25 Essential Songs by the Drive-By Truckers
The Drive-By Truckers have spent two decades chronicling the American South in modern and myth making forms. I’ve often wondered how the band would have fared in the rock ‘n’ roll era, if they had reached public consciousness during a time when narrative tales enhanced by electric guitars was still a dominant form of popular culture. Nonetheless, they have aggressively staked their claim to a vivid Southern gothic landscape and have no substantive competition in that field. Here is a look at 25 of their most essential efforts.
1. “The Living Bubba.” Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had performed in several bands before establishing the Drive-By Truckers in 1996 – the one with the most commercial potential was Adam’s House Cat which was recognized by “Musician” magazine in the late 1980s, the best named act was Horsepussy. The Truckers released their first album, “Gangstabilly,” in 1996. “The Living Bubba,” which Patterson describes as “the best song I’ve ever written,” is a hat tip to Georgia musician Greg Smalley who passed away in 1996 from AIDs because “he forgot to wear a rubber.” Smalley fought a valiant, losing battle, trying to keep death at bay by telling himself he had another show to do.
2. “Ronnie and Neil.” I’ve skipped selections from the “Pizza Deliverance” and “Alabama Ass Whuppin’’ albums (my apologies to “Nine Bullets”) and moved to the band’s critical breakthrough effort, 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera.” The worked feud between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young is used as a backdrop to discuss racism in America juxtaposed against the soul music made by whites and blacks in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. If that’s too much to think about it, just dig the guitar riff.
3. “Zip City.” Zip City is a small northern Alabama rural community that does serve as the home to the Salem Church of Christ. It this strange anthem without a chorus, Cooley loses the battle with his teenage sweetheart’s chastity belt and concludes that he’s better off without her.
4. “Let There Be Rock.” Hood frequently introduces this song by saying it is a description of how rock ‘n’ roll music saved his life as a teenager. Fittingly, the guitars are as life affirming as anything you will ever hear.
5. “Women Without Whiskey.” There are a million songs about alcohol, but how many have as trenchant an opening line as, “If I make it through this year, I think I’m gonna put this bottle down.” The alcohol is taking away the man’s spirit “piece by piece” and he’s powerless to do anything about it.
6. “My Sweet Annette.” From the “Decoration Day” album, “My Sweet Annette” sounds like a folk tale from the early 1900s. Annette gets left at the altar, while her would be groom elopes with the maid of honor, Marilee.
7. “Marry Me.” On one level, it’s always bothered me how much this sounds like “Already Gone” by the Eagles. On another level, the sing along power cannot be argued and neither Henley nor Frey ever wrote a line as good as, “My daddy didn’t pull out, but he never apologized.”
8. “Outfit.” Jason Isbell retells his paternal advice for a song written as a Father’s Day gift. Along with “Elephant,” still one of the most moving efforts in the ever expanding Isbell catalogue.
9. “Decoration Day.” Another outstanding Isbell effort, this one relating a mythic Southern family feud between the Hill boys and the Larsons. The narrator’s father winds up dead, perhaps from a bullet from his own son with that being the only way to find long term peace.
10. “Where the Devil Don’t Stay.” Mike Cooley wrote this based upon a poem written by his uncle Ed Cooley. Prohibition, moonshine, incarceration, guitars that hit like a sledgehammer.
11. “Puttin’ People on the Moon.” A look at the class differences in northern Alabama between civil service employees in Huntsville and blue collar workers who have seen their factory jobs disappear. The desperation is palpable.
12. “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac.” Mike Cooley may be a little more generous to Sam Phillips in this song than is deserving – in real life Carl Perkins was not happy to discover that his Cadillac was paid from his own royalties. Still, a nice salute to the man that put Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee, and Johnny Cash on vinyl.
13. “Lookout Mountain.” This song dates back to 1990, the Adam’s House Cat era discussed earlier, and is a bludgeoning suicide contemplation number. A reason to stay alive – to ensure the family cemetery continues to be properly mowed.
14. “Goddamn Lonely Love.” This slow, bluesy Isbell song sounds like a Rolling Stones heartbreak tale. This is the band’s most popular download on iTunes, I’m guessing because people enjoy slow dancing and crying simultaneously.
15. “Gravity’s Gone.” Mike Cooley hovers around sleaze like a moth to a flame and here he’s too proud to look at the face of an unattractive women he’s bedded while wondering when his addictions will hit rock bottom. Of course, his language is much more colorful than what I’ve described.
16. “3 Dimes Down.” You will never hear a more obscure reference to the Tom T. Hall song “A Week in a Country Jail.” Another fine Stones rip.
17. “The Righteous Path.” “More bills than money/I can do the math/I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path.” Another look at working class economic frustrations.
18. “A Ghost to Most.” Cooley’s impressionistic reaction to the government’s reaction or non-reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Patterson Hood, “I am firmly convinced this is the best song he’s ever written.”
19. “Rebels.” Tom Petty performs this song like a period piece, Patterson Hood performs it like biography.
20. “The Fourth Day of My Drinking.” From the 2010 “The Big To-Do”album, Hood takes a look at binge drinking that veers between humor and resignation.
21. “Birthday Boy.” Cooley’s take on the world’s oldest profession. “The pretty girls from the smallest towns/Get remembered like storms and droughts/That old men talk about for years to come.” That certainly rings true for this small town boy.
22. “Go-Go Boots.” On the title track to the band’s 2011 release, a small Alabama preacher comes under the spell of his mistress and hires hitmen to dispose of his wife. The first wife got an Oldsmobile, the second one got a Lincoln.
23. “Used to Be a Cop.” A cinematic tale of paranoia, PTSD, and child abuse. Fun for the whole family!
24. “Shit Shot Counts.” I’ve always viewed Mike Cooley as the second coming of Keith Richards and this lead cut to the 2014 album “English Oceans” beats anything the Stones have done in decades. Cooley being Cooley, he takes the opportunity here to sell shame to a whore.
25. “Grand Canyon.” An elegiac tribute to former crew member Craig Lieske, who passed away in 2013, with a song worthy of its large scale metaphor.