Artist: Drive-By Truckers
Album: American Band
Release Date: 09/30/2016
The cover does not have Wes Freed’s customary artwork. That alone tells you that this is a different effort by the Drive-By Truckers. The flag at half-mast provides a clue. Never shy about making political statements, going back to their breakthrough effort, Southern Rock Opera, long-term songwriting partners, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, harnessed their rage and have made their most explicitly political album in their storied catalog. They explore, as only they can in their articulate lyrics, issues such as race, income inequality, the NRA, deregulation, police brutality, terrorism and the plagues of suicide and opioid abuse. This is protest music done loudly and proudly.
Hood says, “I feel like Cooley and I both nailed what we’re going for on every song on this record. I don’t think there’s a wasted line or word on this record. There’s nothing I would change, that’s for sure. I think we got this one right.” Cooley says directly, “I couldn’t not do it. I’ve got to speak about this stuff, somehow or another. And I’m going to speak about it from a middle-aged Southern white working class evangelical point of view… I wanted this to be a no bones about it, in your face political album. I wanted to piss off the assholes.”
Given that Hood now lives in Portland, Oregon and Cooley still resides in Alabama, the two wrote separately without discussion, and yet found themselves in remarkable alignment right from the outset even though they didn’t plan the record to be this way. When they grouped together with their bandmates in Nashville, they made the record in about half the time it usually takes. Multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez, drummer Brad Morgan and bassist Matt Patton with Hood and Cooley mark the first time the band has recorded three consecutive albums with same lineup. This band is tighter than ever despite separation in geography.
Standout tracks include Hood’s “What It Means,” written in the heat of Ferguson, Cooley’s single “Surrender Under Protest,” “Guns of Umpqua,” Hood’s response to the shootings at the community college of the same name in Oregon, using striking contrasts of Oregon’s natural beauty with the ugliness that transpired. Cooley’s opener, “Ramon Casiano” tells the little known tale of former National Rifle Association leader Harlon Carter and the murder of 15-year-old Ramon Casiano. Carter transformed the organization from its original role as a sportsmen and conservationist group into what Cooley correctly declares “a right wing, white supremacist gun cult.” “What I’m trying to do is point straight to the white supremacist core of gun culture,” Cooley concludes. “That’s what it is and that’s where its roots are. When gun culture thinks about all the threats they need to be armed against, what color are they?” Fortunately the liners contain all the lyrics.
Other interesting tracks include Hood’s “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” and his deeply felt “Baggage,” written on the night of Robin Williams’ death, as he chronicles his own battles with demons and depression. Tons of thought and emotion are packed into this album. The subject matter may not appeal to everyone but there’s no denying how talented the Drive-By Truckers are at delivering tough, meaningful messages.
– Jim Hynes