Graded on a Curve,
Drive-By Truckers,
American Band

Celebrating Mike Cooley, born on this day in 1966.Ed.

Hot damn, I loves me some Drive-By Truckers. Anybody who’s ever seen ‘em knows they put on a kick-ass live show, and anybody who’s ever heard 2001’s Southern Rock Opera knows that it’s one of the most ambitious and brilliant concept albums ever recorded, period. And it includes one of the best love songs ever written to rock’n’roll, “Let There Be Rock,” which covers all the bases from Molly Hatchet to Bon Scott to Lynyrd Skynyrd and “The Boys Are Back in Town,” to say nothing of freaking out on acid at a Blue Oyster Cult concert, an event that I include on my own rock’n’roll resume.

Since then they’ve continued to release strong album after strong album, and this despite personnel changes including the defections of both the multi-talented Jason Isbell and Shonna Tucker, she of the amazing voice. And have I mentioned they have impeccable taste in covers? Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Kiss, Tom T. Hall—why, they even cover Warren Zevon’s fiery “Play It All Night Long” and beat him, no sweat piss jizz or blood about it, at his own game.

Drive-By Truckers have always written smart songs, and many of them have been protest songs, on everything from the ruthless machinations of rapacious corporations to the murders of those four little black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by the KKK in 1963 to the still very much alive specter of hate-monger George Wallace, but on their newly released LP American Band they go all out, tackling such hot button issues as police shootings of young black men, school massacres, and gun control in general.

Hardly what one would expect from a bunch of southern boys who sound very much like southern boys, but then again it was Lynyrd Skynyrd, those paragons of the Confederate flag-waving southland (and the chief characters in the cast of Southern Rock Opera) who had the chutzpah to condemn Saturday night specials. And who sang “Boo! Boo!” in reference to segretionist Alabama governor George Wallace while they were at it.

But while the Drive-By Truckers may raise their voices in protest, they don’t pretend to have the answers, mainly because like it or not, there are no answers; as band leader and guitarist/singer/songwriter Patterson Hood sings in “What It Means,” “There’s no sunlight in our asses/And our heads are stuck up in it/And our heroes may be rapists/Who watch us while we dream/But don’t look to me for answers/Cuz I don’t know what it means.”

The Drive-By Truckers are most definitely a guitar-centered southern rock band in the great tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they come out guns a’blazing on the fiery “Ramon Casiano,” a protest song by Patterson’s long-time fellow guitarist and singer/songwriter Mike Cooley that recounts the shooting death of Casiano in 1931 at the hands of Harlon (Boo! Boo!) Carter, who would later become the leader of the National Rifle Association, during which time he shifted that group’s focus from sports shooting to fighting for less restrictive gun laws, hence creating the monster we know today. Carter’s conviction for murdering the 15-year-old Casiano was overturned on a technicality, but he later acknowledged committing the crime.

But NRA asswipe aside, what we have here is one of the hardest hitting guitar tunes I’ve heard in a while, and it provides a nice contrast to the hauntingly eloquent “Guns of Umpqua,” an acoustic number that details the mass killing at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on October 1, 2015, as told from the point of view of Chris Mintz, a U.S. Army vet who was studying at the college and who heroically helped many students to escape, only to return to the building to help more, where he got shot five times for his trouble. Fortunately he lived, and Hood, who sings on this one, ends it with some poignant lines that echo those at the end of the band’s song about the Lynryrd Skynyrd plane crash, “Angels and Fuselage.” To wit, Hood has Mintz sing, “Heaven’s calling my name from the outside of the door/Heaven’s calling my name from outside the door.”

Cooley’s “Kinky Hypocrite” is a cool Stones country-honk era rip that carries a vague message but is mainly good for getting yer ya-ya’s out, while Hood’s “Sun Don’t Shine” is a mid-tempo number that doesn’t do much for me. The same goes for his “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn,” which boasts a mammoth guitar sound but has a clunky melody and vague lyrics. Fortunately he redeems himself with the impassioned “What It Means,” a long and emotionally scathing assault on our country’s epidemic of cops shooting unarmed black youths.

Set to a galloping rhythm, Hood, whose voice is as southern as a Confederate flag, adds up the costs, singing, “And if you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks, well I guess that means that you ain’t black, you ain’t black.” He may say he doesn’t know what it means, but makes clear that he does; a black man may be president, he sings, but there are no white youth lying dead on the ground, and I think what he’s really saying isn’t that he doesn’t know what it means, but that he doesn’t see a solution. And his anguished sinking at the end only reinforces that suspicion.

As for what it means, Cooley asks the same question on the piano-powered “Once They Banned Imagine,” which harkens back to the great southern writer William Faulkner’s quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Once upon a time there was a deadly conflict called the Civil War, and like Faulkner Cooley is pointing out that it never ended, but continued through reconstruction and Jim Crow and segregation and the KKK; as he sings, “Once they banned Imagine it became the same war it’s always been/Once they banned Imagine it because the war it was when we were kids.”

“Filthy and Fried” opens a triumph of guitars, after which Cooley kicks the tune into high gear; this one has an infectious melody but bears the brunt of a hard-to-parse set of lyrics. Cooley’s eloquence tends toward the abstract, as is demonstrated on both “Filthy and Fried” and the wailing “Surrender Under Protest,” which is vague to a fault but does bear the telling lines, “If the victims and aggressors/Just remain each others’ others/And the instigators never fight their own.”

The slow and sorta funky “Ever South” features Hood recounting the history of “his distant Irish kin” who “spread through Appalachia ever south” despite prejudice and animosity, and I like the organ and the way the song kicks into gear now and again, especially at the end when, speaking of his own lazy southern drawl, Hood sings of tales “always told a little slower ever south.”

In “Baggage,” which bears echoes of Neil Young, Hood sings about a celebrity, name unspecified, whose death has shaken him to the core, and I assume the celebrity killed himself in a depressive state because his death has led Hood to sing about his own personal demons. “Fighting with the baggage that is pulling down on me/Like an undertow pulls into the sea,” he sings, and then sings of how it’s “Hard to separate you from all the darkness that is in me.” And when he sings of tossing his “baggage” into the sea it’s hard to know whether he’s talking about freeing himself of said baggage or of committing suicide himself. It’s a dark but erudite and insightful tune, a confession and suicide note, yet the howling guitars at the end are a signal of defiance; Hood isn’t ready to go into the awful black.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Hood made clear his ardent support of the Black Lives Matter movement and fumed against Donald Trump, saying, “The things Donald Trump says are way worse than a lot of what George Wallace said.” Before adding, “God, haven’t we learned anything?” He understands only too well the price in shame one pays to live in an America with a two-tier system of justice, just as he understands that lowering the Confederate flag (about which he says, “Fuck that flag”) changes nothing, because hatred is born in the heart and festers there. He knows only too well that his own audiences are primarily white, and that shames him too.

There is no way out, it seems, but Hood and Cooley together are doing what they can, even if their actions are futile. They’re willing to stand up and be counted, and that, my friends, is the best any of us can do.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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