This would be the year that everyone finally “got it.” Early buzz on The Drive-By Truckers’ sixth studio album, A Blessing and a Curse
, indicated this would be the big one: this raw, expert piece of straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll would finally catapult the band beyond the Southern rock niche and establish them as a top-flight act whose aesthetic is every bit as indie as it is Alabama. The positive reviews rolled in, the press fawned, but then, nothing. Well, not nothing—they roll back into Nashville playing yet a bigger venue—but it wasn’t the sea change the Truckers nation had been hoping for.
Listen to the first three tracks on Blessing
and three distinct voices emerge: a rangy, gravelly wail, a nonchalant, deep-as-the-sea delivery and an emotive, smooth drawl. This is a band who can boast three strong songwriters in Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, where every song feels necessary, especially on Blessing
, the band’s shortest album. “So much of this record was really a result of what had happened before it: our last three records in a row all ran exceptionally long,” says Hood. “So we said, ‘Let’s make a record that’s short and lean and mean and quick and, when it’s over you go, ‘Wow, where’d that go? Play it again.’ ”
What’s gone, for the most part, are the story-songs of 2004’s The Dirty South
, those nuggets of detail and devastation: tales of bootleggers, tornadoes, The Band, World War II and Sam Phillips. They’re replaced by abstract ruminations on loss, anger, self-doubt and hope, like Hood’s sad, soaring “Goodbye” or Isbell’s grungy, ironic rock ’n’ roll advice column “Easy on Yourself.”
“Both Decoration Day
and the new one examine more personal-type stories—more matters of the heart and soul,” says Hood. “Southern Rock Opera
told this one massive, unwieldy story and The Dirty South
was a collection of short stories set to music. Those are the two sides of what we do as a band and its kind of fun to veer back and forth.”
is a dynamic, melancholy masterpiece. The opening track, “The Deeper In,” is a somewhat sympathetic look at the only two people serving time for consensual brother/sister incest in the U.S. (It’s not their only yarn about intra-family inappropriateness, either: Pizza Deliverance
’s “Bulldozers and Dirt,” about a stepfather’s unsavory advances, is an eerily similar track, also opening with Hood singing a cappella and featuring a light, haunting country instrumentation.)
But The Truckers have never shied away from looking at a story in a way that subverts its broader cultural connotations. Opera explores and undermines the mythology of the South: Skynyrd, George Wallace, college football, the Civil War. But, ironically, it cemented The Drive-By Truckers as a “Southern rock” band, and they were swallowed by the very ideological framework they had been trying to explode.
“Yeah, you talk to me, my accent, it’s pretty obvious where we’re from,” says Hood. “But the term ‘Southern rock’ just has so much baggage associated with it. It’s almost like raising a red flag to a huge segment of people that might really like what we do…. They hear that term and picture rebel flags and right wing politics. We don’t carry around either.”
So maybe this wasn’t the year that everyone got it, but it was yet another year when more people got it. And, as the saying goes, there’s always next year. “We’re among the lucky ones,” Hood says. “Our record sales aren’t huge or massive or anything, but, as a touring band, we’ve grown every year….And the most important thing for me is that we can still make good music.”
Click here for the entire Patterson Hood interview.