing “My Sweet Annette” when it came as a free download on the music program of a new laptop I’d bought. With the new addition of hot-as-sh*t guitarist Jason Isbell onboard, the band was now in the same sweet spot territory that The Rolling Stones were in when they had Mick Taylor in the band in the early ’70s. Not to say that Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley couldn’t hold the band on their own — they were doing it before and after Isbell — but he definitely elevated the band to a new level sonically and lyrically. It was Isbell who penned the album’s title track, a story of two feuding families that he admitted got him some heat from relatives. Bandleader Patterson Hood described the album as a “pretty dark” record, which holds true in stories of murder like “Sinkhole” and the pain of divorce in “Give Pretty Soon.” It’s not an album that I can put on just any ol’ time, but I still find myself playing it two or three times a year more than a decade after its release.
1. The Dirty South (2004)
Dirty South is the “all killer, no filler” album of Drive-By Truckers’ catalog. Later albums from the band would receive more critical press and chart better, but the band was firing on all cylinders delivering barnburner rockers like “Lookout Mountain” and lyrical gems like “Danko/Manuel.” The title, of course, borrows from hip-hop lingo, but DBT’s south is less sizzurp and more moonshine. With then-rookie bassist Shonna Tucker replacing Earl Hicks after Decoration Day and Jason Isbell penning three of the album’s strongest songs, this would ultimately become the band’s best-selling album, and for good reason.
From the opening drumbeat of “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” a song about illegal moonshine stills, the album moves from one rocker to the next, telling tales of shutout families in “Puttin’ People on the Moon” and war vets who can’t relate to John Wayne movies in “Sands of Iwo Jima.” “Goddamn Lonely Love” is a fitting closing number and soaked in haunting organ and saddened lyrics like “I ain’t really falling asleep; I’m fading to black.” To be honest, nearly ever song on the album is deserving of praise, but as for fist-pumping tunes that sound best when turned up to 10, it’s “Lookout Mountain” all the way. From the dirty opening chords to lyrics of a man contemplating the peace that comes with death, and dueling guitar solos, the song has fittingly earned its place as a standard in DBT’s live shows, and The Dirty South album has earned its place as a standard in our hearts. Their grit and the emphasis on their home is all in the name, a little reminder that no matter how many characters they throw at us, it’s the band themselves who make them come alive.