I won’t lie, until recently I had never heard a Drive-By Trucker’s album. All I knew about them is that Jason Isbell was briefly with them and this album was apparently one of the greatest things to come out this year. As someone who is always down to try new things, I honestly have only dipped my toe in the world of southern rock, I decided I would give this record a shot.
What hit me right off the bat was just how boldly political this record was. The first track, named after Ramon Casiano, a Mexican teenager who was killed by another teenager in Texas. This teenager, Harlon B. Carter went on to lead the Nation Rifle Association, making a point that despite the two kids’ stupid decisions, one died and the other prospered and led the organization that promotes the weapon he murdered Casiano with. Despite this story being several decades old, the same desire for gun control still exists.
Similar pleads are made on “Guns of Umpqua,” a devastating retelling of the shooting at Umpqua Community College which took place just a day short of a year before this record’s release. The song plays out more like a story of a man who is killed in the shooting, as his final memories flash in his mind. This heartbreaking story gets more tragic when he reveals the man was a soldier in the line “I made it back from Hell’s attack in some distant bloody war/Only to stare down Hell back home.” The parallelism here is gripping and the statement is a powerful, yet tragic, one.
Outside of this, the ideas of Southern tradition, especially those that have become unpopular among most, are brought into question here. Considering the band comes from the deep south of Alabama, these themes are handled in a very respectful way. On “Surrender Under Protest” there is a focus on the Southern families who had to give up the traditions of the Confederate flag that was surrendered after the racial killings in South Carolina by Dylann Roof. The song is thoughtful in how it handles the subject, framing those who support the flag as not knowing any different and the difficulties of giving up the tradition that they grew up with.
This Southern perspective is also clear on “Ever South,” where singer Mike Cooley reflects on his ancestors moving to the South, being treated as outsiders until they slowly became integrated into the culture. Even though Cooley has moved to Oregon now, he still feels that his Southern accent keeps him a member of the community he grew up with.
The highlight of this record, and one of the most outwardly political tracks here, is “What It Means” a look at the racial tensions in America. Right in the first verse Cooley comes out, singing about unjust killings of African-Americans, with lines like “I mean Barack Obama won and you can choose where to eat/But you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding in the street.” The song breaks down the killing of Trayvon Martin and the riots in Ferguson, saying these horrific stories are just talked and debated to no end by the media, filling us with so much contradicting information that we forget to ask what these stories mean to our society. Yes, this song will piss off a lot of Conservatives but honestly considering the current state of racism, this song would be best heard by them.
The very idea of political songs such as these is brought up on “Once They Banned Imagine,” which reflects on the time that John Lennon’s masterpiece ode to peace was banned. Cooley describes this time in a negative way, painting a sad image of how the war Lennon was protesting felt similar to all the other wars and lost its significance. It shows the importance of bringing up these kind of issues in music, as it often paints an accurate picture of the feelings people were previously having.
The closing track “Baggage” dives into the subject of mental illness in America in a personal way. The song starts with allusions to Robin Williams’ suicide and the pain it brought Cooley, who had never met Williams but still felt connected to him, especially now because of the mental issues in his own life. He recalls hearing someone on television insult those with mental disorders, saying they should be ashamed, showing off the stigma that many feel when handling an issue like depression. Cooley pleads for people to get help to remove this baggage, saying “All this freight can put you six feet in the ground.”
This record does come with some light flaws, mostly due to the split up writing credits on the record. The songs alternate so that all the odd numbered songs were written by Cooley and the even numbered songs were written by guitarist Patterson Hood. While both handled excellent songs in the track listing, it was apparent to me that the songs were coming from two different minds, with Cooley writing the superior tracks.
Also, the slower piano ballad “Sun Don’t Shine” does not fit in well at all in this record, and would probably have been benefitted from being released separate from this record. While I appreciate the change in sound, the instrumentation does get a bit repetitive here, lyrically it does not stand strong compared to everything else here.
This will be a challenging listen for some, and bring about strong politically-fueled feelings in others and that is the kind of record American Band wants to be. It is well worth a listen, and I am sure fans will love this release and first time listeners, like myself, might just find a new band to get into. Considering we are just a couple weeks away from one of the most polarizing Presidential elections in American history, this album could not feel any better timed.
Best Tracks: Ramon Casiano, Surrender Under Protest, Guns of Umpqua, Kinky Hypocrite, Ever South, What It Means, Once They Banned Imagine, Baggage
Worst Track: Sun Don’t Shine