Friday, April 09, 2010

The Drive-By Truckers Are Not Making This Up

The Big To-Do continues their mastery of current Southern affairs

By Stephen Deusner
The Village Voice
Tuesday, Mar 16 2010

For longer than most bands have been nursing calluses on their fingers, the Drive-By Truckers have spun strange yarns about the modern South, sharpening their detailed and empathetic storytelling to bring local depth, specificity, and complexity to figures you may only know from headlines and history books, including Ronnie Van Zant, Sam Phillips, Iraq vets, and even their own kin. The centerpiece of their latest album, The Big To-Do, is "The Wig He Made Her Wear," a true-crime saga that might just be the quintessential Truckers song: straightforward on the surface, yet much like the region they evoke, squirrelly and smarter than you might expect underneath.

The song is set in the small town of Selmer, Tennessee, located about 90 miles east of Memphis and essentially no different from any other community in the region. But it's got the neighbors beat on lurid legends: Selmer is the old stomping grounds of Sheriff Buford T. Pusser, subject of three Walking Tall movies in the '70s (plus one '04 remake set in Washington State) and a three-song suite by the Truckers on 2005's The Dirty South. More recently, though, the town hosted one of the most confounding domestic crimes in recent memory. In March 2006, Matthew Winkler, the young pastor at the Fourth Street Church of Christ, was found dead on his bedroom floor, shot in the back at close range. His wife, Mary, and their three young daughters were missing. The crime startled the town and especially the congregation, who knew Matthew as an amiable family man; eventually, it came out that Mary had shot him during an argument over money (she had reportedly lost a chunk of savings to a Nigerian Internet scam) and fled with the kids to the Gulf Coast.

On "The Wig He Made Her Wear," Truckers co-frontman Patterson Hood relates this grisly tale with a subdued melody that has no use for a chorus and lyrics that are surprisingly literal, as if he's sharing lunchtime gossip over slugburgers at Pat's Café. More than just a convincing summation of facts, the song offers a moment of true Southern storytelling: As it proceeds, it becomes wilder, darker, and more outrageous, just like the Winkler trial itself. While the band hammers out a tense kudzu-noir soundtrack—full of urgent snare clicks and bent, barely contained guitar licks—Hood explains that Matthew "made her dress real slutty before they had sex," describing, in a careful deadpan, the moment when Mary's defense attorney plunked the platinum-blonde wig and hooker heels on the witness box for the whole town to see. Mary gets a suspended sentence—time served and her kids back. Savoring your shock and stealing a fry off your plate, Hood asks, Can you believe it?

The point of all this is that he's not making it up. As Southern-rock stalwarts too grittily anthropological for the success Kings of Leon currently enjoy, the Truckers have persistently pursued true stories on all their albums, stretching themselves to see the world through the eyes of people just trying to get by, whether it's a friend who committed suicide, a family member who jilted his fiancée, or Redneck Underground musician Gregory Dean Smalley playing as many shows as he can before he dies of AIDS. Their songs are a form of creative nonfiction, a craft they most famously and elegantly displayed on their 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera, which starred Lynyrd Skynyrd and former Alabama governor George Wallace.

The true strength of the Truckers' music lies in its empathy. On "The Wig"—perhaps the band's most audaciously accurate nonfiction to date—Hood never takes a side. He's less concerned with Matthew's proclivities or Mary's crimes than with the small town they hid their secrets from. He gets the specifics just right, just as he does throughout The Big To-Do, whether he's binging through "The Fourth Night of My Drinking" or listing the cities and coliseums where "The Flying Wallendas" soared toward their deaths.

It's significant that Hood is only one of three songwriters in the Truckers; Mike Cooley is more sparing with his details, but no less persuasive. His best songs here bristle with local particulars: "Birthday Boy" manages the feat of adopting a stripper's point of view without sounding patronizing or salacious, while on "Get Downtown," he play-acts the back-and-forth bickering between a woman and her shiftless, jobless husband. And though bassist Shonna Tucker may not share Hood or Cooley's lyrical sensibilities, she proves a much more stylistically sophisticated composer, dotting her two songs with hints of Detroit girl-groups and placeless noise. The South as the Truckers document and reimagine it can't be explained away with easy stereotypes, but rather emerges at the intersection of these multiple perspectives, local voices, and musical sensibilities. So order a couple more slugburgers and settle in. The Truckers have a lot more stories to tell.

The Drive-By Truckers play Webster Hall April 1

Drive-by Truckers: Reinvented again

For a band that's been around for more than a decade, there sure is a lot of new around the Drive-by Truckers.

The Athens Banner-Herald
Published Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Patterson Hood and company have a new record deal, a new keyboard player and a new space in Athens to call their own.

Even the Truckers' new album, "The Big To-Do," which comes out today, gives a new, fresh sound to a band that continues to reinvent itself.

But don't be afraid of change, Hood says. This album rocks harder than the Truckers have rocked for years.

"I think it's our most rocking album since the second act in 'Southern Rock Opera (in 2002)," said Hood, sitting deep in a leather couch inside his band's new space.

The space is a warehouse-type building in Athens where old stage backdrops hang from the ceiling. The band used it as a place to practice a little for the album and their three-night stand at the 40 Watt in January.

They never had a place to practice before here, Hood said.

"When we're putting out a new record, we get together and play it through a few times," he said. "We spent a good week or so learning the songs."

Practice isn't something DBT does often, and it probably isn't necessary. Most of the recordings on "The Big To-Do" were first or second takes with all six band members playing together.

Like the albums before it, the newest offering is produced by David Barbe using old school roll-to-roll tape. The old way still produces the best sound, Hood believes, and the live playing produces plenty of accidents that turn into something beautiful.

Hood, Mike Cooley and John Neff take turns playing lead guitar with Shonna Tucker backing them with bass. Tucker, who debuted as a singer on DBT's 2008 album, "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," also wrote and sings two songs on the new record.

"Shonna's brought a lot of soulfulness to the table; she's one of the most soulful bass players we've ever known," Hood said. "Now that she's writing and singing her songs, it's even better."

Athens local Jay Gonzales is the newest member of the band, taking over the piano-playing duties from DBT part-timer Spooner Oldham. But after playing a benefit show with him years ago, Hood knew he'd be a Trucker.

"We needed someone to be our guy, and he's incredible" Hood said. "It was just the natural thing to happen."

Perhaps it was just natural progression for DBT to swing back into full rock 'n' roll mode on "The Big To-Do." It's a step away from the swampier "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," although the trademark tales of murder, crazy relationships, drinking and dying still are prevalent.

The sound is familiar, even if the record label is new. After releasing a live and rarities album with New West in 2009, the Truckers left the Austin label for New York's ATO Records.

But don't expect any big changes in the band to please the music industry, Hood said.

"We're a very independent-minded band," he said. "We didn't get in this for the business or to get famous.

"We have our own way of doing things, and now we're doing better than the music business."

The Truckers' way may be paying off. Each record since 2004's "The Dirty South" has peaked higher on the Billboard album charts than the one before it.

"The Big To-Do" could keep that trend alive. All Hood wants is for people to hear it.

"Give it a chance," Hood said. "Listen to it, loud, maybe twice. We're an acquired taste.

"A lot of my favorite records were ones that grew on me. I think that quality's preventing us from having a quick breakthrough, but it's given us longevity."

Drive By Truckers add recession to list of woes on ATO Records' 'The Big To-Do'

Jim Farber
The Daily News
Tuesday, March 16th 2010, 4:00 AM

Drive By Truckers' new release, ATO Records' 'The Big To-Do,' adds recession to band's list of woes.

Alcoholism, murder, and everyday abuse: These are a few of the Drive By Truckers favorite things.

Yet, for this great and morbid Southern band's latest CD, "The Big To-Do," they've added a topical new woe: the lousy economy.

In a song pithily titled "This F--king Job," a guy curses his daily grind, until he gets canned and realizes that even the most soul-destroying work isn't as bad as starving to death. In "Get Downtown" a woman badgers her boyfriend about trying to get a job, while he argues back that there aren't any since they shipped them all off to places where people will work for a pittance. In "After The Scene Dies" a band has to give up its youthful dream of stardom to find any work that offers the boring necessity of health insurance.

Call these pieces "Songs of New Recession," but they hardly needed anything so au currant to seem relevant. Over the last 15 years, the Alabama-based Truckers have matched vivid, character-based tales of Southern frustration to music that mixes the snaggle-toothed grunge of Neil Young's Crazy Horse with the roiling boogie of Lynyrd Skynyrd. In fact, the Truckers' best known work (2001's "Southern Rock Opera") toasted the power and tragedy of that last named '70s band.

For "The Big To-Do," leader Paterson Hood set himself, and the band, a Dickensian task: to record 25 songs in as many days. The result gave the music both efficiency and urgency. The songs seem as fast and dirty as blogs. Yet, there's an unself-conscious poetry to them that these guys can probably tap in their sleep. It helps that, in the '60s tradition, they've got three ace singer/songwriters, including (besides Hood), Mike Cooley and Shoona Tucker.

Tucker tends to be the most terse. Her two songs center on short phrases meant to nag as well as resonate. Cooley shares Hood's interest in the kind of simple language that seems erudite by accident, as well as characters trapped by circumstance as much as their own limitations. Cooley's "Birthday Boy" details the cynical and riotous musings of a bored prostitute, while his "Eyes Like Glue" eerily mirrors Hood's "Daddy Learned To Fly." The latter, which opens the disc, takes a kid's point of view, commenting on his dad, who left the family rather than lose his soul. The former song, which closes the CD, introduces an apologetic father who knows he's screwing up his son despite his best intentions.

In between, the group make good use of their taste for blood. "Drag The Lake, Charlie" shows us a serial killer and his wife in mid-spree, while "The Wig He Made Her Wear," addresses a sexually manipulated woman who murders her preacher husband and sort of gets away with it.

It doesn't get more Southern Gothic than that. But the Truckers' art shouldn't be reduced to that cliche. Their songwriting has a universal heart, and a specificity that makes you see and feel every wound.

No comments: