If you need to reach me the evening of April 21, I’m busy.
And if you’re missing any 50ish-year-old men in your lives that night, they might just be with me. In Harrisburg. Rocking out to the Drive By Truckers.
The DBTs, as the band’s name is sometimes shortened, are my favorite rock act, and unapologetically so. This will be the sixth time I’ve seen the full band live, making me a lightweight in the DBT fan universe.
Case in point: Three years ago, as I loitered outside of a Seattle bar looking for a ticket to a sold-out acoustic show by the band’s two frontmen, I met a group in line from a small-ish town in western Kentucky that had traveled across the country just to see the show.
They also had tickets for the duo’s second show the next night. They were longtime followers of the band, racking up plenty of frequent-flier miles to see the DBTs “bend that note in two” (that’s a lyric from their bar band anthem “The Living Bubba”).
What is it about the Drive-By Truckers’ music that appeals to me? Maybe it’s their origins in Alabama’s Muscle Shoals, a holy place in the history of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, where artists like the Staple Sisters, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin recorded.
Oh, and maybe you’ve heard of the Rolling Stones, who famously decamped to the Alabama forkroad in 1969 to record three of their biggest hit songs.
Or perhaps it’s the band’s ties to Athens, Georgia, the college town that produced arguably the best American band of the 1980s, REM No walk across a college campus circa 1987 was ever free of the sounds of “Superman” or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blasting from multiple dorm rooms. REM snobs, like yours truly, showcased their elite status by playing “Driver-8” or “Harborcoat” instead.
The Truckers’ music echoes REM in the dance-worthy, guitar-blasting melodies and smart lyrics commenting on everything from politics to art to history.
What band do you know of that was inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority to produce not one, but two songs debating the Depression-era agency’s impact on the American South?
In “Uncle Frank,” Truckers co-founder Mike Cooley mourns the poor farmer whose rocky bottom lands in the Appalachian foothills are flooded by one of the TVA’s mega-dams. The retort-in-song, “Thank God for the TVA” by Jason Isbell, celebrated the jobs and power it brought to the South at a time of desperate economic need.
The two songs are good, trust me.
And yes, if you’re a fan of Americana and folk music, Isbell’s name should be familiar. He’s one of the biggest stars of that scene — and country music, generally. His struggle with addiction got him tossed out of the Truckers 15 years ago. He cleaned himself up, found love and now tours with his own powerhouse backup band, The 400 Unit.
But I digress. There’s a nostalgic appeal that draws me to the Truckers. Many of their songs touch on the pre-internet, pre-mass media era. I relate to them, I think, because as a child of the 1970s and 1980s, my days were filled with lots of down time, a TV set that got just four or five channels, and stories from family members who came of age at the feet or elsewhere who were born in the late 1800s.
Patterson Hood, the band’s founder and de facto leader, sings beautifully about childhood memories of his great-grandmother in “Box of Spiders.” Another favorite is “Sands of Iwo Jima,” a tribute to his great uncle, a man, I’ve heard Hood say, who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, went off to fight in the South Pacific and lived long enough to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.
If you’re interested in hearing the DBTs’ music, there are plenty of starting points. Lovers of 1970s power bands might like “Southern Rock Opera” (2001) a double album about coming of age in the shadow of Lynyrd Skynyrd. One of the Truckers’ best bar songs is on that one, “Let There Be Rock.”
More mature, but still danceable, songs are on “English Oceans” (2014) and “American Band” (2016).
I’ve got a soft spot for songs written and performed by band co-founder Mike Cooley, who I think writes the best lyrics of any songwriter working today. A bold declaration, I know. Some of his songs are about excess and desperation, like a personal favorite about addiction titled “Ghost to Most,” and another in a similar vein, “Gravity’s Gone.”
Cooley is also fascinated by vistas and horizons, with the pain and maturity of aging, and the need to hold fast to ideas, even in the face of defeat and irrelevance.
I’ll leave you with the last part of my favorite Cooley song, “First Air of Autumn:”
Memory only shows the promise beauty broke
Or beauty ageless in its time
Light attracts the same, you glance away and the glory fades
And being on your arm has lost its shine
School house hallway like a prairie highway sprawls
The drop off spins away the sun
Like eyes that once could cut through
Candle power on autumn nights
First air of autumn leaves me numb.
Hope to see you at the show later this month. I’ll be one of the 50-plus old dudes dancing awkwardly as close to the stage as I can get.
And PS: The opener is Lydia Loveless, a singer from Ohio with a powerful alto voice and a catalog of songs that demand to be played loud enough to damage your hearing.
Russ Walker is the Watchdog team leader at LNP. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.