For most of the past decade, the rock band Drive-By Truckers has woven a musical saga of white Southern working-class life from the inside out. In a series of albums that began in 2001 with Southern Rock Opera and ran through The Dirty South (2004), the Truckers inhabited the lives of a variety of low-grade, mixed-up tragic heroes—dispossessed farmers, old soldiers, and blue-collar family men share the stage with bootleggers, dope dealers, minor-league stock-car drivers, and small-town gangsters. All get their voice, all have their reasons, and none are judged. The Truckers seem determined only to capture what writer James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is.”
Their most recent effort, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, keeps the character-driven attention to detail of the Truckers’ earlier works, but drops the regional references, instead giving us 19 songs that add up to a portrait of a nation adrift and at war.
While the Truckers’ lyrics show the grain of white working-class life, the music captures the texture with a rough hillbilly rock sound that features a three-guitar attack, but one in which the third is often a country steel. Meanwhile, the extra grease on their backbeat betrays the ever-present influence of Southern soul.
The band’s principal songwriters (Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley) didn’t have to do much research to find the universal truths in the details of Southern lives, or Southern rock. They and the other band members are natives of the northwest Alabama Muscle Shoals region along the Tennessee River. It’s a poor and isolated corner of the South that in the 1960s and ’70s was home to a recording studio that produced legendary Southern soul records by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge. Duane Allman did session work at Muscle Shoals. The Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there.
But another classic rock band kept coming to mind as I’ve lived with aBrighter Than Creation’s Dark. It’s those imaginary Southerners Creedence Clearwater Revival who, from their home on the wrong side of the San Francisco Bay, spent the late 1960s writing and recording songs about bayous, Mississippi riverboats, and green rivers. Many of the classic Creedence records were also about the Vietnam War, “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” being the most obvious examples. But the Creedence songs didn’t see the war as an “issue”; they saw it as an inexplicable plague on the lives of individual Americans.
There are only two songs overtly about the war on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, “That Man I Shot” and “The Home Front.” The first one has an American soldier telling about the Iraqi man he killed in a close-up, “him-or-me” confrontation. While the band rages in full three-guitar stomp, the young American tries to make sense of his actions and his feelings about them. “I was in his homeland. I was there to help him but he didn’t want me there ... He was trying to kill me … Maybe I was in his yard ... Did he have little ones that he was proud of that he won’t see grow up?” The Iraqi man follows the soldier back to America. He’s in his dreams. The soldier still “feels his last breath” and says, “I hold my little ones until he disappears.”
The lyrics to that song came from a long conversation Patterson Hood had with two American Iraq veterans who had brought their buddy to a Drive-By Truckers show for a pre-deployment farewell party. The young man was going to Iraq for the third time.
“The Home Front” came from a backstage conversation with a soldier’s wife that results in a snapshot of a young woman, mother to a 2-year-old girl, who paces the floor sleeplessly while the television says, “they ain’t found a reason yet. We’re all bogged down in a quagmire and there ain’t no end to it.”
The Drive-By Truckers know that this bloody, absurd, and immoral war is happening to their audience. And thank God they are there to give that audience a voice.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.