Ok, Drive-By Truckers is a silly name. But if you have ever dreamt of pulling off a Deep South highway into one of those typically American bars, then this is the band you would want to be playing in the corner. The DBTs are wooden saloon doors, Jim Beam and bored waitresses in little denim shorts made aural.
For those who have not heard them, the Truckers blend several great American musical traditions. The dominant thread is country rock - think Lynyrd Skynryd’s dumbass Southern fried boogie with the story-telling genius of Johnny Cash. They have also inherited a dash of soul in their genes from their hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where main man Patterson Hood’s dad was a session man at the famous local studio. It must help coming from there. Surely there cannot be a more evocative name for a rock band’s hometown than Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I certainly won’t be risking shattering my illusions by visiting the place in case it turns out to be some grotty little Wal-Mart and Mega-Church encircled southern town. Imagine doing the equivalent of being an American fan of The Jam and turning up in Woking.
As befits their heritage, the band members are clearly all skilled musicians but do not let this get in the way of being interesting and their switching of vocal duties gives them a great variety of mood. Their new album, “Go-Go Boots”, is a typically high-class example of their output. Every song is a movie in your head, with a tune that oozes humidity and bourbon soaked coolness. The characters that populate the songs are all called things like Ray, Eddie and Ricky and come from places like Pulaski, Tennessee. Most have had those all-American been-down-so-long-it-looks-like-up-to-me lives.
The most immediate stand-out track, “Used to Be a Cop”, is emblematic of the tone, a tale of a policeman lost in a fog of booze, rule bending and divorce who has been thrown off the only job he knows. Another gem (“Ray’s Automatic Weapon”) features a pensioner trying to return a borrowed automatic rifle to a friend before his worsening temper and improving aim leads to something awful. Another (“The Fireplace Poker”) recounts a preacher who murders his wife with a poker because his hired hitmen have botched the job, only to be shot in turn by his son, which is then covered up as suicide by the police. Only in America. And probably only in Alabama at that. There is plenty of female perspective too, with Shonna Tucker’s tales of wayward husbands, misguided trips to make it in California and diabetic, dancing criminal boyfriends. Somehow only a great band from the land of “have a nice day” can make all this failure and misery sound so attractive.
The Truckers have been consistently magnificent for a number of years now. I was first grabbed by their “A Blessing and a Curse” album, the opening half of which I still rate as the best pure rock and roll music I have ever heard. It came to me at a time when I was trying to self-medicate my way through a three year contract in that tedious, shiny, superficial temple to Mammon - Dubai. One song, “Aftermath USA”, seemed to be a bespoke account of my average weekend there, from the “broken beer bottles in the kitchen” to the car that was “in the car port sideways”. The only line that did not chime perfectly with those lost weekends was the one about the “crystal meth in the bathtub”, as even in my addled state I always thought you should keep something back for special occasions.
It must be a rare talent that allows people from Muscle Shoals, Alabama to connect so personally with someone from Hull, East Yorkshire. Anyone who is still clinging on to romantic notions of the tattered glory of America should seek out this band now.
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