In the book world, novels sell far better than collections of short stories, and for the most part, the latter method of storytelling goes widely unnoticed. In the music world, you find almost the polar opposite. Individual songs and singles get radio airplay, while albums are their still somewhat popular, but going the way of the pet rock, cousins. As time progresses, with the onset of digital downloading and snippets of songs in television shows and commercials, people’s attention spans are only getting shorter. Take a look at the last few CD purchases you’ve made and think about how many times you’ve heard the first five songs, and then think about how many times you’ve heard the last five. Seeing a trend? If you look at some of the best albums in rock history, you can see that a vast majority of them are a tightly knit thematic series of songs that serve the album as a whole. Songs on those classic albums are not just a collection of singles, but also rather an interweaving set of short stories. No one knows this better than the Southern boys (and girl) in the Drive-By Truckers.
The Truckers have not only captured the essence of the short story in song in the past, such as on their last album, The Dirty South, they’ve also tackled the musical novel in their double CD, Southern Rock Opera, an album loosely based on Lynyrd Skynyrd. Aside from grits, Stuckey’s, Flannery O’Connor and the Waffle House, there’s almost nothing more Southern than the Drive-By Truckers. The band—Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jason Isbell, Shonna Tucker and Brad Morgan—combine Southern rock and roll, alt-country and dirty blues like no one else. Hearing their music, it’s no wonder they have received such rave reviews from critics such as Chuck Klosterman and the gang at No Depression. A Blessing and a Curse is the name of the newest Truckers album, and it is a magnificent short story collection of southern rock songs, all told by the three distinctly different voices of Hood, Cooley and Isbell.
“Feb 14″ is the opener, with Hood sounding like Paul Westerberg fronting Uncle Tupelo. That simple story of the loneliest day of the year gives way to Cooley’s “Gravity’s Gone,” a sly look at the music industry and the personal hell within it, featuring the fantastic line, “What used to be is gone and what ought to be ought not to be so hard..” First single, “Easy on Yourself,” one of two songs from Isbell on the album, and is easily one of the most infectious Truckers songs ever released. Isbell’s vocals are inspired, with backing vocals floating nicely over hard charging guitars. It sounded a bit like Blue Öyster Cult, to the point that I wanted to hear more cowbell. Then, about two minutes in, there it was. “Aftermath USA,” aside from the reference to an early Stones album, finds its roots more in the same band’s Exile on Main Street if combined with Wilco’s A.M. Hood’s storytelling skills really come to the surface in “Goodbye,” a song about losing a friend. Isbell’s startling vocal delivery once again shines on “Daylight.”
“Wednesday” has more turns of phrases that turn the head such as “They say every man’s house should be his palace / but his castle stank of cat shit and alone.” The fact that Hood uses the words sad, sadness and depression five times in the last verse should tell you something about the tone of the song, and although rooted in blues, still rocks the house down. This gives way to even more sadness and the deeply touching “Little Bonnie.” The song could easily go down as one of the best the Truckers have ever performed. Reportedly about Hood’s infant cousin who died, the song centers on her death and the effect it had on the family. The last verse is particularly haunting, especially as Hood sings, “But I grew up in her presence / Even though she was gone before I’z born.” In a way, the song makes me think of Don Henley singing a Springsteen song. “Space City” continues the proof that sometimes the best songs on an album are in the second half. Cooley’s song tells a tale from the point of view of his grandfather after his wife passed. It doesn’t get much more heart wrenching than “Somewhere beyond that big white light is where my heart is gone / and somewhere she’s wondering what’s taking me so long.” The album’s title track is pure Neil Young bliss, showing everyone that the wounds of “Southern Man” can be healed. “A World of Hurt” is a real short story to music, a spoken word treatise on the joys of life and the stupidity of suicide. Hood claims that even though the world is full of pain and sadness, there is still beauty within it. “To love is to feel pain, there ain’t no way around it. / The very nature of love is to grieve when it is over / The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits.” Genius.
If you haven’t discovered the Drive-By Truckers yet, you’re missing out on a truly gifted band. Every song is a story, a piece of great Southern tradition. Just ask Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter and William Faulkner. Despite the fact that each song is filled with sadness, despair and loneliness in some form or another, there is still a glimmer of hope and the joy of rock guitars to go with it. A Blessing and a Curse is the perfect title for this story collection, capturing not only the dichotomy of the messages, but also the feel of religion in the Southern expression, such as in R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Do yourself a favor, grab a pecan log or some hash browns that are smothered, covered and chunked, and have a good listen to one of today’s finest bands, the Drive-By Truckers.
Neil Young – Freedom
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd
The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul