DRIVE BY TRUCKERS – ” American Band “

Posted: October 1, 2016 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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Drive-By Truckers, 'American Band'

On this their 11th album, and the most politically charged collection of their career, the Athens-based band offers a dose of angry, punk-fueled protest. “A lot of our records are set in another period of time, whereas this record is really about the ‘right now,'” says frontman Patterson Hood, who’s lately been inspired by Black Lives Matter–era statements like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. With songs that address gun violence and racially motivated police shootings, American Band is a fitting soundtrack for this fall’s dystopian election cycle. The Truckers revisit themes involving Southern identity first addressed on their 2001 breakthrough Southern Rock Opera, but “What It Means,” which ponders the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, has already aroused controversy. “Me and [co-lead-singer] Mike Cooley have been pissing people off for 31 years,” says Hood. “If someone wants to control what we say or do, fuck ’em.

The Drive-By Truckers had no plans to release a record this year. But the band’s two co-founders, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, were so agitated by this tumultuous period in American history that they couldn’t stop themselves from writing a bunch of new songs. And the songs were so good and so timely that they couldn’t put off going into the studio. This new album, American Band, is the result.

The two men write their songs separately, but when they shared their recent output, they found that their new material had a lot in common—not only in what they wrote about but also how they wrote about it. Hood and Cooley had so much to say that they found themselves cramming two songs’ worth of words into each tune. To contain this overflow of ideas, they each fashioned long lyric lines, densely packed with language.

When Cooley, for example, wrote about changing gender roles on “Filthy and Fried,” he began with this image-soaked couplet: “Bottles falling in a dumpster and a stale smell rising through a sickening summer haze/To the rhythm of a boot-heeled hipster cowgirl’s clunky sashay of shame.” And when Hood addressed school shootings on “Guns of Umpqua,” he pivoted on this word-stuffed couplet: “Now we’re moving chairs in some panic mode to barricade the door./As my heart rate surges on adrenaline and nerves, I feel I’ve been here before.”


The quintet is still a rock ‘n’ roll band with live drums and two or three guitars on every song (Jay Gonzalez splits his duties between guitar and keyboards).

Hood’s “What It Means,” for instance, starts off by referencing the recent deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers. “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks,” Hood sings, “well, I guess that means you ain’t black…You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.” Hood jumps from Ferguson to Baltimore, from Chicago to Miami, turning TV news images into rock ‘n’ roll lyrics.

before the album was released, and it proved polarizing among the band’s staunchest fans. Some loved it, but others hated it, complaining that the Drive-By Truckers shouldn’t get involved in politics. It was a strange reaction, considering that this is the band that released the most ferocious anti-Bush anthem of all, “Putting People on the Moon,” the class-conscious “Uncle Frank,” and the incisive analysis of segregation on “Three Alabama Icons.”

“I’ve always considered ourselves a political band,” Hood adds. “Most of the music I’ve loved I’ve considered political, whether it’s the Clash or Bruce or Curtis Mayfield. When Obama won in 2008, a lot of us convinced ourselves that we’d turned the corner and put all this race stuff behind us. And then the most disgusting stuff happened. It’s like when you turn on the light in the basement and everything scampers. But the negativity this record has inspired—even the pushback from long-term fans—that can be the start of a much needed conversation.”

Like Hood, Cooley watches the news a lot, and he noticed that two topics kept popping up again and again: guns and the Mexican border. What connected the two? he asked himself. At first he thought about writing a satirical song about NRA supporters who form volunteer militias and go down to the border to do ad hoc patrols. But that got him thinking about the National Rifle Association, and its strange transition from a gun-safety/marksmanship organization to a right-wing lobbying group.

The key figure in that changeover, Cooley discovered, was Harlon Carter, the NRA vice president from 1977 through 1985. A little further digging revealed that Carter was set free in 1931 after shooting and killing a 15-year-old Mexican boy, Ramon Casiano, in Laredo, Texas. Suddenly it all fit together, and Cooley quickly wrote “Ramon Casiano,” the album’s lead-off track. Cooley made sure to connect the story to the present day by singing, “It all started with the border, and that’s still where it is today. Someone killed Ramon Casiano, and the killer got away.”

“I did more songs based on specific stories for this album than I ever have in the past,” Cooley says. “I like writing with parameters. In interviews, songwriters always say, ‘I don’t want to put limits on myself,’ but that’s bullshit. Eventually you have put parameters on yourself, or you’re all over the place. If you have nothing to start with, that can be frustrating because you can go for days without thinking of something to write about. But give me something to write about, and I know what to do with it.”

“Ramon Casiano” is a noisy-guitar rocker, and so are the two songs that follow: “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” and “Surrender Under Protest.” Hood wrote “Darkened Flags” right after penning a column on the Confederate flag for the New York Times Magazine and the song is “very much the companion piece to the essay,” he says. Both of the latter songs were written right after Dylann Roof, who often posed with the Stars and Bars, shot nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015.

After the opening trilogy of songs, however, the album quiets down quite a bit. One of the frustrating things about the Drive-By Truckers has always been that the lyrics that are such a strength on their recordings are almost indecipherable in the band’s live shows, drowned out by the roar of unrestrained guitars and drums. On this recording, at least, there’s been a conscious effort to push the words to the foreground,

Last year Hood and Cooley decided to celebrate their 30 years of making music together by releasing It’s Great To Be Alive, a two-LP, three-CD concert album recorded over three nights at the end of 2014 at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was also a chance to showcase the current Drive-By Truckers line-up: Hood, Cooley, Brad Morgan (drummer since 1999), Jay Gonzalez (guitarist-keyboardist since 2007) and Matt Patton (bassist since 2012). As a live unit, this group had refashioned several songs so dramatically that the new versions deserved to be documented. The set also captures some of Hood’s spoken monologues that are often a highlight of the live shows.

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