Friday 11 November 2016

Why do I like the Drive-By Truckers?

Or more accurately, why do we like the Drive-By Truckers?

In the days following the US elections, I listen to the latest album by Alabama band Drive-By Truckers, entitled American Band. The album is a snapshot of the increasingly polarised US of the past year. Songs about race, riots, high school shootings and politics. It’s a call to arms that lost the band a great deal of their followers. 

But this isn’t about American Band, its about how a group of seven lads on the Northern Irish border got into this band in a really, really big way.

It started in 2003 when one of my friends shoplifted Decoration Day from Virgin Megastores in Derry because he liked the cover. I guess I have Wes Freed’s incredible album artwork to thank for kickstarting me into this band. We were seven teenagers from about 14-18 and into art, literature and music. I’d say we were fairly atypical for kids that grew up in a small rural village. We sat around in the garage after band practice and listened to Decoration Day. I recall my first impressions as being a little kooky, a little heavy and a little country. The opening song, about incest in the deep south, begins a cappella until the rest of the band are introduced, building up to a glorious chord progression complete with pedal steel guitar and upright bass. The closest band I could think of at the time was the Eels.

Decoration Day went back in the CD collection and somewhere along the line someone got Souther Rock Opera and The Dirty South. It was at this time I got into the band in a serious way.

Decoration Day’s title track is a tale of deep-seated petty intergenerational family rivalry certainly strikes a chord. The narrator (Jason Isbell) has a decidedly removed delivery from the deeds and motives of his hated and ultimately understood father. Without trying to go too deep there are themes that resonate with the political system and religious rivalries Northern Ireland is infamous for. Of course, I didn’t realise this at the time. 

Isbell doesn’t even divulge what motivated his father and instigated the historic rivalry, but focuses more on the short vignetted brutality and emotional dissonance caused. To us, the Catholic/Protestant divide was certainly visible but it didn’t matter as we were a mixed group of friends. I identified with the singer’s take on the story and his vitriol to the historic feuding in the song.

I’ve always said that the DBTs write songs that have dumb music and clever lyrics, and I don’t mean this in a bad way. In 2003 I was in a garage band trying to play songs by Neil Young, The Who, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. We chugged along trying to land the musical acrobatics before dawning on the realisation that we could just chug along ourselves and it sounded pretty good. It was at this time I really got into primal fuzzy garage riffing typified by Ronnie and Neil from Souther Rock Opera. Again, a simple Sabbath/Young esque chordal descent creates the luscious audio carpet for a tale of southern racism via music, name dropping Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, culminating in a battle cry tale of Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, complete with three guitar harmony. Wow!

Putting People on the Moon, from The Dirty South, could have been written about any town that experienced hardship. Our own village was famous in the Irish linen days, and many of our families worked in the local mill. The mill was shut down about the time of that album due to production going to Africa (and leading to the company folding). The feeling of angry acceptance captured in this song could be felt throughout the village for years.

It’s difficult to say why a random and still largely unknown oddball American band became the favourite band of a small group of teenagers from the rural Northern Ireland border. To this day, I’ve bought every album, spin off and DVD, and we’re all going to see them again in February.

Recently one of my friends said he was glad that, out of all the music we listened to as teenagers, this was the band that stuck. I’ve got to agree.