by Matt Thompson
The South of the Drive-By Truckers isn't necessarily a pretty one. It's full of battered women, malcontents and rogues, holier-than-thou preachers and sinners both at their lowest. Poor, illiterate dirt farmers fight and lose against encroaching urbanization while country boys stagger and reel from culture shock at seeing how cold and heartless the big city can be. Honky-tonk heroes drown their sorrows in rivers of booze, and sometimes all a man's got is a good guitar riff and a shout of rage no one hears. Like Faulkner, the Drive-By Truckers paint a picture of the South at its most visceral, its most deep in the red-clay mud of humanity. No, the Truckers' South isn't pretty, but dammit, it's pretty real.
photo by June Rich
It's fitting, then, the four-year-old band is getting set to embark on its most ambitious project to date, what frontman Patterson Hood calls a "redneck rock opera." Dealing with the mythos of Skynyrd, the death of arena rock, and that basic confusion young rockers feel growing up in the heart of the Bible Belt, Betamax Guillotine could quite possibly cause the Truckers to fall flat on their face or it could be the greatest story ever told about rock & roll.
"Goddamn, what a fuckin' story, man, who could dream this stuff up?" Hood says about the Skynyrd mythos. "We know we're opening this huge can of worms with this record. We're gonna defend what we say without making an issue out of it. It's not a fight we wanna fight; we're just shining a light on something that might not be talked about otherwise. This story has to be told."
The Truckers story began in Muscle Shoals, Ala., Hood's hometown and the birthplace of uncounted soul hits. His dad David played bass for the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (dubbed the Swampers in Skynyrd's immortal "Sweet Home Alabama"), while young Patterson's taste ranged from Thin Lizzy to the emerging punk and post-punk of the early '80s. While attending the University of North Alabama in nearby Florence in 1985, Hood fell in with a wiry, rowdy, guitar picking mountain boy from Tuscumbia named Mike Cooley. Like brothers from a different mother, the pair hit it off personally and musically, forming a close partnership akin to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that'd run off and on for 15 years, though the pair's interplay is much more mutual than the Glimmer Twins ever were.
"Dammit, y'all always say Jagger-Richards, and I'm always Jagger! I wanna be Keith Richards once," hollers Hood in mock anger. "We've got the telepathy you'd expect from two people who've played together so long. It's come to the point where we can do role reversals, where he's doing the poppy songs and I can play out of tune."
The pair pooled their talents to form Adam's House Cat, a rocking little post-punk outfit that can best be described as a jam session between the Replacements and .38 Special's Jeff Carlisi. Unfortunately, North Alabama wasn't the best place for post-punk, angry rock outfits or really anything aside from Skynyrd-inspired cover bands. Despite a small but loyal following and a nod in Musician magazine for Best Unsigned Band of 1988, AHC was more or less ignored in their hometown. That sense of rage prompted Hood to pen "Buttholeville," a scathing little number of pent-up small-town frustration that's still a part of the Truckers' repertoire and even now manages to raise a few hackles in his hometown.
A move to Memphis didn't help the fortunes of the band much, and Adam's House Cat split up. Cooley and Hood drifted apart, and after some time back in Muscle Shoals, Hood wound up in Athens, Ga., settling in on the day Kurt Cobain died in 1994. Working sound at various gigs in the music-rich town, Hood soon made serious friends among the scenesters. By 1996, he formed the Drive-By Truckers, which mainly featured just whoever was available to play whenever the band played. At the time, the band consisted of Hood and prodigal son Cooley along with Athens upright bassist Adam Howell, steel guitarist John Neff, drummer Matt Lane, and mandolinist Barry Sell. The band was initially a project for Hood's songs, but after a trip to Virginia in 1997, something happened that convinced him otherwise.
"I'd just gotten turned onto Bob Wills, and I thought someone should take what that was and make it current," Hood explains. "It didn't take long for it to turn into something totally different, of course. One of those profound things happened. We came back from that Virginia trip different. We went there as a project and came back as a band."
The outfit went into the studio to record their 1998 debut, Gangstabilly , an incredible 11-song collection of high-octane twang, offbeat black humor, pent-up rage and white-knuckle rock & roll. "Buttholeville" returned, as did an ode to Hood's childhood hero, "Steve McQueen." Particularly touching and affecting is "The Living Bubba," a tribute to Atlanta rocker/character Greg Smalley, founder of the annual Bubbapalooza festival, who died of AIDS in 1996. Hood became acquainted with Smalley during his last few months, and the weary rocker's perseverance in the face of such a horrifying death deeply affected Hood and inspired him to make rock & roll like it should be made.
"As a writer, I don't even feel like I wrote 'The Living Bubba' -- I feel like the song was just out there, and I was the antenna lucky enough to receive it," Hood says. "The real test was playing it for his mom. If I live to be 100, I'll never do anything that intense. We played it for her at the Star Bar, and when the song was over, she put her arms around me and said, 'You did my boy proud.' I fuckin' bawled right there on stage."
The potency and success of Gangstabilly and the Truckers' increasingly intense live shows demanded more of the band's time, a demand some members couldn't meet. Sell, Neff, and Howell drifted away, but Hood and Cooley lucked out when another Alabama homeboy returned to the fold. Well-respected Muscle Shoals rocker and guitar devil Rob Malone came onboard to take over the bass duties, and the band recorded Pizza Deliverance in 1999. If anything, the songs on the album were much stronger, from sing-a-longs like "Nine Bullets" and "Bulldozers and Dirt," balls-out rockers like "One of These Days" and Cooley's incredible tale of a disappearing rural South, "Uncle Frank."
"Rob joined us two days after moving to Athens, we went out and played, and it was never the same again," Hood explains. "It just kinda became something else, and all of the sudden we became all-powerful."
Even more demand for the band's services saw the departure of Lane in late 1998, but relief came in the form of South Carolinian Brad Morgan. A friend of Lane's and occasional pinch-hit drummer for the Truckers, Morgan's powerful drumming made the transformation from a Bob Wills-inspired project to a full-bore rock & roll revival complete.
"Chemistry, it's all about chemistry combined with history," Hood says of the current line-up's potency. "I've known Rob for 17 years and Cooley for 15 years, and Brad's just as much one of us. He's cut from the same cloth, just a different part of it."
With a powerhouse line-up that'd rock any two-bit club to its foundations, two excellent studio albums under its belts, a near-fanatical following that'll fight for their band, a three-month tour planned, and a killer live album in the can ( Alabama Ass-Whuppin' , due out in June), the Drive-By Truckers are geared up to delve into some mighty dangerous waters with Betamax Guillotine . Dealing with Skynyrd's long shadow over Southern musicians as well as growing up in the post-arena rock era and a sense of Southern pride that has nothing to do with racism or separatism, it's a fairly ambitious project and, for that matter, somewhat pretentious. Hood admits Skynyrd would've never even thought about a "rock opera," but he feels the story needs to be told. The band's recording in Auburn, Ala., with the Quadrajet's John "Pudd" Sharp -- who'll be playing bass on the record, freeing up Malone for that oh-so-necessary triple guitar attack -- the power of the individual songs will dispel any thoughts of the album's intentions. In other words, it's damn good rock & roll with damn good songs.
"It's weird, man, we all wrote these songs separately, but it's like one person wrote the record instead of three," he explains. "We started it as a project starring the Drive-By Truckers, but it's not that now. It's the most personal thing I've ever been involved with, it's just through the guise of someone else."
If any other band tried such a project it'd fall flat, but there's something about the Drive-By Truckers. Those mercurial ties that bind rock & roll bands from different generations just hold them so close to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not Skynyrd the soundtrack for every pea-brained redneck fan most people associate with the band, but the Skynyrd that wrote real, honest songs about real people and real life. The Skynyrd that was America's greatest rock & roll band and that vibe they share with another great rock & roll band, the Drive-By Truckers.
"There isn't such a big gulf between Skynyrd and punk, even though punk was supposed to fight what Skynyrd was all about," Hood points out. "What's more punk than naming your band after the guy who kicked you out of school? Skynyrd's all about the 'fuck you,' but what's cool about them is they were Southern Gentlemen about it... a Southern Gentleman who ain't gonna take shit.
"When did we cross that line when all the sudden it wasn't cool to be rock & roll? That's what we are, a rock & roll band, that's all we are. Rock & roll's a beautiful thing, the greatest thing that's happened in the 20th century. That's what Betamax Guillotine 's all about, a 'fuck you' to a buncha pussies who don't wanna rock. That's how life is, sometimes life ain't fair and sometimes it sucks. If you're gonna get fucked in the ass, bend over and take it like a man. We all had this moment of clarity and all we've done is follow it. We're all broke and have these personal demons, but we get in the van and go to the next town. We don't always know how we'll get there, but we'll get there and when we do, we'll rock. I got no complaints."
The Drive-By Truckers drive through Florida with the Glenmont Popes this month. Check 'em out on April 5th at Jack Rabbit's in Jacksonville, April 6th at Will's Pub in Orlando, April 7th at the Orpheum in Tampa, April 8th at the Side Bar in Gainesville, April 9th at Mardi's Java Pit in Ft. Walton Beach, and April 11th at Sluggo's in Pensacola.