For a year and a half, all the op-ed columnists and poli-sci pontificators have been scratching their bald spots about where on Earth Donald Trump’s supporters are coming from. Someone should have just handed them a stack of records by the Drive-By Truckers, who’ve spent more than two decades making loud rock ’n’ roll about the way people’s lives are screwed up by economic unfairness and the torque of history. And now, with a new album, the band is even outdoing the pundits at their own editorializing game.
The Truckers’ longtime leaders Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood are former Alabama boys turned grown-ass Southern men, and the characters in their songs are mostly white Southern Gothic figures, small-town or rural, dealing with addictions, broken families, war, displacement, violence, and other injuries of class. All of which can nurture an appetite for escape and blame that the DBTs try to put in broader perspective. Their watchword always has been to refuse to judge and scorn in turn, unlike Hillary Clinton in her “basket of deplorables” rhetoric. Though they’re not shy of a tincture of punk-rock sarcasm, the Truckers’ songs are about complication and empathy, not easy morals.
If that weren’t clear enough in the lyrics and delivery—Hood’s prolific stream of narrative patter, broken up (more frequently of late, happily) by Cooley’s more compact, sinuous meditations—it would be obvious from the music. Their piled-on electric-guitar riffs, tethered to the deep-pocket rhythms of drummer Brad Morgan, are shot through with anthemic colors traceable to the Stones, Springsteen, the Replacements, and the Clash, as well as Southern rock, vintage Nashville country, and the Muscle Shoals soul that was Hood’s father’s stock-in-trade. In other words, it’s party music: No matter how distressing the material, the sound insists on celebration, because every twisted human soul deserves it and because, in spite of everything, as Hood sings on their live staple “World of Hurt,” it’s still “fuckin’ great to be alive.”
On the new album, they permit themselves just one notch of deviation from that mandate, and it’s enough to make it the group’s most powerful release in almost a decade. Spurred by the election year, but also by police shootings and other troubling turns, they’ve moved from indirect critique to explicit protest, putting their beliefs in the foreground. They’ve said in interviews that they were inspired by socially engaged hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels, but also by the question of how white people can be effective allies for change. Finding themselves embodying the stereotypical demographics of a Trump voter (white, male, middle-age, non–college-educated), they felt the need to call bullshit on some of their peers a little more pointedly, on matters of race, immigration, gender, and—as ever in the DBTs’ work—“the duality of the Southern thing.”
The record is called American Band, and the DBTs probably should go down as the finest American rock band of the early 21st century, for whatever that’s still worth. From their standpoint, though, the title is at once a classic-rock joke and an advance declaration that in a democracy there’s nothing more patriotic than dissent, so don’t you dare tell them to love it or leave it. The cover is a black-and-white photo of the stars and stripes flying at half-staff, not only a statement of theme but a signal of change, as it’s the first Truckers studio album in 15 years not to be fronted by the band’s house illustrator Wes Freed—a little less art, a little more reportage, this time.
The album begins with a reveillelike distorted riff and then the words, “It all started with the border/ And that’s still where it is today,” which drops us straight into the dust storm around Trump’s notorious wall. The song is Cooley’s “Ramon Casiano,” about the 1931 killing of a Hispanic teenager by Harlon Carter, who would go on to join the Border Patrol, become an immigration official, and then lead the transformation of the National Rifle Association into a political lobbying group in the 1970s.
Its historical setting would make it more typical of the Truckers’ sidelong approach to issues—in this case the racial subtext of many conservative claims about “natural rights”—if not for the verse in which Cooley makes the parallel to contemporary politics clear: “He had the makings of a leader of a certain kind of men/ Who need to feel the world’s against them, out to get them if it can … / United in a revolution, like in mind and like in skin.”
Breaking the song down like that makes it sound complicated, as often happens with a DBTs song, but it’s actually a quick-charging rocker with a ringing melody (with just a hint of Mexican norteño influence) that’s as difficult to dislodge from the mind as the song’s capping line: “Someone killed Ramon Casiano, and Ramon still ain’t dead enough.”
The album’s other take on immigration comes later, with Hood’s twangy shuffle “Ever South,” in which he looks back to his Scots-Irish migrant ancestors, who “spread through Appalachia, ever south,” even though “I hear we weren’t welcomed here, at least not in those days/ No one needs our drunken, fightin’, thievin’ kind.” He tracks the tale across the map to his own family’s recent relocation to Portland, Oregon, where “everyone takes notice of the drawl that leaves our mouths.” He goes on to admonish his “Southern Christian brethren” about the misguided “noble causes” they keep fighting for, including rejecting more recent immigrants.
That line about “noble causes” links “Ever South” to Cooley’s song about misbegotten “Lost Cause” antebellum nostalgia, “Surrender Under Protest,” which asks, “Does the color really matter/ On the face you blame for failure?” And that song follows from Hood’s “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn,” his half-hopeful reflection on the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre of 2015 and the subsequent removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. (He wrote a searching essay on the subject for the New York Times Magazine that summer.) Cooley and Hood have said that they didn’t initially plan for the album to be so topical, but just each found themselves independently writing these songs—which is a testimony to the kind of synchronized mindmeld that’s kept their partnership so vital for so long.
Another starting point for the album, however, was a song that Hood found himself compelled to write during the 2014 protests over Michael Brown’s shooting by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, though it also refers to the Trayvon Martin case, and even obliquely to Bill Cosby. At first, Hood thought he’d have to do “What It Means” solo instead of with the band—especially after it drew a flurry of backlash when he posted the lyrics on his Facebook page—but the other Truckers welcomed it. Its style recalls Dylan’s protest period, with speechlike address and simple strums that gradually build into a rallying singalong. It’s the most straightforward example of white-people-calling-out-white-people on the record: “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks/ Well, I guess that means that you ain’t black … And it happened where you’re sitting, wherever that might be,/ And it happened last weekend, and it’ll happen again next week.”
Cooley tries to put that situation in a little medium-term context with “Once They Banned Imagine,” which refers to the period after 9/11 when corporate radio chains listed 100 songs they thought might be too controversial to play, including, absurdly, John Lennon’s peace anthem “Imagine.” Cooley uses that incident as a rock guy’s synecdoche for the social tightening and intolerance that followed the attacks and led up to our current morass: “From baseless inquiry to no-knocking entry becoming the law of the land/ To half-cocked excuses for bullet abuses regarding anything browner than tan.”
Such straight talk on race and racism makes American Band an important turn in the DBTs’ body of work—in the past, they’ve sung about the South’s racist heritage but not so head on about nonwhite people, no doubt out of a cautious impulse to write what they know firsthand. Balancing that picture makes them an “American band” in a fuller sense.
However, it’s not all the band draws from the current atmosphere. One of the hottest-sounding tracks, Cooley’s “Filthy and Fried,” explores changing sexual-behavior norms through the vehicle of a Stones-y country-rock song—which, given the number of grand old sexist nuggets in that form, has to be deliberate irony. The first couple of verses offer an impressionistic picture of a “boot-heeled hipster cowgirl” enduring a Monday-morning hangover and wrestling with her feelings about last night’s hookup, then pivots in a kind of coda to the point of view of an “old man” (presumably Cooley himself) drinking his coffee, maybe watching the scene out the window, and mulling over the idea that “now girls collect trophies as much as the boys.” This is a risky zone—Cooley could end up seeming very much like a fogey moralizing about promiscuity—but he comes correct in condemning what the kids these days call “slut-shaming,” singing, “All that’s different for girls is the bragging and who it’s done to.”
That line suggests to me that “Filthy and Fried” is actually an answer song—in the tradition of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”—to Dierks Bentley’s retrograde country hit this summer, “Different for Girls,” which goes on and on about how women “can’t” deal with heartbreak the way “guys” do, e.g., by getting drunk and hooking up. Such a quick retort is one benefit of making an album in record time, as the DBTs reportedly did with American Band.
There are a couple of tunes from Hood about mental health—the closer “Baggage,” connecting his own depressive episodes with Robin Williams’ suicide, and on a lighter note the pleasant 1970s-AM-radio–style lope, “Sun Don’t Shine,” which offers his discomfort with the Georgia heat as a modest explanation for his move to the Pacific Northwest, which displeased some regional loyalists. (Melodically it’s a cousin to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and thus a second cousin once-removed-by-litigation to Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” but since the Truckers and Petty are past tour mates, hopefully this one stays out of court.)
Hood’s more potent Oregon-related song here is “Guns of Umpqua,” a dreamily spiraling evocation of the mass shooting that killed nine at that Roseburg, Oregon, community college last fall. It’s from the viewpoint of an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran (loosely based on a real survivor of the incident) who “made it back … only to stare down hell back home.” Its force comes from alternating between the protagonist’s recollections of an idyllic nature hike with friends the week before and him now finding himself listening to screams and barricading a classroom door with chairs, on “a morning like so many others, of breakfasts and birthdays.” It’s not just the long-ago death of Ramón Casiano the Truckers want the NRA called to account for.
The richness of American Band’s panoramic view makes it not only required and renewing listening for engaged and enraged citizens in 2016, but a kind of rebirth for the band. Though 2014’s English Oceans has a similar crackling-tight sound, thanks in part to Cooley’s increased presence compared with the past several albums, it suffered from the same lack of urgency that troubled the other recordings that followed the extraordinary five-album run from 2001’s Southern Rock Opera to 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. While there’s never been a DBTs release without some worthwhile songs, the band’s case seemed already made, its mission fulfilled, and it was just turning out minor variations. American Band, by contrast, feels like a true successor to those heights, a fresh statement of purpose and discovery of voice.
One of the Truckers’ most quoted lines ever comes from 2003’s “Marry Me”: “Rock and roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies.” Against all odds, American Band suggests that once in a while, rock still can stand up and fulfill some of the best of those intentions.