You can’t deny the group’s integrity.
Drive-By Truckers has never avoided politics. The 2001 album Southern Rock Opera and a healthy smattering of songs throughout the group’s oeuvre have provided more than subtle hints that this was a band firmly on the side of social justice and the left side of the American political spectrum. American Band is the strongest and most overt political statement the group has ever made. Patterson Hood, the most vocal and visible Trucker, and his longtime musical partner Mike Cooley have made no bones about their intention to, as Cooley has said elsewhere, “piss off the assholes.”
“What it Means” speaks to white privilege in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the nation’s growing racial unrest, as well as to the sense that the promising ideals of the ‘60s have faded and nearly disappeared. Then again, in talk of figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the anti-war movement and student protestors, we forget that there were bombs and bloodshed and that the end of that volatile decade ushered in one of the most violent and blood-soaked eras of domestic unrest in American history. History shows that the quieting of certain political and social concerns wasn’t as much a sign that things had gotten better as much as it was a sign that the populace had fatigued.
This single song, one of Hood’s best to date, reminds us as much of that as the current state of affairs: how quickly some can rationalize institutionalized racism, how easy it is to see a cause but forget that there are lives and fears and dreams attached to those causes and television images. That’s all well and good but as any fan of rock ‘n’ roll knows, a warm heart and sense of justice alone cannot make good art. The question that lingers in the air throughout discussion of this tune remains: Is it any good?
It is. Hood sings better, with more confidence and a relaxed sense than he has on past recordings, and if he’s had a tendency to let his intentions override clean, well-organized lines, that’s no longer the case. He’s become a more economical writer whose feelings punch with each line, whether in “What it Means,” the brilliant and billowing “Darkened Flags at the Cusp of Dawn” or “Guns of Umpqua,” about a veteran wounded not on foreign shores but his own. “Sun Don’t Shine,” a mellow, piano-driven walk in the dark, and the closing “Baggage,” a meditation on the Alabama native’s struggles with depression, are critical to the album’s success.
So, too, are Cooley’s contributions. Whereas they’ve acted as foils to each other in the past, 2014’s English Oceans and, now, American Band, reveal that they’re blending more seamlessly than ever, the ideal counterparts. Hood offers a from-the-hip approach, while Cooley offers carefully measured lines that cut with surgical precision, as on “Once They Banned Imagine,” a post-9/11 meditation on the evil that men do and how it lives on and on after them.
Cooley fires first with the opening “Ramon Casiano,” the story of two teenagers who engaged in a violent confrontation back in 1931. One shot and killed the other. The dead boy, Ramon Casiano, was largely forgotten while the shooter, Harlon Carter, went on to serve with the U.S. Border Patrol and to head the N.R.A. during the late ‘70s. Though Carter would tell the press that he regretted the incident, Cooley ain’t buying it, and it shows. It’s one of the angriest, snarliest pieces on the record and maybe anywhere in the Truckers’ recorded output. “Kinky Hypocrite” examines the intentions of so-called populist figures intent on riling up the marginalized masses for their own gain.
In an era when some clamor for peace and suggest that this generation needs its own batch of songs to unify us, others are writing what Bob Dylan called finger-pointing songs. The Truckers have the latter in ample supply on American Band, but if neither Cooley nor Hood seem content to write the next “We Shall Overcome,” they have, at the very least, used their platform to make us think and, in some cases, act.
The Truckers prove once again that they’re not in this for the cash grab, or to keep their mouths shut. Like what they have to say, love it, or dismiss it as liberal hogwash, you can’t deny the group’s integrity.