Drive-By Truckers - American Band (Cover Artwork)

Drive-By Truckers

American Band (2016)


The Drive-By Truckers have shared an aesthetic (if not necessarily sonic) kinship with punk rock since their inception and chronicled “The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town” on 1999’s Pizza Deliverance. They return right in time for election season with the excellent American Band, an album that Patterson Hood recounts in the liner notes was influenced by the political spirit of The Clash. American Band is an album that invites the listener to dig deep into the lyrics and sidelines metaphorical fiction for straight-up documentary journalism to examine our current state of national affairs. The album demands a dialogue be initiated to examine our country’s recent events and reflect on “what it means.”

With “it all started with the border,” “Ramon Casiano” kicks off the proceedings by dusting the cobwebs from a true story of one of the most notorious presidents of the National Rifle Association. It recounts the murder of an unarmed Hispanic youth by a teenage Harlon Carter after a dispute over alleged trespassing. Carter was convicted to three years in prison but won his freedom on appeal. Beginning as a decorated border patrol agent, Carter later was responsible for the NRA’s rise to political prominence and saw membership triple under his years of leadership. Carter was also one of the first to spearhead the now entrenched NRA rhetoric of complete opposition to any form of legislation regarding guns. Trucker Mike Cooley takes aim against the recently inflamed anti-immigrant movement and at “men whose trigger pull their fingers / …who’d rather fight than win” with the lament that “the killing’s been the bullet’s business / Since back in 1931 / …and Ramon still ain’t dead enough.” The NRA’s hardline stance on opposition to gun control simmers in the background of the events covered throughout the rest of the album.

Furthering the exploration of America’s rash of mass shootings and firearm violence, “Guns of Umpqua” is Patterson Hood’s dissection of the Umpqua Community College shooting through the eyes of US Army Veteran Chris Mintz. No stranger to the Pacific Northwest after moving to Portland recently, Hood initially paints an idyllic scene of “birds soaring through the clouds outside my window” only to be punctuated by the “sound of shots and screams from the hallway.” Even a liberal stronghold like Oregon is not exempt from the gun violence that appears to be an all too common occurrence in American life. Mintz had “made it back from hell’s attack in some distant bloody war / Only to stare down hell back home.” Mintz blocked one of the doors the shooter was attempting to enter and was shot multiple times for his efforts. He reportedly begged the shooter not to kill him since it was his son’s sixth birthday. Mintz survived but 9 others did not.

As a South Carolinian, Cooley’s anthemic call-to-disarm “Surrender Under Protest” strikes with particular resonance. Cooley examines the roots of the Confederate apologist mindset that influenced the mass shooting of black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC by a disenfranchised white male. In the South, Cooley contends that racism is a seed carried “on the lips of trusted loved ones / To the lonely, fragile minds of angry youth.” These same damaged youth are ripe to accept that there’s an easy “face you blame for failure” to rectify their own shortcomings. The ego of the South continues to carry the bruise of loss to the Union, and the sting of the Civil War’s outcome coupled with an inferiority complex in regard to the Northern states is massaged by being “compelled, but not defeated.” In an uncharacteristic act of reluctant self reflection on behalf of our lawmakers, the residents of SC witnessed the long overdue removal of the Confederate flag from the SC statehouse grounds in the aftermath of the racist tragedy.

Musically, the album solidifies the Truckers mastery of styles explored throughout their discography from the soaring crunch of “Surrender Under Protest” to the gentle, elegiac “Sun Don’t Shine.” A minor criticism that can be levied against the album is the pervasive somber subject matter that also includes an exploration of depression on “Baggage” (recounting Hood’s reaction to Robin Williams’ suicide) and a dirge on the Confederate symbol “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn.” Swaggering with a Stonesy groove and Cooley’s serpentine lyrical phrasing, “Kinky Hypocrites” is the only humorous respite from the darkness on the rest of the album, and the emotional levity is a welcome diversion. “Hypocrites” lampoons those political, religious, and corporate leaders whom serve as “the greatest separators of fools from their money” and hide behind flimsy conservative values they don’t make much effort to uphold. The lofty ideals candidates and public officials tout crumble when their salacious private lives are inevitably exposed. In addition to Donald Trump’s most recent locker room talk, we can easily extend the track’s targets to Anthony Weiner, Roger Ailes, Josh Duggar, Larry Craig, and countless others.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the solid playing by the other Truckers on American Band. Newest editions Matt Patton and Jay Gonzalez hold down the rumbling bass and third guitar / organ / piano respectively and add new nuances to the band’s sound. Brad “EZB” Morgan anchors every song with dependable drumming and doesn’t let the pervasive melancholy drag down the momentum of the album.

The true centerpiece of American Band is the Hood-penned “What it Means.” Hood recounts multiple nationally divisive events over the past few years and tellingly doesn’t have a definitive solution to the issues they have brought to the forefront. The track makes its case not with vitriolic hard-core bellowing but with plainspoken recitation over a shuffling acoustic thrum. The delivery is intentional so that every word is heard clearly; the cumulative outrages and tragedies outlined throughout the album tempered by an anger that has become clear headed from the exhaustion of repetitive occurence.

The Truckers have become adept over 11 albums at exploring the Us vs. Them mentality of Southern Americans that is a distinct feature of our regional mindset. American Band’s “Ever South” argues that mentality can be extrapolated to our national personality since arriving immigrants have brought a sense of pride for their respective homeland and culture that has clashed with the attitudes of “native” Americans. In regard to our current national political climate, Trump has resonated so well with working-class white Americans because of a sense of disenfranchisement as technology shrinks the oceans between nations and the melting pot of our country becomes more diverse. Trump has promised to return America to a time when it was “great,” before diversification forced us to contend with other cultures that dilute whatever 1950s-era Caucasian fantasy his supporters are seeking a return to. The hilarity in this self-delusion is that America has been a continuous mélange of various ethnicities and disparate influences since its inception. The frustrating aspect of America’s unease with its diversity is the overshadowing of the truly consistent narrative of how the wealthy and those in power abuse and manipulate the lower classes to keep them forever shackled to their current socioeconomic status.

At the heart of all the recent reactionary grassroots movements, the things we share in common get lost in oppositional rhetoric: we are all struggling to make a living and to raise our children in a safe environment with a promise to a sustainable future. This election cycle has driven the stake of division even further between factions of Americans, and there does not seem much hope that the outcome will result in graceful reconciliation. However, American Band posits some serious questions we need to ask ourselves as a country to move past this “nasty” national mood. We truly need to take some time for self-reflection and consider how our recent political climate and our collective reactions to it will shape the coming years. The first step, to quote Patterson Hood, is to sit down and finally ask “what it means.”