Like it or not, the South is always with us. The politicians own our ass, slavery built and stained this storied land, Southern religion spans the globe, and the culture gave us the blues and rock & roll. We know all that, and so we hate and love the South, but no one has expressed that duality like the Drive-By Truckers. For a band that started out as the greasiest, grungiest and frequently fastest of the post-Tupelo/Crazy Horse addicts, the Truckers have evolved into the toughest story-song-based band in the history of rock & roll.
Fronted by three songwriters and guitar grinders, Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell and Michael Cooley, the band's mission has been to turn the "Southern thang," as they explained on 2001's Southern Rock Opera, into a universal thang.
"The things people like about the songs are the same, no matter where we go," Cooley says. "I don't think it's the Southern experience. It's the human experience. But the 'Southern rock' label doesn't annoy me. When you put out a double album called The Southern Rock Opera, you can't bitch. It's gonna get said, so I'm not gonna throw a fit. We were never really a part of that; we were kids during the Southern-rock period. It's our culture, but we don't want to imply that coming to see the Truckers is stepping back into 1976, though some of it is. Thank God."
Cooley was born in 1966 and grew up in the Muscle Shoals area, in the small town of Tuscumbia, Alabama, and then moved between Memphis, Auburn, Birmingham, Durham and Atlanta. He met Hood at the University of North Alabama in Florence; both dreamed of a band like the Truckers, but they weren't doing anything about it. "We were not playing music," Cooley explains. "That was the mutual connection. I had my guitars, but I wasn't really playing. We had the same goals of how to go about it if we ever did start a band. College sucked. So we gave it a shot."
The Truckers' most recent record, The Dirty South, completes a mythic trilogy that began with The Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day. Together, those records cycle through popular culture, all the symbols that tell the story of the South, with an ever-sharpening focus on class (as opposed to race) and kinship conflicts and prejudices.
With The Dirty South, the band has created a Dixie-fried Oedipus Rex: a meditation on tragic father figures, from Sam Phillips to John Wayne, Buford Pusser to the band's own fathers and grandfathers. "Daddy's Cup," the story of a boy and his race-car-obsessed dad, is pure fiction -- and pure truth. "I manufactured that song," Cooley says. "I'm kind of relating what the characters do to what we do. What drives you, what makes people keep doing what they do whether they make money or not. It was a challenge, just to see if I could write something I know nothing about."
During this past winter off -- Patterson Hood is a new father -- both Cooley and Isbell have played solo shows, with the latter finishing up a solo record, which may or may not be competition with Hood's own solo release. Once Cooley has enough solo material together, he may very well do the same. But the band is far from being pulled apart. "If Patterson wants to go off and do the solo rock-star thing, he can kiss my ass!" Cooley laughs. "But that's not what any of us are doing. Some songs are solo songs, some are Truckers songs."
Isbell, the youngest of the three songwriters, grew up in the Shoals area as well, and now lives in the Alabama town of Center Star. Unlike Cooley and Hood, he is not a father, but his contributions to the record explore the same inescapable legacies of blood and music. "As fathers, they were flawed," Isbell says of the song "Danko/Manuel" (The Band's deceased singers). "But that song is as much about me as it is about them. Most songs are like that. If you write them as honestly as you can, no matter what they're about, they end up being about you. When you do this for a period of time, you have to come to terms with what you become. How much of this do you want to buy into? You have to set some boundaries for yourself along the way. It's very easy to turn into a sad story."
"The Day John Henry Died" reveals just how bitter that story can be. "While we were on the way to Farm Aid, my grandfather had died," Isbell says. "He had the most involvement in my musical career. And I remember seeing this old guy in a grocery store, in his early eighties, hard to tell, and he was obviously more well-to-do than my granddad had been. I wondered how long my granddad would have lived had he been in that upper bracket. I thought about winning and losing, about accomplishing your goals, and the pitfalls of it all. My granddad used to play 'John Henry' for me. I saw the parallel between that story and his story."
The Truckers have always seen the connections across what divides us, the bonds between the North and the South, the dirt poor and the filthy rich, and they have portrayed them without unwarranted mercy or nostalgia. They know the Mason-Dixon line is just a useful fiction -- no matter how deeply it's been burned into American life.
"The hip-hop folks call it 'country'," Isbell says. "I think most people have more experience of the South than meets the eye. We're more rural than Southern, and we translate just as well in Michigan or Pennsylvania or New York or St. Louis. There are a lot of rednecks up there. I think the willingness to understand something can help cross those lines, without it just being a novelty. People from here can be a bit leery, and rightly so. They want to know you're not making fun of them. It's not a joke to us. We wouldn't write these songs if we didn't mean them. And you don't have to draw a line between the funny and the poignant. 'The Living Bubba' may have a funny title, but it's not funny at all. I just think we're getting a little better at being assholes. We're more subtle about it."