Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Drive-By Truckers: My New Favorite Band I Shouldn't Even Like

I first discovered Drive-By Truckers [1][2] when my wife bought an Austin City Limits compilation containing a live version of "Outfit." In some ways "Outfit" is not unlike other father/son songs like "Father to Son" by The Alarm[1][2][3] or "Independence Day" by Bruce Springsteen. But "Outfit" grabbed me right away and now, some time later, it hasn't let go and I've become a certifiable fan of Drive-By Truckers.

Drive-By Truckers: Not Getting By On Their Looks

Like "Independence Day" "Outfit" takes only one point of view but it still paints a surprisingly complete image of the environment the father/son relationship is working itself out in. The father speaks with great regret, a recurring theme in DBT and father/son songs. Yet, while other father/son songs focus on staying or leaving "Outfit" keeps coming back to something more nuanced, yet powerful.

"Outfit" is about the relationship between one's identity and one's decisions. Rather than the more predictable "get out of this mill town before it does to you what it did to me" or "I'm getting out of this mill town before it does to me what it did to you, asshole" the father implores his son to take sole control of who he is. "Don't let them take who you are," the father says, but he wraps it in instructions about who to be, not where to go.

That's just good songwriting. I know, you're saying "Just!? Whadayamean 'just?' Good songwriting is rare and precious!"

Of course it is. I say "just" not because I think good songwriting is trivial but because I'm comparing Drive-By Truckers to Bruce Springsteen, a master songwriter. In second generation rock and roll there is Springsteen, Indigo Girls, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Sarah McLachlan, Elvis Costello and, trailing far behind, us mortals.

What makes "Outfit," and much of the rest of the DBT catalog, even more special is that the great songcraft is delivered by a red hot band.

Formed in 1995, Drive-By Truckers is a (usually) six-piece band from Georgia and Alabama. Members have come and gone but the band has maintained a triple-lead guitar arrangement, reminiscent of Molly Hatchet. Whether they are more of an alt-country or southern rock band is an interesting question but ultimately beside the point. They employ broad dynamics and driving beat in the manner of the best rock bands and deliver coherent lyrics with the attitude and twang associated with top-shelf country. I don't know about other parts of North America, but I'll eat my hat if I ever hear DBT on country radio here in Iowa. The stations around here seem to be set on playing endless musical settings of Normal Rockwell paintings. Sadly, DBT's songs about AIDS and murdering judges probably won't make the cut.

Growing up north of the Mason-Dixon Line I've learned to be suspicious of anything rising up from The South. The thing is, DBT has a winning mix hard to come by up here. Only in the best blues, singer songwriter and highly conscious hop-hop can you find northern artists who can deliver this kind of gut level (yet believable) pathos, in or out of character. When you do find it the music tends to be lacking--not bad, mind you, but not like this.

I strongly encourage any and all to check out Drive-By Truckers, especially their albums Decoration Day and The Dirty South.


butthorn said...

"Outfit" is one of my favorite songs. It played on a mix CD by happenstance once when I happened to be driving through my beat-up old hometown, and I had to pull over. "Me and your mama made you in the back and I sold it to buy her a ring" gets me every time, plus the part where he's memorizing Frigidaire parts. Drive-By Truckers make it hard to enjoy songs that aren't theirs.

DJ Dual Core said...

Outfit is pretty amazing. That isn't the background I'm from but it still works on an emotional level because regret, grief, hope and sentimentality, when they are real, are universal. Ya. DBT totally nailed this one.