Music fans love lists. Don’t believe me? Watch High Fidelity. And in honor of that tradition, I’m listing my favorite Drive-By Truckers albums.
By Colin Woodward
The Truckers hail from northern Alabama. The band’s founding members, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been playing together for decades. The two are around 50 years old now, but they show no signs of slowing down. The band has always made southern culture a centerpiece of their song-writing. And many of their songs explicitly address the South’s troubled past, no more so than on their double album Southern Rock Opera, which covers everything from George Wallace to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Bear Bryant. The Truckers could be called postmodern, I guess, but Cooley and Patterson at times also seem like something out of the nineteenth century. They have old souls, and that’s one reason why I like them.
Anyway, here’s my list of my favorite Truckers albums.
1. Brighter than Creation is Dark (2008). Not only is this my favorite Truckers album, I also think it’s their best. It was the first album the band put out after the departure of guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jason Isbell. Brighter is something like the Truckers’ “White Album,” a double album’s worth of material that spans various styles, from hard rock to country. It shows all the players at the top of their game. Perhaps more than any other Truckers album, I like the Cooley-Hood songs about equally. I’d give the edge to Cooley, but that’s because even though I love Patterson, Cooley is the man.
The album opens with the beautiful and haunting “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife.” On its own terms, the song is perhaps the prettiest Hood has ever written. But, it being a Truckers song, there’s a dark undercurrent. The song was written after the brutal home invasion killing of the Harvey family from Richmond, Va. (a town that has treated the Truckers well). The song talks about heaven, but doesn’t explicitly talk about the crime. That’s interesting, because the Truckers catalog is full of murder ballads. But apparently when it came to a real murder, Hood approached the material indirectly.
Brighter’s next track is a classic example of counterpoint. Hood’s “Two Daughters'” is acoustic and gentle. Cooley’s “Two Dimes Down” begins with a filthy, Stones-like blast of electric guitar. The first two songs on the album set the tone for the entire record–a mix of light and dark, acoustic and electric, sad and funny. In addition to Cooley and Hood, Shonna Tucker, then the band’s bassist, adds a few good songs. It must have been hard for Shonna to be in band with so much testosterone and songwriting talent. Now, she is on tour with her band Eye Candy.
Patterson Hood adds what I think is his best song about the middle class struggle in America, “The Righteous Path,” which speaks of having “a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas . . . a house in a neighborhood that’s fading fast/Got a dog and cat that don’t fight too much, I got a few hundred channels to keep me in touch.” It’s an uptempo salute to those who have a too much debt, a whole lot of fear, and a boat that ain’t seen the water in years.
Mike Cooley’s “Bob” is the goofiest song on the album, but in many ways the most touching, too, as it talks about a small town lone wolf, who is more content to drinks beers and play with his dog than find a mate. The lyrics are in the third person, but in a strange way, it might be the most autobiographical tune that the enigmatic, taciturn Cooley has ever written.
2. The Dirty South (2004). Last I checked, this was the Truckers’ best-selling album. It was the second album with Jason Isbell, who was much younger than the other members of the band, but could hold his own as a drinker (for a while anyway), songwriter, and guitar player. After getting sober, he has become a successful solo artist. At the time of Dirty South, he and the rest of the band could do no wrong.
Patterson Hood contributes one of his most moving songs, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” about his uncle, who, it turns out, was more of a father to Patterson than his real father was. The rest of Patterson’s songs are not at all sentimental. “Putting People on the Moon” is one of the bleakest songs I’ve ever heard. The lyrics speak of unemployment, drug-dealing, cancer, and bankruptcy, themes made all the more unsettling because of the song’s pounding tempo and raw, grungy arrangement.
The songs by Patterson and Isbell are good. But the songs Cooley wrote for this album are, quite simply, astounding. The lightest of them is “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about the heyday of Sun Records in Memphis. The album, however, opens with the terrific and badass “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” about an Alabama bootlegger during the Great Depression.
Cooley’s other songs are equally good. “Cottonseed” is a companion piece to “Devil” in that it also talks about a criminal, a man who boats he has “put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cotton seed.” Cooley wisely chose to record the song with just him and his acoustic guitar. The song is roughly six minutes long, but the lyrics are so good you don’t want it to end.
The last of Cooley’s songs on the album is “Daddy’s Cup,” about a race car driver and the relationship with his father. It’s one of those songs I wish the Truckers would do live. The song is not as stripped down as “Cottonseed,” but it mostly consists of Cooley and his guitar. But this time, the song is fast-paced, like racing. I always have thought that someone could make a great animated film from this song. The lyrics evoke strong images.
Dirty South doesn’t tackle southern history the way Southern Rock Opera does, but it contains an interesting take on the legend of Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff, who was the inspiration for the movie Walking Tall. Hood talks about Pusser from the viewpoint of the criminals, saying the Pusser was just another crooked lawman shutting down the operations of hardworking businessmen. Maybe someone could make a movie about what Patterson calls the “other side of the story.”
3. Southern Rock Opera (2001). Few bands are as cool as Drive-By Truckers. But their breakthrough album was one of those things that are the bane of the punk generation: a rock opera. SRO, however, was the album on which the Truckers gelled. It was the first one to feature fiery, demented Wes Freed artwork, which complimented the band’s aesthetic quite well. The album has strong elements of punk and grunge. And so it’s more a concept album in the way the Who might have done it rather than say, the Moody Blues.
Even in the band’s catalog, SRO remains unusual. It’s the only one that spans two discs. The only one that contains no acoustic guitar. It was an album that took on many topics: the South, history, racism, the battle between Neil Young and Skynyrd. It’s an angry, raw statement. Patterson has said that he thought Cooley wrote the two best songs on the album, though I’m not sure which.
Patterson has admitted that it was an album on which he could geek-out some. He read up on his Alabama history for songs about George Wallace and Bear Bryant. “The Three Alabama Icons” contains so much verbiage that it was recorded as a spoken-word song.
SRO concludes with “Angels and Fuselage” about the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zandt and other members of his band. I saw thew band do “Angels and Fuselage” in Richmond as a closer to the band’s 2010 Halloween weekend show. One-by-one, the band members left the stage as the drummer kept the beat–symbolic of those who disappeared during the plane crash. It was a dramatic end to a terrific show.
4. The Big To-Do (2010). I’ve always found this to be the band’s most underrated record. It contains perhaps Cooley’s best rocker, “Birthday Boy,” one of the greatest songs ever written about a strip club. The Truckers played down the southern history angle on this record. And it doesn’t have the best songs the band ever recorded. But it is one of the band’s best achievements in sound and production. The songs explode. Cooley’s guitar is on fire. Truckers fans might not talk much about tunes like “Santa Fe,” but it’s the type of perfect throwaway songs that bands make when they are at their peak.
5. English Oceans (2014). The band went back to basics here. This is the first album to feature only songs by Cooley and Hood. Not much southern history here, and not much country twang. But there’s much more energy than the band’s previous effort, Go-Go Boots. Apparently, Cooley emerged from a long period of writer’s block before writing the songs on this record. Most of them are good. Cooley’s best on the album is “Primer Coat,” which covers the classic country topic of small town life. But Patterson’s songs, on the whole, are better. His memorial to Craig Lieske on “Grand Canyon” is the closest thing the Truckers have ever come to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”
6. Gangstabilly (1998). This was the first Truckers album, and it’s surprisingly good, given what the band would do later. The album blends elements of hard rock and country acoustic. The barnburner is “Buttholeville,” which apparently got the band in trouble in the early days, because it was seen as a swipe at club owners. It’s filthy and funny, like a good southern rock song should be. But the funniest song is “Steve McQueen,” about one of Patterson’s movie heroes. Cooley was still finding his way as writer, but he was capable of his typical smartassery on “Panties in Your Purse.”
7. Decoration Day (2003). This is usually considered one of the Truckers’ best albums, but I’ve never connected with it the way other fans have. Jason Isbell contributes the best song, “Outfit,” which tells of a father warning his son to not ever sing with a fake English accent; call home on your sister’s birthday; and remember that southern men tell better jokes. My favorite song, though, is “Sinkhole,” one of the band’s many murder ballads. When I saw the band in early 2013, they did a lot of songs from this album.I think it foreshadowed the band’s back to its roots approach that would be found on English Oceans.
8. American Band (2015). Amid the most contentious political campaign in recent memory, the Truckers released their most political album since Southern Rock Opera. American Band was an effort to address the ongoing racial divide in the United States, with songs about Trayvon Martin (“What It Means”) and other unpleasant moments in our history. The choice of a photo of the U.S. flag on the cover rather than the usual Wes Freed artwork sums up the album’s intentions.
The band’s heart is in the right place, but is it a great album? Unfortunately, no. The Truckers sound better when looking at the villains in southern history–as examined on the George Wallace-inspired cuts of Southern Rock Opera or the Dixie Mafia characters of Dirty South–than the victims. The album has its moments and stands up to repeated listens, but the energy heard on the band’s previous record English Oceans, not to mention earlier albums, is lacking. Patterson’s songs, especially, feel flat.
8. Pizza Deliverance (1999). An album very similar in style to Gangstabilly. Again, it blends rock and country. It’s funny, too. But the band clearly needed to make a big leap to go from being good to great–a leap that Southern Rock Opera provided.
9. Go-Go Boots. Looking back on this album after a few years, one can see that it was a transition record. Shonna Tucker was on the way out as the band’s bass player and third songwriter. Diehard Truckers fans don’t usually give her much credit, but I always liked her way of balancing the albums with a much-needed female perspective.
The fire one can see at just about every live performance is lacking. As a songwriter, Cooley was out of gas (temporarily), and the music wasn’t inspired.
10. A Blessing and a Curse (2006). Watch the documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending and you’ll see Jason Isbell strumming a guitar listlessly during the Blessing sessions. As the record was being put in the can, Isbell’s marriage to Shonna Tucker was dissolving. Isbell would soon be going solo. His two songs on the album are the worst he did with the Truckers. But, in his defense, no one else in the band was doing great work either. Some good moments here, but I don’t think I’ve heard the band ever do a song from this album live despite having seen them perform four times.
Colin Woodward is a historian, archivist, and sometime music critic. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.