Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers

My iPhone’s been a real asshole lately. The battery life has tanked. It’s started shutting off unexpectedly in cold weather (“Oh, you’re trying to use Google Maps to navigate an unfamiliar city on foot in a snowstorm? Nap time, bitches!”). Speaking of naps, the sleep/wake button now requires an absurd amount of pressure, like a small and entirely un-fun version of that carnival game where you swing a sledgehammer to see how strong you are. Lately, its favorite trick has been refusing to send text messages or tweets for days at a time. Saturday — the day the Drive-By Truckers played at the National here in Richmond — happened to be one of those days. As a result, all my enthused mid-show exclamations went un-exclaimed.

In truth, it’s probably for the best. Looking back at the notes I took in my jerk phone’s Notes application, as well as the contents of my Twitter client’s drafts folder, I’m not sure my IPA-addled missives would have made much sense. All the same, I’d like to give a few of them a second chance and, since we’ve moved this party to the blogosphere, a little elaboration. We’ll call this Tweets That Never Were: Drive-By Truckers Edition.

@YouHearThat: I figured it out – Mike Cooley is the Southern Jonny Greenwood.

OK, just hear me out.

There’s some surface-level stuff here I could point to, like the fact they both play Telecaster-style guitars and have haircuts that veil their faces is almost exactly the same way when they look down during solos. What’s more meaningful (maybe only to me, I dunno) is their sideman magnetism. Remember in Almost Famous when Stillwater has the t-shirt fight, and Jason Lee lays out the dynamic the band had agreed to? Lee was supposed to be the lead guy, and Bill Crudup was supposed to be “the guitarist with mystique.” It’s silly to think of a band deciding on that kind of thing, and it’s even sillier to think that bands like the Drive-By Truckers and Radiohead would adhere to some hokey template. But that archetype — the guitarist with mystique — is totally real.

Rock music is riddled with examples of exceptional guitarists who take a back seat to a front person with a big personality. But what’s interesting to me is that this dynamic isn’t just about looking cool or controlling a band’s image. As I see it, it’s also about the progressive nature of musical appreciation. When you first get into bands, lead singers are often your way in. They talk to you at shows, act as ambassadors for their groups in interviews,  there’s a good chance you’ll learn their names first… But as you get more into a group and its catalog — you listen to older albums, maybe you see them live two or three times — here’s this other person, leading from behind, providing something vital that’s been there the whole time, even though you might not have understood its value right away (story songs drenched in wisdom in Cooley’s case, brilliant musical direction in Greenwood’s). Enigmatic sidemen give fans another gear, a place to go when knowing the lead singer isn’t enough. Cooley and Greenwood aren’t exactly the same in the ways they embody this archetype — Cooley sings lead on several songs, Greenwood doesn’t — but they’ve both turned into my favorite thing about their respective bands, though neither started out that way.

Don’t buy the sideman archetype thing? Fine, but I’m telling you — the hairy solo veil thing is spot-on.

@YouHearThat: Did a spot-check to make sure that the bass player was having yet another best moment of his life. He was.

Matt Patton has been playing with DBT since 2011, when previous bassist Shonna Tucker left the group. This was my second time seeing the band with Patton holding down the low end, and he’s got to be the happiest looking musician I’ve ever seen. He’s constantly beaming, like he’s figured out the secret to life, or like he’s remembering a cat video that made him laugh earlier that day. It’s not hard to imagine that smile has something to do with being picked up by the Truckers, but reducing it to that would insult his abilities, I think. He’s no lottery winner. He’s a fantastic bassist — great tone, great fills, energetic without being busy — and it seems like he’d be a great bandmate as well. Making a band work is as much about managing relationships (see “t-shirt fight” above) as it is about making music, and having someone in the room who radiates positivity is extraordinarily valuable. Imperative, even.

About two-thirds of the way into the set, I decided I’d do a spot-check and see if Patton was having yet another best moment of his life. He totally was, and it brightened up mine.

@YouHearThat: “Women Without Whiskey” is, like, a whole thing.

It makes sense, I swear.

I went to the show with Bill, the husband of one of Mrs. YHT’s friends from high school. This was his first Drive-By Truckers experience, and we talked a fair amount about how I got into the band and why. I told him at one point that, looking back, the Truckers were an inevitability. I hadn’t realized that until Saturday, but there was always something pulling me in, despite the fact that it took me a while to warm to Patterson Hood’s singing and the band’s straightforward approach.

What ended up sealing the deal was seeing them live for the first time in June of 2011. For much of that show, I was standing next to my friend and frequent co-concert-goer Robbie (who was there on Saturday as well), and he was feeding me information at the start of each song about which songs were new, which were fan favorites… that kind of thing. I vividly remember the excitement that greeted the start of crowd-pleaser “Lookout Mountain.” In moments like that, a clear sense of community emerges. It’s not just that a few thousand individuals are expressing the same thought simultaneously. It’s more coordinated than that. Cheering at the beginning of “Lookout Mountain” is an expression of a shared, agreed-upon opinion. “This song kicks ass. We collectively decided that a long time ago, and we’re going to reaffirm that decision by yelling as loud as we can.” Songs like “Lookout Mountain” and “Women Without Whiskey” command reverence, and there’s a routine associated with them. You go nuts at the beginning, sing along during specific, climactic moments and bang your head during the heavy riffy parts. Norms like these aren’t unique to the Truckers, but they are rare. Not only does a band need to survive long enough for them to take root, the community has to be one that values them. This is where the inevitability part comes in.

For whatever reason (my mom and I have discussed this before, and she thinks I’m crazy, so I won’t lay this trait at her feet), I place a great deal of value on adhering to norms. In situations where the way forward isn’t clear — many of these involve etiquette, like when you are or aren’t supposed to buy a wedding gift — I tend to ask myself and/or whoever’s in the room with me: “What’s the normal thing to do here?” It’s a nasty habit, especially regrettable whenever I see that famous quote about well-behaved women seldom making history (I’m not a woman, but you get the idea — nobody makes the front page by vigorously following expectations). One of the more conspicuous ways in which this tendency manifests itself is a desire for belonging, and fandoms are the perfect outlet. Arrested Development. Richmond Flying Squirrels. Duke basketball. In each case, I’m presented with a community I can surround myself with. When looking at things through this lens, I think it’s fair to say I fell for the Truckers community before I fell for the music, and I couldn’t be happier to be on the inside looking out.

I should thank Robbie next time I see him. Hopefully I was able to do the same for Bill.

@YouHearThat: The end of the @drivebytruckers will be very, very sad.

There’s an entire cohort of rock and roll songs about how rock and roll will never die. Many of those songs were written before the genre became hedgemonic, when rock still had a chip on its shoulder. When it needed to justify its existence. We’ve come full-circle, I think. Music is splintered. Whatever mood or sub-sub-genre you’re looking for, someone out there is recording it, and it’s easier than ever for you to find it. Some use this as an excuse to say that rock is dead, but the truth is a little muddier than that. I’d like to think that rock music is alive and well, defiant as ever, but that its defiance — a signature trait — comes from a different place these days.

Rock’s defiance used to come from its novelty and association with youth. A handful of decades later, I think it’s fair to say that novelty has worn off. There are brilliant bands that use rock as a jumping-off point to explore other spaces, but the Drive-By Truckers are not one of them. They make straight-ahead Southern rock music. But that doesn’t mean they’re digging up the past. To do what they do as well as they do it, you can’t just trot out those instruments and write songs that sound like Southern rock songs. You need a very specific mindset. One that says “I know countless people before me have played these chords on an electric guitar, but this is MY song.” Writing a rock song, after so many others have been written, really is an act of audacity. Of chutzpah. It’s an outrageous expression of individualism, and the Truckers assert themselves as well as any band making rock and roll in 2014.

It struck me on Saturday night that the demise of the Truckers — which is hopefully very far off — will be profoundly sad. They never agreed to do this forever, and it’s not like they’ve explicitly made “rock and roll will never die” their mantra (though “Let There Be Rock” comes pretty darn close), but I feel like their existence does keep something important going. Where the Stones radiate nostalgia, the Truckers ground rock music in the present. They’re proof that as long as people are still sticking their (guitar) necks out, rock will be just fine, thank you very much.

Drive-By Truckers — “Pauline Hawkins” [Spotify/iTunes]

2 thoughts on “Drive-By Truckers

  1. Pingback: Yasiin Gaye | You hear that?!?

  2. Pingback: Jack Johnson | You hear that?!?

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