If it walks like Southern rock and talks like Southern rock then it must be Southern rock, right? Well, yeah. Unless the genre intends to hang you.
"We did all get tired of the whole Southern rock thing," says Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, the Alabama five-piece coming to San Francisco this week. "It's like none of us really view ourselves the way that we were being viewed."
The misconception stems from the Truckers' 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera, a sonic landmark that single-handedly resurrected a musical genre that had been left for dead. The record garnered beaucoup attention from both music critics and academics who wallow in the region's seemingly conflicting mysteries, and landed the Truckers on a career path as certain as a cross-country train track. The question was, "When, and how, to get off the ride?"
Cue A Blessing and a Curse, the Truckers' seventh and newest album a conscious attempt at redefinition. "We kind of went into it with kind of an agenda of what we didn't want to be," Hood says. "We set out to make a record that kind of went against a lot of the things that we were most known for. We decided early on that we wanted to do a record that didn't really tell a story. We didn't want it to be geographically specific."
Perhaps the band suffered a collective nightmare of the future as typecast castaways?
"Exactly," Hood says. "None of us really wanted to quite be Gilligan, you know. But it's like an actor. If he does a really good job, if he's really good at his role he has to overcome. That guy that plays Tony Soprano is going to have a hard time ever not being Tony Soprano in people's eyes because he's played the fuck out of Tony Soprano. And so we wanted to make a record that showcased some of the other things that we know how to do, and it meant kind of taking away some of the things that have become our calling cards."
Still, a Southernectomy is some highly serious surgery for this band. Though fellow Trucker Mike Cooley's "Space City" (a nod to Huntsville, Alabama) is the lone violator of A Blessing's no-specific-setting rule, the album's title track is yet another in a long line of Bible Belt-indicative signifiers. And then there's the sound. Third guitarist Jason Isbell puts down that third six-string in favor of a more delicate keyboard on occasion, but the Truckers still shred. Lyrics about champagne hand jobs, crystal meth in the bathtub and sucking on the end of a shotgun remain too damn gritty for any potential backslide over to the country market.
Yet Blessing's last track, the Hood-penned "World of Hurt," works through the band's traditionally cynical worldview to the optimistic conclusion that it's great to be alive. Written and demo'd in the space of just a couple of hours, "Hurt" is off-the-cuff inspiration proving the Truckers can stand up as songwriters without a regional crutch.
"We're not trying to necessarily shed who we are and what we do," Hood says. "I mean, our next record may be a total pendulum swing to the other direction. Most likely the top priority next year is going to be a direct rebellion against whatever it was we did this year. The last thing I ever want to do is be predictable."
The Drive-By Decade
A truckin' discography
Bulldozers and Dirt/Nine Bullets (45 single) (1996): A two-song vinyl even true fans don't own. Who has turntables? Both great songs found a home on Pizza Deliverance.
Gangstabilly (1998): More Billy than Gangsta, the Truckers' first full-length is also their countryest. Most notable for one of Patterson Hood's proudest songwriting moments, "The Living Bubba."
Pizza Deliverance (1999): Some truly spooky Southern Gothic preoccupations here, including multichambered handguns, aging redneck swinger basements, AM radio religion, and an old woman's arachnid receptacle.
Alabama Ass Whuppin' (live) (1999): Prematurely recorded at various shows in Athens and Atlanta, it nevertheless lays the groundwork for so many roads ahead.
Southern Rock Opera (2001): Simply put, the most important album to come out of the South since REM's Murmur.
Decoration Day (2003): Forget ethanol: DD runs on frustration and denial. Test-drive "Hell No I Ain't Happy."
The Dirty South (2004): Chock-full of storied anthems about the Southern underclass (is that redundant?), including several of the band's blood relatives.
A Blessing and a Curse (2006): The quickest way to make a Southerner jump is to tell him that he can't. Here the Truckers do - like a freaked-out frog.