The Dirty South
t might still sound too Al Gore-ish, too 2000, but, like it or not, now’s the time for those calculated sob stories that candidates love to pull out to prove their opponent’s heartless shortsightedness in the face of real human suffering. You know, like the limbless lady with lupus from Lawrence, KS who can’t afford her meds if we give Dubya four more years? Or the hysterical mother of 12 whose mealy-mouthed brats Will Not Be Safe if we let the Dems sink their teeth into Homeland Security?
The Drive-By Truckers know all about the actual toll poverty and prescription drug bills have taken on working-class Americans, especially the blue-collar men and women of the band’s red-state home of Alabama. In keeping with typical election year dispirits, The Dirty South offers campaign-worthy vignettes of personal struggle and communal sacrifice set smack dab in the hotly-contested Bible Belt. There are songs about Alabama lawmen, stock car racing, and Elvis. Bush’s own brain trust couldn’t have isolated his key demographic any better. Too bad the guys who made the album all think he’s a dick.
When I interviewed the lead singer, Patterson Hood, last week about the album, he made the distinction between The Dirty South and DBT’s previous opus, Decoration Day, thusly: “Decoration Day was about the choices people make, but The Dirty South is about people who aren’t that fortunate, who don’t have choices.” In other words, while Decoration Day explored the possibilities behind life’s biggest decisions, this new record is all about empathy.
Now, empathy can be an effective songwriting strategy, but it’s exceedingly tricky as well, simply because you have to convince your listener that a) your subject’s a real-life person rather than a composite sketch, and that b) his response hasn’t already been cooked up for him. Hood treads this line himself on the welfare weeper “Puttin’ People on the Moon”, the Huntsville, AL-inspired tale of a laid-off factory worker turned petty felon who faces economic hardship and family illness in the shadow of NASA’s billions. All the familiar boogeymen take a bow: the wealthy televangelist, the faceless corporations, the spectre of Reagan. It’s clear we’re supposed to mourn the poor bastard without ever having to understand him, and it’s only thanks to Hood’s heartrendingly hoarse-throated vocal theatrics that his working class hero comes to life at all.
Such surface-level analysis should be anathema to a band that made its name on slippery character studies like “Zip City” and “The Deeper In”, not to mention plainspoken philosophical treatises like “Outfit” and “The Southern Thing”. Such overly deterministic, willfully didactic rhetoric damns well-intentioned history lessons like “The Day John Henry Died” and “The Sands of Iwo Jima”, the former a sentimental ode to pre-industrial manual labor, the latter a Greatest Generation groaner that idolizes and idealizes but never humanizes truly heroic men. Both songs amount to cardboard set pieces barely worthy of sixty-second ads.
It’s been said the devil’s in the details, and suavest Trucker Mike Cooley thankfully finds him just in time for his unsavory backwooods barnstormer “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”, a slash-and-burn opener that doesn’t skimp on the sinister elements of moonshine, poker, and small-town justice (a theme Hood and Cooley revisit less successfully for a mid-album mini-suite about real-life Alabama law dog Buford T. Pusser). Basically, anytime the Truckers trade polemics for uncertainty and nuance it’s for the better, like on Jason Isbell’s wonderfully meditative “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love”, or even the mythical Murderers Row that Cooley conjures up from the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis on “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”.
Of course, it’s fine for Cooley to learn ya about the legendary Sun Records stable, but it’s maybe too much to ask the Truckers to match the rhythmic propulsion and deceptive simplicity of those rock ‘n’ roll forbears as well, or else the earthy gravitas and instrumental interplay of Isbell’s cherished Band, or even a third sound that’s remotely as compelling. Maybe it’s the ultimate rockist statement to make crosses in the air at classic rock iconography when you can’t replicate the joyful noises that made those hoary canonists once-upon-a-time pop. Either way, the Truckers betray their country/folk roots by the simple fact that their best moments are never purely musical, but rather always dependent on storytelling, vocal performance and lyrical craft.
At their best, the Truckers work up an effective overheated bluster only slightly modulating from chorus to verse (“Buford Stick” doesn’t even do that, which is why it’s so forgettable). Unlike the Southern Rock behemoths they’ve been pegged to replace (much through their own doing, obviously), DBT’s never going to primarily wow you with memorable riffage or extended instrumental brilliance (Skynyrd’s exempt here because they gave you the hardscrabble stories AND the incendiary jams, which probably explains why the Truckers never wrote a song about Dickey Betts). That said, The Dirty South is relatively toothless in comparison to Decoration Day and the breakthrough Southern Rock Opera, rarely even building up that predictably satisfying head of steam. The shit-hot Adam’s Housecat holdover “Lookout Mountain” being the guns-blazing exception that proves the rule of “Daddy’s Cup”, a lyrically involving NASCAR epic that ended with a bang when the band debuted it earlier this year on KEXP, but that inexplicably sputters at the finish line here. Praise be to Isbell then for bestowing some sinewy subtlety to “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love”, and for having the good sense to capably rip off classic rock anthemics on “Never Gonna Change”.
After all, no matter how well you manipulate Middle America’s tear ducts, somebody still has to tell the masses that you Don’t / Stop / Thinking About Tomorrow.