Finishing what I started (3 more days).
Album 8: Drive-by Truckers, The Dirty South
I was introduced to DBT in 2003 at a boys weekend in Highlands, NC. I spent a couple of days fishing, playing cards, and hanging out with the husbands of my wife’s high school friends. Over the years, we had become very good friends. I recall sitting around a table, surely losing at poker, and hearing a hard-edged, Southern rock with which I was unfamiliar. I asked our host and the one playing the music what we were listening to. I’m betting he led with a questioning “DUDE!?” before answering, “Drive-by Truckers.” He was playing Decoration Day, another stellar album of this Athens, GA band. I was hooked.
When I returned home, I bought that album (digitally, I admit) and somehow got my hands on an even earlier release of theirs (Southern Rock Opera). I was drawn to the vivid stories of honest, blue-collar life, along with corruption, tragedy, and broken relationships. Somehow, though I can’t say I’ve lived any of the experiences Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell describe in their songs, as a man I somehow relate. Certainly on these early albums, there is a strong current of masculinity that makes me harden my face and nod my head in recognition as I listen. On Decoration Day, though, there is one song in particular that blew me away, “Outfit,” written by Isbell, a recent addition to the band. It was clear to me then that he was a special talent.
The Dirty South was released in 2004, and I purchased it immediately. Again, I bought the digital version, which I regret now. The album jump-starts with loud, crunchy guitars in Cooley’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” then mellows out a bit with Hood’s harrowing “Tornadoes.” These songs lead to the smooth, driving “The Day John Henry Died” by Isbell, which, when played while behind the wheel, makes me want to fly. Suffice to say that the album goes on like this, telling stories, changing gears, keeping the listener on his or her toes (yes, my wife likes DBT, too). In my opinion, this album has some of Cooley’s best songs, and Isbell shines on the four he contributes. Hood does his “Southern thang.”
Ultimately, Jason Isbell left the band for a deservedly successful solo career. If I’m honest, it is Isbell’s music I want most on the island, but I couldn’t choose one album over another. I’m sure eventually I will get a fever for more Isbell, but, looking at the other albums in my list, I knew I needed some rock, so this album is 5-star compromise of sorts.
From “The Day John Henry Died”:
I watched the rain; it settled in. We disappeared for days again.
Most of us were staying in, lazy like the sky.
The letters flew across the wire filtered through a million liars.
The whole world smelled like burning tires the day John Henry died.
We knew about that big machine that ran on human hope and steam.
Bets on John were far between and mostly on the side.
We heard he put up quite a fight. His hands and feet turned snowy white.
That hammer rang out through the night the day John Henry died.
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.