A musical portrait of class in America

Summer is coming and so is my favourite band, the Drive-By Truckers. A rare Vancouver appearance at a small venue, the Biltmore Caberet, walking distance from my house. Heck, last year I drove to Portland to see what turned out to be one of the best live shows of my life.

I would make the case that DBT are currently the best rock band in America right now, in terms of both the quality of their music and their live show. But you have probably never heard of them because they are an indie band that shuns the major labels, or maybe like me you kinda dismissed them because they have a gimmicky name. They have only really been around for about ten years. The Truckers’ new album, Brighter than Creation’s Dark, is getting rave reviews, and the band feels like it could be close to that juncture where they stop playing smaller venues and begin to fill arenas. I’d also nominate Decoration Day as one of the best albums of the naughties and perhaps ever.

What’s particularly cool about DBT is that they write about class. Not polemics and rants, mind you. Their appeal is more in telling stories about people just trying to get by, sometimes put in the position of being on the wrong side of the law. It’s gritty and real, rich in moral ambiguity, and shows a different side of the South (they are from Alabama) than the red state stereotypes of George Bush’s America.

Of course, it would just be nice poetry if the music was not amazing. DBT specialize in a three-guitar attack, the intricate texture of which demands to be burned into your cortex through repeated play. Sometimes called southern rock or alt-country, basically the Truckers are just an amazing rock band. If you don’t like hard rock, there is still lots of great material to explore. But if you’re prerequisites look like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynrd, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler then you will love this band.

And then there is The Rock Show. In my humble opinion a good band should be playing for at least two hours. Way too many acts are only an hour in before “we’re gonna do a couple more songs”, then after an encore tease close out the show at an hour and a half, if that. A DBT show is two-and-a-half hours of great energy. I also love it that they play without a setlist and co-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley trade songs back and forth kicking a few bars of the next song before the rest of the band kicks in.

So June 27 in Vancouver. Be there. Shows follow in Calgary and Winnipeg; they already hit Toronto and Montreal in March.

Still need convincing? I’ve cropped some lyrics below (though freely admit this is more for my own amusement).

First, a few clips from their breakthrough 2001 album Southern Rock Opera, which deals with growing up in the South, and the rock and roll legacy of Lynyrd Synyrd.

(Hood / DBT)

Church blew up in Birmingham
Four little black girls killed for no goddamn good reason
All this hate and violence can’t come to no good end
A stain on the good name.
A whole lot of good people dragged threw the blood and glass
Blood stains on their good names and all of us take the blame

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Wilson Pickett comes to town
To record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Aretha Franklin comes to town
To record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound

And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs about the
Bad shit that went down
“Southern Man” and “Alabama” certainly told some truth
But there were a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young wasn’t around

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound
And they met some real good people, not racist pieces of shit
And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit

Ronnie and Neil Ronnie and Neil
Rock stars today ain’t half as real
Speaking there minds on how they feel
Let them guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil


Economics shut the furnace down
Bull Connor hosing children down
George Wallace stared them Yankee’s down
In Birmingham


(Hood / DBT)

Ain’t about my pistol
Ain’t about my boots
Ain’t about no northern drives
Ain’t about my southern roots
Ain’t about my guitars, ain’t about my big old amps
“It ain’t rained in weeks, but the weather sure feels damp”
Ain’t about excuses or alibis
Ain’t about no cotton fields or cotton picking lies
Ain’t about the races, the crying shame
To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same


If I make it through this year, I think I’m gonna put this bottle down
Maybe as time goes on I’ll learn to miss it less than I do now
Think I’m gonna tell her that I’m gonna go away for a while
Till I can get this demon out

You know the bottle ain’t to blame and I ain’t trying to
It don’t make you do a thing it just lets you
When I’m six feet underground, I’ll need a drink or two
And I’ll sure miss you

Take me piece by piece till there ain’t nothing left worth taking away from me


Let me tell ya’ll a story
So far fetched it must be true
Bout a bunch of fatherless boys from Florida and a boy who was man enough for two.
Practiced twelve hours a day in the Hell House
In the swamps out side of town.
100 degrees without no open windows
Heat radiating off the tin.

They named their band Lynyrd Skynyrd, after the coach who kicked them out of school.
Practiced seven days a week cuz Rock’s the only thing to save them from life in the factory.

From Decoration Day, my favourite of all DBT albums:


I’ve always been a religious man, I ‘ve always been a religious man
but I met the banker and it felt like sin, he turned my bailout down
The Banker Man, he let into me, let into me, let into me
The Banker Man, he let into me and spread my name around
He thinks I ain’t got a lick of sense cause I talk slow and my money’s spent
Now, I ain’t the type to hold it against, but he better stay off my farm
Cause it was my Daddy’s and his Daddy’s before
and his Daddy’s before and his Daddy’s before
Five generations and an unlocked door and a loaded burglar alarm.

Lots of pictures of my purdy family, lots of pictures of my purdy family
lots of pictures of my purdy family in the house where I was born.
House has stood through five tornadoes,
Droughts, floods, and five tornadoes.
I’d rather wrastle an alligator than to face the Banker’s scorn
Cause he won’t even look me in the eye
He just takes my land and apologize,
with pen, paper, and a friendly smile, he says the deed is done.
The sound you hear is my Daddy spinning, The sound you hear is my Daddy spinning
The sound you hear is my Daddy spinning over what the Banker done.


Six months in a St. Florian foundry, they call it Industrial Park.
Then hospital maintenance and Tech School just to memorize Frigidaire parts.
But I got to missing your Mama and I got to missing you too.
So I went back to painting for my old man and I guess that’s what I’ll always do

So don’t try to change who you are boy, and don’t try to be who you ain’t.
And don’t let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy-man’s paint.

Don’t call what your wearing an outfit. Don’t ever say your car is broke.
Don’t sing with a fake British accent. Don’t act like your family’s a joke.
Have fun, but stay clear of the needle, call home on your sister’s birthday.
Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus, Don’t give it away.


Mary Alice had a baby and he looked just like I did
We got married on a Monday and I been working ever since
Every week down at the Ford Plant but now they say they’re shutting down
Goddamned Reagan in the White House and no one there gives a damn

Double Digit unemployment, TVA be shutting soon
While over there in Huntsville, They puttin’ people on the moon

… If I could solve the world’s problems I’d probably start with hers and mine
But they can put a man on the moon
And I’m stuck in Muscle Shoals just barely scraping by

Mary Alice got cancer just like everybody here
Seems everyone I know is gettin’ cancer every year
And we can’t afford no insurance, I been 10 years unemployed
So she didn’t get no chemo so our lives was destroyed
And nothin’ ever changes, the cemetery gets more full
And now over there in Huntsville, even NASA’s shut down too

Another Joker in the White House, said a change was comin’ round
But I’m still workin’ at The Wal Mart and Mary Alice, in the ground
And all them politicians, they all lyin’ sacks of shit
They say better days upon us but I’m sucking left hind tit
And the preacher on the TV says it ain’t too late for me
But I bet he drives a Cadillac and I’m broke with some hungry mouths to feed


Daddy tell me another story
Tell me about the lows and the highs
Tell me how to tell the difference between what they tell me is the truth or a lie
Tell me why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad
With the same skin stretched over their white bones and the same jug in their hand


When John Henry was a little bitty baby nobody ever taught him how to read
but he knew the perfect way to hold a hammer was the way the railroad baron held the deed.

It didn’t matter if he won, if he lived, or if he’d run.
They changed the way his job was done. Labor costs were high.
That new machine was cheap as hell and only John would work as well,
so they left him laying where he fell the day John Henry died.

John Henry was a steel-driving bastard but John Henry was a bastard just the same.
An engine never thinks about his daddy and an engine never needs to write its name.

THE BUFORD STICK (The Legend of Sheriff Buford Pusser)

Now Sheriff Buford Pusser’s gotten too big for his britches
With his book reviews and movie deals
Down at the car lot making public appearances
For breaking up our homes and stills
I know he likes to brag how he wrestled a bear
But I knew him from the funeral home
Ask him for a warrant, he’ll say “I keep it in my shoe”
That son of a bitch has got to go

Now they lined up around the block to see that movie
And crying for his ambushed wife
Marveling about about shot eight times and stabbed seven
Some folks can’t take a hint
They say he didn’t take no crap from the State Line Gang
What the hell they talking bout?
I’m just a hard workingman with a family to feed
And he made my daughter cry

And from the new album, Brighter than Creation’s Dark:


I got a couple of opinions that I hold dear
A whole lot of debt and a whole lot of fear
I got an itch that needs scratching but it feels alright
I got the need to blow it out on Saturday night
I got a grill in the backyard and a case of beers
I got a boat that ain’t seen the water in years
More bills than money, I can do the math
I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path

I’m trying to keep focused as I drive down the road
On the ditches and the curves and the heavy load
Ain’t bitching bout things that aren’t in my grasp
Just trying to hold steady on the righteous path

There’s this friend of mine I’ve known all my life
Who can’t get it right no matter how hard he tries
He’s got kids he don’t see and several ex-wives
And a list of bad decisions bout eight miles wide
Trouble with the law and the IRS
And where he’ll get the money’s anybody’s guess
He’s a long way off but if you was to ask
He’d say he’s trying to stay focused on the righteous path


Bob’s still got an antenna on a pole
two channels come in, two more come and go
He used to watch the news but he don’t anymore,
ain’t none of it new it’s the same as before
He figures all any of it’s any good for is keeping every bored
till there ain’t nobody like Bob anymore

Bob takes care of his mama
she’s a mess but he feels like he oughta
How big a mess today? Ask Bob he’ll say,
“She’s a big one and she’s gonna be a lotta”
He likes to drink a beer or two every now and again,
he always had more dogs than he ever had friends
Bob ain’t light in the loafers, he might kneel but he never bends over


That man I shot, I was in his homeland
I was there to help him but he didn’t want me there
I did not hate him, I still don’t hate him
He was trying to kill me and I had to take him down

That man I shot, I still can see him
When I should be sleeping, tossing and turning
He’s looking at me, eyes looking through me
Break out in cold sweats when I see him standing there

… That man I shot did he have little ones
That he was so proud of that he won’t see grow up?
Was walking down his street, maybe I was in his yard
Was trying to do good I just don’t understand


The hours creep across the face
As she paces across the floor
She can’t even get to sleep since Tony went to war
She feels bitchslapped and abandoned
By a world she thought she knew
Cold beyond comprehension as their little girl turns two

Now they’re saying on the flat screen
They ain’t found a reason yet
We’re all bogged down in a quagmire
And there ain’t no end to it
No Nine Eleven or Uranium to pin the bullshit on
She’s left standing on the home front
The two of them alone

And a few others:


On the day that she was buried
Her Daddy stood out by the cemetery fence
Prayed to God for forgiveness
For surely all of this is punishment for my sins

They put her in the family garden
Said you could hear his heart breaking miles away
All the men pitched in and bought a marble angel
To mark the piece of land where little Bonnie lay

… My Grandma said she would keep her in the mornings
A swollen angel who never would complain
She’d read her stories about little girls and princesses
Whose Daddy’s don’t feel punished for what heaven takes away


They powered up the city with hydro-electric juice.
Now we got more electricity than we canever use.
They flooded out the hollow and all the folks down there moved out,
but they got paid so there ain’t nothin’ else to think about.

Some of them made their living cutting the timber down,
snaking it one log at a time up the hill and into town.
T.V.A. had a way to clear it off real fast.
Lots of men and machinary, build a dam and drown the rest.

Uncle Frank lived in a cabin down on Cedar Creek,
bought fifteen acres when he got back home from overseas.
Fifteen rocky acres, figured noone else would want,
’till all that backed up water had to have some place to go.

Uncle Frank couldn’t read or write
Never held down a job, or needed one in his life.
They assured him there’d be work for him in town building cars.
It’s already going down.

The cars never came to town and the roads never got built
and the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill
The banks around the hollow sold for lake-front property
where Doctors, Lawyers, and Musicians teach their kids to waterski.

Uncle Frank couldn’t read or write
so there was no note or letter found when he died.
Just a rope around his neck and the kitchen table turned on it’s side

One comment

  • Andrew Jackson

    Hope they’re good – just went on line shopping on your recommendation!

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