Though my devotion back then would've embarrassed me, I just about wore out the Drive-By Truckers' Decoration Day on a lot of slow, bittersweet trips down to Fayette-nam and Brownsville last summer. It seemed like a perfect match.
Drive-By Truckers had three records behind them when their hugely ambitious two-disc Southern Rock Opera of 2001 brought in praise from across the country. Then, last year's Decoration Day bore some hard-won yelling ("Hell no, I ain't happy!"), and lots of heartbreak. Now, it seems like The Dirty South is asking you to settle down a minute.
Like a lot of Pittsburghers, the Truckers are warts-and-all for local pride. Their critical success and growing audience seem to make it even more urgent for them to explain it all: about Alabama, which is where they come from; about the deep mixed feelings that come from this; and about the slowly earned combination of resentment, cynicism and hope that will shut up any "authenticity" tourist.
Drive-By Truckers cut it straight. One of the record's most rousing songs, like several hundred versions before it, is called "The Day John Henry Died." But this time: "John Henry was a steel-driving bastard but John Henry was a bastard just the same."
While putting legends in their place (also Carl Perkins and Buford "Walking Tall" Pusser), they also put meaning back where it was bleached out. In the tender "Tornadoes," everyone repeats the TV-news cliché with weak, beautiful honesty: "I swear, it sounded like a train." The bluntest expression, though, is found in guitarist Jason Isbell's lines, "Take it from me ... We ain't never gonna change -- so shut your mouth and go along." This sounds obnoxious, but no. He's trying to fill you in. Stupid idealism's no help.
There's a lot of ground to cover in the Truckers' demystified South, and my one complaint is that sometimes you worry that thinking could beat rocking. Some of these smart, honest lines -- as good as Springsteen's -- just don't scan, and they sometimes forget to repeat them, missing the all-together-now chorus. And the otherwise brilliant Patterson Hood shouldn't try to sing too high (as on "The Sands of Iwo Jima"); it's frustrating and sing-songy. His natural voice is perfectly good.
Still, how can I be ungrateful? If you gotta wait a little longer before greedily shoving the volume up, it's only because they're thinking so hard and caring so much. For you! And you know that a band like the Drive-By Truckers who can rock, will rock, coming back like a good boyfriend out of a bad mood.
In shooting for original regionalism in the era of Sam's Club, this band's doing what no one else is. And they know what's at stake: "If I throw myself off Lookout Mountain," they ask, "Who will end up with my records? Who will end up with my tapes? Who will pay my credit card bills? Who's gonna pay for my mistakes?"