Another stellar contribution from Emily Stubbs:
In regard to Patterson Hood—front man for the Drive-By Truckers—my friend Graham recently said, “As far as I am concerned, he’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling.” In my humble opinion, and I think it is obvious that at least Graham would agree with me here, Patterson Hood is the greatest storyteller of our generation (that is not to say that Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, who is currently crushing it in his solo career, are not incredibly talented as well). Yes, maybe I am super biased because I am a Southerner and, moreover, I share in the band’s deep love for Athens, Georgia. Bias aside, however, I would be hard-pressed to come up with any other band that has given us such raw rock’n’roll jams and powerful narration that, in combination, incredibly convey the sublimity of the South with all of its dualities and dichotomies. From Gangstabilly to Southern Rock Opera to their newest album English Oceans, the Drive-By Truckers deliver.
In an essay for the Bitter Southerner, Patterson Hood revisits Southern Rock Opera, the album that is often referred to as the band’s magnum opus. Here is what Patterson shares:
The centerpiece of my writing on that album (my partner Mike Cooley wrote a fair share, including the two best songs, but I digress) was a spoken-word piece called “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” which talked about George Wallace, Bear Bryant and Ronnie Van Zant. (Ronnie wasn’t from Alabama, but thanks to “Sweet Home Alabama,” he was greatly beloved by the folks I grew up around.) In my song, I discussed the dualities of being from a region that is known for great music and literature and art and something called “Southern hospitality,” but is also known for Jim Crow laws, slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan. I talked about being fiercely proud of the good parts of my heritage and mortified and ashamed of the bad parts, the ones that too often define how other people perceive us.
Many of the reviews on English Oceans, which was released on Tuesday, hint that the band may be returning to its Southern Rock Opera and Gangstabilly roots, and, rightfully so, the reviews have been enthusiastic and full of praises. The album is dedicated to their friend and tourmate Craig Lieske, whose death in January 2013 was heartbreaking for the Truckers. The album concludes with an almost eight minute-long, dream-like requiem, “Grand Canyon,” a beautiful farewell to Lieske that will surely find its way into many an encore performance for years to come. The Truckers succeed in the art of honest storytelling and that is precisely what sets them apart from so many others, even myself.
Personally, I would be scared to give the world a work that was dedicated to something so personal, painful, and real out of fear that the story would fall short of the truth. I wonder if, by sharing a story, in particular “my” story (whatever that means), with others, I’m afraid it will be cheapened somehow, that by translating the experience of life into words, it might lose its meaning and significance. Yet, without words, how else can we understand one another and connect with each other? To be fair, shared life experiences definitely help forge relationships; yet as unnatural and uncomfortable as unadulterated self-referential storytelling may feel at times, I really don’t see any way around it in building genuine relationships, friendships, marriages, or—lucky for you and me—Drive-By Truckers albums.
These drug dealin’, wife-beatin’, dead, drunk, naked, and often times racist heathens who narrate the Drive-By Truckers songs are unabashedly so. Yet, this is so much more than just an act of defiance. Yes, their words are infused with anger, sadness, regret, and whiskey, but there is also joy, love, and above all, grace. It’s not the morals within the story that make them so great—because, frankly, those morals are buried pretty deep beneath the southern twang of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. What makes them so great is simply the act of sharing itself. Perhaps, in other words, it’s a confession.
I can’t help but think about prayer here. For me, it is as if I cannot pray until I have resolved all the dualities of my own life and tied everything up with a pretty bow. But the songs of the Truckers are the exact opposite. They do not sanitize the truth. Often times, the narrator has a terribly fatalistic view and the story ends without a proper answer. Take “Zip City” for example:
Maybe it’s the twenty-six mile drive from Zip City to Colbert Heights
Keeps my mind clean
Gets me through the night
Maybe you’re just a destination, a place for me to go
A way to keep from having to deal with my seventeen-year-old mind all alone
Keep your drawers on girl it ain’t worth the fight
By the time you drop them I’ll be gone
And you’ll be right where they fall the rest of your life.
But it is precisely this gothic, messy, raw voice of vulnerability that I connect with and find so freeing and beautiful. The Drive-By Truckers aren’t just a band that understands Southern identity but the human experience. Perhaps my prayer should be that I pray a little bit more like them.