Drive-By Truckers aren’t just an American Band, they’re a great American Band. And they constantly question what it is to be American, what it is to be a band: defiantly Southern in attitude, they’re proud of their Alabaman roots, yet ashamed of some of the more unsavoury aspects of the state’s history; defiantly traditional in their musical heritage (you know the joke – they play both types of music, country AND western), they’ve nevertheless moved the idea of a country-rock band into fresh territory with an ever-shifting lineup, one which has seen acts such as Jason Isbell and his ex-wife Shonna Tucker come and go as songwriters and lead guitarists/bassists. But the core of the band has always been Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, two equally adept singer/songwriters (although Hood is more prolific), who have been concerning themselves with the lives of ordinary Southern folk for many a year now. The lives they have conjured up in their songs are rich, dark, complex, filled with duality – a challenge to simplistic portrayals of the Southern states that have been used to bolster a bitter class prejudice.
So they care about people, but not just their own people – American Band is a haunted cry of despair at the racism and gun crime fatalities plaguing the entire nation, a United States they fear isn’t remotely united. The flag at half mast on the front cover, drooping in dismay, is a tribute to the numerous casualties on the record: the young Hispanic killed by a leader of the NRA who got off scot-free (‘Ramon Casiano’), the student observing a bird before himself flying to heaven in a community college massacre (‘Guns of Umpqua’), and the 17 year old black man robbed of life by a trigger-happy white man – yes, that’s Trayvor Martin (‘What it Means’). Guns, guns, guns: destroying the peace and fabric of American society, as any one of us outside of America can clearly see, and as many decent people inside of it can see too, such as this band from the heartlands of the NRA: ‘killing’s been the bullet’s business/Since back in 1931’, as they explain in fury.
Their political stance is direct, forthright, unobscure. They’re sick and tired of all of this killing, they despise how people can ‘shrug and let it happen/Without asking what it means’, they fear the rise of Trump which they know can only make things worse. Lyrics of such transparency are often sneered at by a generation raised on Radiohead and Wilco, cerebral bands that hide behind opaque metaphors which will please intellectuals but never occasion any real change. I’m not sure Drive-By Truckers will either, they exist too perpetually on the fringes of the mainstream, but in such dark times we need their plain-spoken honesty all the more because it creates a universally understood sense of urgency. If more bands followed suit, speaking directly yet intelligently to their audience about the dangers of Trump and his ilk, maybe we could start to mount a more convincing opposition (I know Trump’s currently losing in the polls, but the scale of his popularity amongst working class voters is still devastating).
What makes American Band all the more powerful a statement is the music, which is some of the best of the band’s career. Still driving and simplistic, much like their lyrics, and centred around typical guitar chord changes and a 4/4 beat, they nevertheless create stirring emotional responses from their sound. And everything signifies: try the low bass rumble of ‘Ever South’ for instance, taking the composition down south and away from the lead guitars in a vindication of their roots. Or the sarcastic boogie-woogie piano lines in ‘Kinky Hypocrite’, a song about those who ‘party harder than they like to admit’. Or the soothing piano lines of ‘Once They Banned Imagine’, which deliberately recall the John Lennon song mentioned in the title. Or, most movingly of all, the handclaps at the end of ‘What it Means’, which represent a togetherness and cautious optimism following a bleak foray into unremitting violence.
If you care about the state of the world, you might just find that you need this album in your life right now. It plumbs the depths of despair, but its very existence, the fact that it offers up support to the (mostly black) victims of gun crime, and does so from the predominantly Republican South, makes it essential. Patterson Hood has revealed in interviews his belief that: ‘there needs to be more middle-aged southern dudes saying that black lives matter.’ Amen to that.