Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Morgan Enos fronts the bands Other Houses and Hollow Sunshine.
It sometimes feels like an artifact of the Baby Boomer mentality to need a song to illustrate your times. But, I remember driving around with my dad listening to Neil Young’s Living with War when it came out. It’s another of Shakey’s “impulse albums” that was recorded as quickly as it was forgotten, calling for George W. Bush’s head. But, to my 14-year-old brain, it truly seemed like a cataclysmic political message, like that burlap packaging on the cover contained a letter bomb to Washington. It was 2006, but I felt like I was in 1966.
Ten years later, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers appeared at the Democratic National Convention in support of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. It was stunning to see the Alabaman authors of “The President’s Penis is Missing” (Pizza Deliverance, 1999) as talking heads on the national news, a flash of authenticity onscreen. And as 2016’s American political climate parodies itself to a nearly psychedelic extent, we could do worse than Cooley and Hood as our musical ambassadors against the chaos. Now, we have American Band.
I actually wrote off Drive-By Truckers for most of my life. I’d sniff every time I’d hear someone’s rendition of “Bulldozers and Dirt” or “Women Without Whiskey” at a cafe or bar and presume whoever was behind it was unbearably hokey. It took James Jackson Toth of Wooden Wand penning a comprehensive piece about the band for Stereogum, which calls them “maybe America’s greatest extant band,” for me to realize how wrong I was. I quickly fell in love with the band’s body of work, with their multiple songwriters and needle-sharp narratives, accompanied by their go-to illustrator Wes Freed’s visual aesthetic of Cooley birds and tattered Southern landscapes.
American Band is their most streamlined work yet, and, on the surface, disposes of many of the elements that initially drew me to the group. Gone is the Wes Freed album cover, replaced by an unprecedented photograph of a muted, half-mast Old Glory. The songs operate differently, too. While the group’s past tunes set personal and mythological scenes against a changing American South, these songs fire outward against police killings, nationalist creeps and blind Rebel Flag waving. The Truckers have a righteous axe to grind.
It doesn’t hurt that the band sounds better than ever. Divorced from the sometimes compressed, distorted sound of recent albums like The Big To-Do (2010) and English Oceans (2014) the band sounds loose, energetic and wide-open. Cooley’s “Kinky Hypocrite” is yet another in his growing pile of Stonesy rave-ups (check out “Marry Me” or “Shit Shots Count” for the same kind of song) but it’s a wickedly funny put-down of the 1%. It’s not all finger-pointing, however: several songs reference co-leader Hood’s relocation from the Truckers’ home base of Athens, Georgia, to Portland, Oregon. His “Guns of Umpqua” finds the songwriter taking stock of his new life against the climate of a horrific recent shooting in Oregon. “When the Sun Don’t Shine” is a sweet, simple weather report of Hood’s internal world, in which he opts to “watch the moon peak into my room” rather than bask in some rays.
But it’s the weighty closer, “Baggage,” that is far and away the most potent cut here. To my ears, it’s the end credits to the band’s entire history, from the anarchic, inebriated makers of Gangstabilly (1998) or Pizza Deliverance (1999) to modern rock’s poet laureates.
In a revealing Facebook post from 2011 about the Truckers’ early song “Buttholeville,” from Gangstabilly (1998), Hood related his anger at his hometown of Florence, AL at age 24. “Things weren’t going particularly well on any level back then. I was very frustrated with everything in my life, personal, musical, financial, you name it,” he recalls. It’s a sense of despondency that’s seeped into his work ever since, but he spends the six stormy minutes of “Baggage” battling his demons in real time. It’s a fitting encapsulation of the current state of Drive-By Truckers as they near 20 years of existence. On American Band, Cooley and Hood crucially sharpen themselves as individuals and storytellers to go after our nation’s intolerance, violence, and poisoned traditions. Sometimes we do need a song.
– Morgan Enos
Keep up with Morgan on his website