Tuesday, November 3, 2009


By Luke Torn

Rock ‘n’ roll was born in the American south. It may be true that the corporatization and cable-ization of America, the Internet, and all the rest, has flattened our sense of place, sucked out the character inherent in a sense of place that used to fuel the kinds of cultural explosions of which rock ‘n’ roll was a part. We’ve got a great hillbilly singer, Gillian Welch, whose roots lie in 60s TVLand Hollywood, and one of alt.country’s progenitors, the Jayhawks, came from icy Minnesota. Perhaps the purest country singer out there, Laura Cantrell, hails from New York City, probably the least countrified burgh you can find. It all adds up to some sort of weird disconnect, where even the most perfectly stylized music seems like a put-on.

The Drive-By Truckers are no put-on. Like the greatest blues and country singers, they know we’re all fucked, but that we might as well raise a ruckus on our way to hell. On Decoration Day, the Truckers begin the proceedings with a sweet twangy waltz whose characters, brother and sister, are mired in an incestuous relationship. Four babies later, the law finally catches up, breaks up the "family," and issues some prison time. It’s a grisly tale, but in its creepy way, it demonstrates how impossible it is to escape your raising, a major DBTs theme. Then the Truckers lean into stage fave "Sink Hole," all billowing gray clouds of mangled guitars and Patterson Hood’s desperate account of a farmer about to lose the farm that’s been in his family for five generations. From this song on, Decoration Day assays a litany of untenable situations, trapped characters, and broken lives with the kind of thunder and intensity perhaps only seen in the early raging days of 1976 punk rock, or maybe, to use a more apropos southern connection, Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio circa 1957 and "Train Kept A Rollin’."

"Rock ‘n’ roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies," yelps Mike Cooley on the relatively joyful "Marry Me," a cut that was born down on Exile on Main Street and raised by Let It Be-era Replacements. From the sizzling guitar fills and Jerry Lee-like piano damage, this song has the kind of momentum and electricity all too rare in pop today. So does "Do It Yourself," a blazing slab of rage written by Hood and aimed squarely at a friend who committed suicide. On "Pin Hits the Shell," Cooley takes on the same subject matter in a much more subdued but no less affecting way. An interior dialog full on reminiscence and reflection, its an utterly brilliant counterpoint. "It’s enough to make a man not want to be nobody’s daddy," he sings, "when all he thinks he’s got left to hand down is guilt and shame."

Ultimately, it’s the dynamics inherent in two great, explosive songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (not to mention newcomer Jason Isbell, who pens the sobering title track here), that makes the Drive-By Truckers such a formidable force of nature. Between them, they bring a context and interconnectedness that’s of a piece, yet reveals nuance and a panoply of moral and personal shadings in its depiction of real-life desolation. Many of the songs, from "Something’s Gotta) Give Pretty Soon" to "Heathens," reveal characters at a crossroads, with decisions to make. Others, like Isbell’s letter to his father, "Outfit," deal with the ramifications of decisions already made. Still others, like the remarkable album closer, "Loaded Gun in the Closet" somehow avoid destructive confrontation that always seems to lurk right around the corner.

Of course, Decoration Day would be a pale affair if the Truckers didn’t have the musical chops to back up their remarkable songs. The beautifully textured bed of guitars on "My Sweet Annette" is emblematic of a dense but versatile sound achieved throughout, an approach that is quite fluid, giving the songs plenty of room to breathe. The Truckers’ musical grasp is such that their folk, country, blues, and good old Stones/Faces rock ‘n’ roll influences coalesce so seamlessly that this might as well represent a new mutant genre. It certainly couldn’t be called retro, yet the band clearly has its tendrils deep into the history of American music.

Producer David Barbe coaxes a gritty, gutsy sound, and leaves plenty room for the musicians to take the songs to lofty heights. One example is the coda on the title track, where the song seemingly fades out, only to reappear in the guise of a gnarled, knotted guitar overture. Another is in "Do It Yourself," where the band takes a fairly straight-ahead rocker and kinda drags it through the mud, roughing up some already dirty guitar parts in a perfectly apropos bit of audio verite.

It’s rare for a band to produce a masterpiece on their fifth album (how many can you think of?), but those that do prove many tenets of the American work ethic: perseverance, stubbornness, dedication, focus, and, most of all, hunger. With Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers challenge themselves to see just how good they can be, and come out with perhaps the best rock ‘n’ roll epic of 2003.


Barry said...

Hey Luke, thanks for the word on Decoration Day. Your opening made me wonder about regionalism and musical genres. Regions produce emergent genres, I think. But once one is established, fully established--60-70 years established--then its particularities can be learned anywhere, no? (Except France, of course).

octobermoon said...

I'm a old reader of your magazine from Greece. I have most issues, I think I stopped around #62. Is there a chance forme to order the remaining issues I'm missing? I think I used to talk to a girl named Luann Williams or something like that... My email is
v m a t s a s @ h o t m a i l.c o m
thank you