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Playing Hurt

The Drive-By Truckers Wrestle With Loss and Acceptance on Their Darkest Album Yet

RISEN AGAIN: The Drive-By Truckers represent for a new kind of southern rock

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/26/2006

Novelist/critic George Pelecanos has called them “the American band of the decade.” Amazon.com extended it to “the greatest band in the world.” Blender said they were “the best country-rock band in America.” National Review offered “the best unheralded band in popular music today.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune awarded them the title of “the band of our day.” The Washington Post went for simply “the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band.”

They are the Drive-By Truckers, and a fat lot of good all those compliments have done them. At least when the Rolling Stones or the E Street Band were called “the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band,” they made so much money that they had to carry it to the bank in wheelbarrows. The Truckers have had no such luck.

They’re still on a small label, and they’ve never had an album in Billboard’s Top 100. They’re not starving, but they don’t make much more than the public-school teachers back in their native Alabama, and the Truckers have to leave home for weeks at a time to make that much. It must be a strange experience to have fat guys with bushy beards and famous bylines call you “the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band” when you’re having trouble keeping up payments on the bus. Especially if you suspect they’re right. It’s the kind of situation that tears bands apart.

Rather than let frustration break them up, the Drive-By Truckers have made it the subject of their latest crop of songs. Praise without tangible rewards is both a blessing and a curse, and that’s the title of the group’s new album. The title track opens with a Southern-rock triple-lead-guitar attack, but Patterson Hood sings his lyrics in a high, nasal Ontario tenor. These nods to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young are an inside joke that anyone who heard the Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera understands. But there’s more at stake on A Blessing and a Curse than allusions to pop music’s past.

“Curse” is about the desperation of anyone caught between a promise and a reality, the result of someone “filling your head with delusions of glory.” As industrial-strength guitars grind away in the background, Hood’s lonely voice ponders the dangers of trying to make a big mark in the world. Do you end up “as a high-flying flame-out . . . sucking on the end of a shotgun”? Or do you “think it all through” and “do what you got to do”? As the rhythm stiffens, so does the singer’s resolve. He won’t give in to the dangers nor abandon the quest; he just wishes “it didn’t hurt so much.”

It’s hardly fair that three of the best rock ’n’ roll songwriters of our time are crammed into one band, but that’s what won the Drive-By Truckers all that praise in the first place. On his song “Easy on Yourself,” Jason Isbell tackles the blessing and curse of high expectations by ratcheting up the pressure. Over a midtempo sludge of dissatisfied guitars Isbell says he can’t blame someone for running away from frustration, compromising with the market, or surrendering to self-medication. No, you have to decide for yourself if the work is worth the disappointment. But the criteria should be your original ideals. “Don’t be so easy on yourself ’cause this one might be all that you have left,” he cries on the anthemic chorus. Think about it: Do you want to find yourself “10 years down the road” and realize that you missed your shot?

Mike Cooley, the band’s third singer-songwriter-guitarist, offers his take on the dilemma with “Gravity’s Gone.” Buoyed by a lazy, bluesy slide-guitar figure, the music reinforces the lyrics’ questions: How long can you fall without hitting bottom? Or does gravity eventually evaporate and leave you floating? Don’t blame the vertigo on “the champagne, hand jobs, and the kissing ass,” the singer warns, because “those little demons ain’t the reason for the bruises on your soul you’ve been neglecting.” Don’t be so easy on yourself, Cooley seems to say. As long as you haven’t hit the ground yet, take a cue from the swaggering rhythm and give it another shot. “Don’t ever let them make you feel” you don’t deserve “what you want.”

So the Drive-By Truckers take another shot at what they want: rock ‘n’ roll full of high-school friends, aging parents, angry ex-lovers, nasty hangovers, elusive ambitions, and patched-together cars—the lives of ordinary music fans in provincial towns such as Baltimore, Asbury Park, or Birmingham, far from the glamour capitals of the entertainment industry. No one does it better, and A Blessing and a Curse is the band’s third straight triumph, even if it is the darkest, bleakest record they’ve ever made. It is haunted by a vanishing past in the form of “Little Bonnie,” a name on the tombstone in the family cemetery, and in the form of an old-school pal who slipped away without even a “Goodbye.”

It’s also haunted by marriages teetering on the brink of collapse. On Hood’s stomping rocker “Feb. 14,” Valentine flowers are thrown across a room and the vase comes crashing behind them. On Cooley’s hillbilly ballad “Space City,” the singer is driving from Birmingham to Huntsville as if he might escape a wife with “the strength of a man and the heart of a child.” But you can no more escape the dream of romantic love than you can the dream of rock ’n’ roll grandeur. You just have to accept, as Hood puts it on the album’s final song, that it’s going to be “A World of Hurt.”

When the Drive-By Truckers performed at the South by Southwest Music Conference in March, the quintet came out guitars blasting over a stuttering boogie beat. The fast and brittle rhythm suggested Hüsker Dü as much as Lynyrd Skynyrd, but the Southern-rock template was unmistakable. But something about Hood’s vocal on that first song, the new album’s “Wednesday,” separated the Truckers from previous Southern rockers.

It wasn’t just the dark lyrics—the singer sits in a home that “stank of cat shit and alone” and reads a letter from a stranger who will hold her “breath until next Wednesday” until he fulfills her expectations. It was also the hint of irredeemable loss in Hood’s voice. This wasn’t the triumphalism of “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” This was the admission that things go wrong and someone has to cope with the mess left behind. Someone has to clean up the “crystal meth in the bathtub and the blood splattered in the sink,” as described in Curse’s “Aftermath USA.”

It’s that big gap between the hot-rodding, back-slapping, beer-guzzling guitars and the predawn, mirror-staring vocals that makes the Drive-By Truckers so exciting. That gap is larger than ever on the new album, and the heroic efforts they make to close it validate every claim ever made for the band.

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