The Dirty South

Drive-By Truckers

New West Records, 2004

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Drive-By Truckers fans, I’m just gonna put this right up front so we understand each other. My entire interest in the DBT derives from my appreciation for Jason Isbell as a solo performer. There, I said it, it’s on the table. Now off we go.

The Drive-By Truckers were founded in 1989 by the duo still driving the truck today, singer / songwriter / guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. By the time of The Dirty South, the band’s sixth album, they had become a well-established force, playing a strain of hard-edged country-rock that had its roots in the literate punk of figures like Jim Carroll as much as the iconic Southern Rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd; muscular songs with big guitars, rough, sometimes ragged vocals, and a sort of dingy majesty, naturalistic in style but often anthemic in tone.

The Dirty South was not so much a sequel as a call-and-answer response to their 2001 opus Southern Rock Opera, whose on-the-nose title and unfortunate timing (the album was released on September 12, 2001) belied its artistry. Dirty South isn’t a rock opera, or even really a traditional concept album, but it’s certainly an album with a strong theme running through it. To me it feels more like a short story collection—Faulkner with a modern twist, full of late 20th century Southern gothic characters—moonshiners and veterans, stern judges and desperate street racers, not to mention Sam Phillips and Buford Pusser.

The fact that an album so focused in its subject matter works as well as this one does comes down to the quality of the songs, and the fact that they’re written and sung by three different voices. Hood writes six songs, while Cooley and Isbell contribute four apiece, and that makes the album feel like a sort of tapestry as the trio weave observations and anxieties together, sometimes in parallel and sometimes in contrast.

DBT co-founders Hood and Cooley both possess a strong storytelling sense and rough-edged voices that they tend to push to match the often muscular sound of their songs. The third voice is the somewhat smoother Isbell, and the rhythm section here consists of longtime drummer Brad Morgan and bassist Shonna Tucker, at the time married to Isbell.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There’s no question that Alabama natives Hood and Cooley are expert narrators of the Southern landscape they grew up in. The Dirty South is fueled by muscular tunes like “Where The Devil Don’t Stay,” “Puttin’ People On The Moon,” “The Boys From Alabama” and the chugging, Crazy-Horse-like “Lookout Mountain,” but acoustic ballads like Cooley’s “Cottonseed” are at least as captivating, digging deep into the hearts of the local characters whose lives they chronicle. The choices Hood and Cooley make for these songs—adding banjo and piano here and there, stripping things down on the slower tunes before building them back up for the rockers—all feel right, other than perhaps on “The Sands Of Iwo Jima,” an excellent song marred by Hood’s choice to sing most of it in a strained falsetto.

Here’s where my warning above comes into play, though: if you ask me, the three best songs on this strong album are all Isbell songs. “The Day John Henry Died” is a big, surging rocker with a kind of relentless momentum to its tale of ill-fated steel-driver and folk hero John Henry. “Danko/Manuel” offers a mid-tempo dirge/elegy for The Band’s keyboard player Manuel, whose rootsy frame recalls its central characters even as the subject matter inevitably inspires memories of Counting Crows’ “If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is Dead).” Still, the coolest aspect of the song is how Isbell takes Manuel’s story and reflects it back on his own life, asking “Is that the man I want to be?” Finally, album-closer “Goddamn Lonely Love” is simply gorgeous, rich with melancholy and a devastating honesty, not to mention there’s something positively magical about the line “Well I ain’t really drowning, ’cause I see the beach from here.” Those dozen words say so much about the narrator, the songwriter, and the lives being portrayed in this album; it’s brilliant. 

The Dirty South succeeds in the sense that it feels greater than the sum of its parts, rather than less. Never mind the tapestry—too upscale an image for this music—what this album feels like is a gigantic mural on the dusty side of an ancient liquor store on the back road out of a small Southern town. Worn and weathered, yet still so artful as to feel slightly out of place with its dingy surroundings, a shout from the belly of a crowd that’s just figured out the fix is in, but figures they might as well keep carrying on anyway.

Isbell would stick around for one more album before he and the band parted ways (accounts vary, but it seems clear that Isbell’s well-documented drinking was a factor; sobering up would become an essential piece of the narrative of his solo career). The Drive-By Truckers—more recently consisting of Hood, Patterson and Morgan with keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez and bassist Matt Patton—are still out there on the highways today, making music that explores the seedy corners and desperate characters of the land they love. Long may they run.

Rating: B+

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