A TOUR OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH IN SIX DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS’ SONGS
‘Where The Devil Don’t Stay’ is the brilliant new book about travelling the south with Drive-By Truckers. Written by the wonderful music journalist Stephen Deusner – you’ll have read his work in Pitchfork, Uncut, No Depression and The Bluegrass Situation – the book tells the band’s unlikely story not chronologically, but geographically.
“I see the Truckers’ albums as roadmaps through a landscape that is half-real, half-imagined,” the author has said. Tracking the band from Muscle Shoals, through Richmond, to McNairy County in Tennessee, Deusner explores the Truckers’ complex relationship with the south. “The issues of class, race, history and religion run through their music,” he says. “The book is more than the story of a great Americana band… it’s a reflection on the power of music and how it can frame and shape a larger culture.”
Who better, then, than to ask to take us on a tour of the American south in six Drive-By Truckers’ songs…
1. ‘The Living Bubba’
When Patterson Hood moved to Athens, Georgia, in 1994, the Redneck Underground was at its peak in nearby Atlanta: a small coterie of artists reassessing Southern history. One of the stars of the scene was a misfit musician named Gregory Dean Smalley, guitarist for more bands than you could count and organiser behind the annual Bubbapalooza music festival. In the months after he was diagnosed with AIDS, Smalley played every show he could book, even when he was too weak to stand. The night he died, Patterson wrote this incredibly moving eulogy that doubles as a rumination on why and how you should do your job. When he sings, “I can’t die now ‘cause I got another show to do,” he’s speaking not only for Smalley, but for himself and his own unkillable devotion to the rock show.
2. ‘One Of These Days’
Memphis plays a small but crucial role in the Truckers’ story. Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood moved there in 1991 to give their band Adam’s House Cat another life, but quickly fled back to Alabama tail between legs. It’s where they witnessed firsthand the contentious mayoral election that divided the city along racial lines. It’s where they heard rumors about a notorious show at the local Antenna Club (which inspired ‘The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town’). In one of his earliest and best songs, Cooley paints the city as unsettled, treacherous – a dangerous environment for a self-proclaimed country boy. As he sings about his dad: “I remember him saying that Chicago was a hell right here on Earth, and twenty-five years later I was saying the same thing about Memphis.”
3. ‘Never Gonna Change’
A generation or two earlier, Jason Isbell’s narrator would have been a bootlegger shooting at revenuers trying to bust up his stills. In the South depicted by the Drive-By Truckers, however, he’s a local anti-hero: a small-time crook defying government agencies and anyone else who threatens his small empire. ‘Never Gonna Change’ examines the pathology of a certain kind of Southern rebel and Isbell evokes the dangerous country roads of North Alabama as vividly as Scorsese depicted New York’s mean streets. “You can throw me in the Colbert County Jailhouse,” Isbell sings, as though making out his will. “You can throw my body off the Wilson Dam.”
When Cooley was a kid, he heard stories about a local gangster named Dewitt Dawson, who as a condition of his parole gave talks at school and churches around Muscle Shoals. This song is Dawson bragging about his exploits, sounding not the least bit penitent as he transforms himself into a tall tale: “I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed,” he boasts. ‘Cottonseed’ is sandwiched between two songs about Sheriff Buford Pusser up in McNairy County Tennessee, a redneck Rasputin who survived numerous assassination attempts by criminals like Dawson, and that three-act suite of songs shows just how entrenched and organized these criminal syndicates are in the rural South.
Jason Isbell joined the band in 2001 as the Truckers embarked on their Southern Rock Opera tour. He was more than 10 years his bandmates’ junior; he’d barely played a show outside of the Mid-South, but they were already roadworn from years of touring. ‘Decoration Day’ makes room for his rookie perspective alongside the more grizzled outlook of Patterson and Cooley, who wrote dark songs about disillusionment, suicide, and crumbling marriages. Isbell contributed ‘Outfit’, collecting the advice his father gave him about being in a rock and roll band. And every night he reminded himself publicly: “Don’t tell ‘em you’re bigger than Jesus” and “Have fun but stay clear of the needle.” The song served as an anchor even when he broke some of those rules during his darkest days with the band.
6. ‘Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife’
Patterson didn’t know Bryan Harvey very well, but he was still devastated by news of the senseless murder of him and his family on New Year’s Day 2006. Harvey had been a musician, best known as one-half of the underrated ‘80s duo House of Freaks (who backed Mark Linkous on the first Sparklehorse album), and he was a big Truckers fan who came out to every show. Patterson wrote this moving eulogy around the time he became a father himself, overlooking the details of the crime and its impact on the city in favour of a more personal approach. With a quiet, delicate country-waltz arrangement and some sympathetic backing vocals courtesy of Shonna Tucker, Patterson imagines the family reunited in heaven, leaving all their horror and sadness back behind, content to spend eternity together.
‘Where The Devil Don’t Stay’, by Stephen Deusner, is published by University of Texas Press and available here.