Even though I’ve been actively listening to them for less than two years, there was no way I could leave the Drive-By Truckers off of this list. After all, it’s not their fault that I was so stupid for so long and never found the wisdom to give them a listen until a friend and colleague practically shoved a CD of theirs in my face. If anything, I’m underrating them, but that’s OK given their relatively recent entry into my pantheon of favorites.
The difficult thing was deciding which of their albums was best. It boiled down to three candidates: “Southern Rock Opera,” their epic 2002 song cycle about what it means to have come from the South and be a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan; “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” the 2008 epic that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was indeed life after Jason Isbell; and the album I’m going to write about here.
With its 15 songs, “Decoration Day” is the perfect representation of what Drive-By Truckers do best: tell stories. The band has always been blessed to have two great songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and have been joined in that regard over the years by Jason Isbell, who began his tenure with the band with this album, and Shonna Tucker, once married to Isbell and now the band’s bassist. Though the band’s musicianship is hard to resist, their lyrics are meant to be listened to, and evidenced by the one concert I attended (a memorable night in Chicago, and one of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen), the hardcore fans are doing a great job of that – singing along, loudly, with almost every song.
“Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”
Hood’s knack for spinning a great tale is evident from the album’s first song, “The Deeper In.” The song begins quietly, with Hood singing acapella, so you really have no choice but to listen to the story he is telling:
By the time you were born there were four other siblings
with your Mama awaiting your Daddy in jail.
Your oldest brother was away at a home
and You didn’t meet him till you was 19 years old.
Old enough to know better, old enough to know better
but you took to his jaw line and long sandy hair.
How he made you feel like none of the others
and the way he looked at you
touched you deep down in there.
Thus begins what is surely the only song on a popular music album based on incest – in fact, inspired by a magazine article about the only two people serving time in America for consensual brother/sister intercourse. But within a few short lines, Hood has managed to finely draw both characters, and create a situation where you can understand (if not necessarily condone) what happened, and even sympathize with the situation. All you’re left to wonder is how the story ends, and in the last verse you find out what you probably knew all along.
Last night you had a dream about a Lord so forgiving
He might show compassion for a heathen he damned.
You awoke in a jail cell, alone and so lonely
Seven years in Michigan.
“The Deeper In”
With “Sink Hole” and “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” you get to hear the band’s bread-and-butter, the “Skynyrd-influenced, three-pronged guitar attack grungy Patterson Hood potboiler” type of song that sounds so terrific live. But even as the three guitars make you reminisce for Rossington, Collins, King, Gaines and the whole bunch, you catch another snippet of lyric, perhaps a line or two, and what you hear – maybe “bury his body in the old sinkhole...”, or “one night in Kansas City, we thought about killing a man” – and you remember that you’d better get out the lyric sheet and find out just what these songs are about.
Patterson Hood has written dozens of great songs, but I don’t know that he’s ever come up with a set of classics that match those he wrote for “Decoration Day.” It’s really hard to single out just one. In addition to those already mentioned, he contributes a classic rocker (“Do It Yourself”), a frightening little family melodrama (“Your Daddy Hates Me”), and two of his very greatest songs. On “(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon,” Hood paints a vivid picture of a relationship that is doomed to failure, a tale made all the more poignant by the fact that the man clearly recognizes the end is near:
Maybe what you need’s
for someone to send you flowers
Someone strong and mean
Who can prove has the power
to show you more than charm
and take you on your way
to where you want to be at the end of the day
and it breaks my heart in two to know it ain’t meant to be
but, it ain’t me. It ain’t me.
And on “My Sweet Annette,” he spins a short story with a twist so unexpected you might think it was written by O. Henry or Roald Dahl.
Me and my Annette, we was as fond as we could be
We was set to marry in October 33
I set my sights on courting her, as fine as she could be
I never even noticed her best friend Marilee
Took a job at the saw mill and I bought my girl a ring
Had a pre-wedding party, close friends and family
Everything was fine, eating homemade ice cream
I swear I never noticed maid of honor, Marilee
My Sweet Annette was left standing at the altar.
I wish Johnny Cash had lived long enough for Rick Rubin to find that song, because a Cash version would have been a wonderful gift.
“My Sweet Annette”
After having mentioned “Heathens”, I have to note the contributions to the album of John Neff (who in a few years would join the band as a regular member) on Pedal Steel. Particularly on “Heathens,” a song that is not meant to be particularly happy or uplifting, Neff’s evocative playing is just as important to the song as Hood’s lyrics (or his singing, which is marvelous). When, at the end of the song, he plays point/counterpoint with Scott Danborn on fiddle, it sounds like the tears of the protagonist as they flow down his face. Marvelous stuff.
And let’s not forget Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell. Cooley doesn’t write as much as Hood (overall, I’d guess the band’s output is 2/3 Hood, 1/3 Cooley); on “Decoration Day” he wrote (and sings lead on) just 4 tunes. This is a generalization, but Cooley’s songs tend to be a little more raucous than Hood’s, and in concert the band does an effective job of getting the crowd worked up with what I call the “classic Cooley rockers.” The only song on the album you could describe that way is “Marry Me,” a raucous tale starring a couple that probably shouldn’t get within ten miles of the wedding chapel. Cooley’s other songs – “Sounds Better in the Song,” “When the Pin Hits the Shell,” and “Loaded Gun in the Closet” – demonstrate that he can spin a tale just as well as Hood. And Isbell? Just two songs, but both great ones – “Outfit,” a nice little story about a would-be rocker listening to some advice from his pa, and the album’s title track.
From start to finish, the album is unbelievably strong. It may not contain the best individual songs the band has played over the course of its career (but it may), but I don’t think the band has ever maintained this incredible level of consistency.
Decoration Day (2003). Produced by David Barbe.
The Deeper In/Sink Hole/Hell No, I Ain’t Happy/Marry Me/My Sweet Annette/Outfit/Heathens/Sounds Better in the Song/(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon/Your Daddy Hates Me/Careless/When the Pin Hits the Shell/Do It Yourself/Decoration Day/Loaded Gun in the Closet