09 August 2008

The Righteous Path

One of the innumerable pernicious side effects of the red state/blue state wars of the Bush years has been that it’s once again become okay to bash the South. TV news personalities have smugly railed against the continuing presence of Confederate flags in the region, Democratic political strategists have written books suggesting the party should completely ignore the South, and, in an ironic mirroring of Republican race-baiting, the general idea has taken hold among a lot of otherwise liberal-minded types that this country would be just fine if not for those people holding us back.

I don’t mean to say that none of this is rooted in reality, but of course it’s not the whole reality. Enter Patterson Hood and his band, the Drive-By Truckers, who’ve spent the past decade or so exploring what Hood has termed “the duality of the Southern thing.” Born and raised in the northwest Alabama town of Florence, the son of famed session bassist David Hood began writing songs in grade school. He formed the Truckers in 1996 with Mike Cooley, a friend from his college days a decade earlier. After a couple middling albums, the band scored a major indie rock hit with the double-disc Southern Rock Opera (2001), a loose concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd. This kicked off a run of fine records including Decoration Day (2003), the gangsta rock opus The Dirty South (2004), and (passing quietly over the 2006 dud A Blessing and a Curse) this year’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the band’s widest-ranging album to date and possibly its best. Of all American rock bands, only Spoon has put together four albums as good this decade.

What’s remarkable about Hood’s songwriting is not that his music and lyrics present a multifaceted, morally complex view of the South; this is precisely what one would expect from an artist of his caliber and background. What’s remarkable is that he does so without a trace of rancor or defensiveness. The closest thing to a mission statement in the Truckers’ catalog is a Southern Rock Opera track called “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” The icons in question are former governor George Wallace, legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zandt (who as Hood dutifully notes “wasn’t from Alabama, he was from Florida”), but Bryant and Van Zandt largely take a backseat in a song that develops into an insightful and nuanced meditation on the legacy of Wallace. Forsaking his usual melodic rasp, Hood skillfully intertwines history with his own biography. Noting that “race was only an issue on TV in my house,” he remembers the shock he felt upon leaving the South for the first time and realizing that Wallace (portrayed in the song not as a hardcore racist but as a cynical politician who exploited prejudice for votes) and the venom he spewed were considered typical of the region and its people by most non-Southerners.

The sophistication of Hood and his bandmates about the Southern thing allows the Truckers not only to preserve the best of the region’s history and attitude but to shine a light on its seamier side as well. With the exception of two songs about the war in Iraq—the PTSD-glossing “The Man I Shot” and “The Home Front,” a heartbreaker inspired by Hood’s encounter with the family of a Truckers fan killed in Iraq mere days before he was scheduled to return home—Brighter Than Creation’s Dark features little overtly political material. And with the exception of a pair of outright country songs from Cooley, including a minor stroke of genius about a small-town guy named “Bob,” there’s little here that strays outside the bounds of Southern rock, as defined on the band’s previous albums. As usual, it’s the acuity and empathy of the band’s songwriters—including Cooley and bassist Shonna Tucker, but especially Hood—that carries the day.

Brighter Than Creation’s Dark encompasses the usual assortment of good citizens and shady characters—as well as some who may be a little of both—all portrayed with some sympathy. Whether an alcoholic dad or an itinerant musician, a war widow or a drug dealer, the characters here are all ordinary people stranded in an indecipherable world. We all make our choices in life and Hood’s not here to pass judgment—he’s the type of songwriter who, even while decrying a friend’s descent into crystal meth addiction, feels the need to throw in “I ain’t exactly a no-drug guy.” Hood’s far more interested in the way his characters view themselves. “I don’t know God but I fear his wrath/I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path,” says one of his southern Everymen in “The Righteous Path," and it’s a sentiment one can imagine coming from nearly any of the album’s characters, including the addicts and criminals. In this version of the American South, everyone’s just trying to get by, and if some are doing so a little differently than others, then well, there’s “no time for self-pity or that other crap.”

It’s a worldview about as far from the programmatic idiocy of partisan politics as one can imagine. Neither of the Iraq songs makes any mention of the politics surrounding the war. Hood surely has his opinions and so do you and I, but it’s all been said over and over again by now and he’s smart enough to know that no one needs another lecture, least of all from a guitar player.

No comments: