The various stereotypes surrounding Southern rock music have persisted for so long because the same clichés abound about Southern life in general. For some bands, it’s easier to conform to these expectations than it is to circumvent them. But there are bands operating within these rural waters whose work reveals a depth of emotion and experience that completely negates the base assumptions so many people have. If you strike up a conversation with someone on this topic, the discussion will inevitably head toward an examination of artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band.
And while those bands did reach deeper into the genre than most people are willing to admit (or might be aware of), there are far more modern examples to use as a way of bringing the conversation to terms that might be more relatable to someone with fewer years under their belts. A perfect example of a band who both challenged and worked within the genre’s limitations is Drive-By Truckers, a group of performers whose music is undeniably Southern but addresses issues, both political and social, that you might never find threaded throughout the words and music of another band canvassing these same rhythms.
Formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1996 by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the band was the result of many years performing in various other bands and marked by a fluid roster of musicians. Before Drive-By Truckers existed, both Hood and Cooley had homes in bands such as Adam’s House Cat, Virgil Kane and Horsepussy, which featured future DBT member Adam Howell and Aaron Bryant (who is the brother of DBT webmaster Jenn Bryant). These bands eventually fell apart, and the members went their separate ways. During this time, Hood moved to Athens and began to nail down the specifics of what Drive-By Truckers would be, and he tempted Cooley back into the fold.
In the early years, the band consisted mainly of Hood, Cooley, Howell, drummer Matt Lane, pedal steel player John Neff and mandolin player Barry Sell. The same year they officially took on the mantle of Drive-By Truckers, the band looked to longtime friend Jenn Bryant to handle their online presence. Her efforts are often said to have kept the band’s initial successes going, given the relatively new world of internet promotion at the time. They also began a fruitful relationship with artist Wes Freed, who designed all the band’s album covers. His artwork is now so solidly associated with the band that it’s instantly recognizable for its gothic atmospheres and religious overtones.
They released their debut record, “Gangstabilly,” in 1998, and there was constant rotation as each member performed various duties within the band. Howell would often play double bass, while Hood and Cooley would pick up a mandolin and banjo instead of their usual guitars. Shortly after its release, the band added another member, singer-guitarist Rob Malone, and began work on what would become their sophomore album.
By the time “Pizza Deliverance” was released in 1999, Howell and Sell were gone and Malone had switched to bass, a change that led the band toward a more rock-centric sound. And with the release of their expansive third record, “Southern Rock Opera,” the band was pushing the boundaries of Southern rock more than any band in recent memory. It was also during this time that they added guitarist and songwriter Jason Isbell, a man who added immeasurably to their melodic gravity and rock relevancy. They continued this refinement of Southern rock rituals on their next album, “Decoration Day.”
But when their magnificent fifth album, “The Dirty South,” was released in 2004, they entered an entirely new realm of Southern narratives, one that few artists ever approach. On the strength of Isbell and Hood’s incomparable storytelling, these songs speak to endless dark nights down shadow-covered highways and meetings with the devil under a half-moon. If a comparison were to be made, the closet thematic twin is the dark folkloric work of the Coen brothers in films such as “Blood Simple” and “Fargo,” which take the lives of ordinary people and fill them with tangible evil, corruption and bloodshed.
Opening track “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” is based on a poem that Cooley’s uncle wrote and was captured in a single take. Its opening clang heralds the band’s departure from Southern rock convention and ushers in a new dawn of Southern iconography and emotional tension and release. Between the story of The Band on “Danko/Manuel” and the devastating ache of the closing track, the album feels more like Southern myth than music. Delving into the lives of characters such as Carl Perkins and Sheriff Buford Pusser, it has a slightly revisionist opinion on certain events and people. The band wasn’t concerned with simply retelling stories that they’d heard growing up; they wanted to relive them through their own musical persuasion.
“The Dirty South” was an affirmation that the Southern rock genre was still capable of great things. The band was still broadening their reach—their previous two albums made sure of that—and they weren’t content to idly let these sounds drift by without direction. The story of John Henry finds new life in “The Day John Henry Died,” while “Tornadoes” is inspired from a newspaper article that had one eyewitness claiming the titular twister “sounded like a train.” These are the immaculate details and memorable stories that Drive-By Truckers brought into the light on this record. We feel the moral dilemma of bootlegging, hear the devil whispering in the night and feel the presence of “Lookout Mountain” as these songs unfurl. And we still want so much more.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.