When you spend virtually all of your time listening to country music, it’s easy to feel like you’ve just been listening to the same song for the past 20 years. Trucks, girls, rinse, repeat. Every once in a while, something different will come along, but homogeneity is, evidently, a successful business model. Which is exactly why an album like Drive-By Truckers’ American Band will knock you out cold every single time.
Whatever it was that you expected from one of Americana’s most iconic acts is probably not what you got with American Band. Even the most optimistic of fans wouldn’t have predicted a such a sonically tight, eminently progressive record from an act that has, in the past, been guilty of a somewhat scattered aesthetic thanks to their complicated dynamic and multiple lineup changes. But with their eleventh studio release, the Truckers have officially evolved into the voice of the South.
Plenty of folks out there wouldn’t quite agree with that assessment, though. When “What It Means,” the album’s first single, was released on YouTube, the band’s more conservative fans had an apoplectic fit. “All this amounts to is more BLM [Black Lives Matter] drivel to fuel the fire,” reads one YouTube comment. Read another: “This song would've caused me to promptly eject the CD and toss that shit out the window. This song has to be a joke?” This reaction, spewed all over social media and YouTube, may have everything to do with the fact that fans of this genre have been, for decades, too cowardly to address any of the racial issues that hang thick inside and out.
From the very beginning, “What It Means” is the definition of a punch to White America’s gut. In reference to Trayvon Martin, Hood sings “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks/ Well I guess that means that you ain’t black/ I mean Barack Obama won and you can choose where to eat/ but you don’t see too many white kids lying, bleeding on the street.” Written by Hood in the aftermath of the now countless instances of officer-involved shootings, this is a song that does nothing to appease conservatives or assuage white guilt.
And then, as you get further into the song, Hood doubles down, adamantly taking no prisoners. He points these intricately woven lyrics about George Zimmerman and the subtle racism to allow these violent shootings to occur across the country at all of us. He notes with a hint of pain that our heroes, perhaps referring to athletes or actors, could be rapists. As Hood notes, Ferguson could be anywhere, and it will be, tomorrow or next week. It’s a sobering realization, even more so when you realize that, four years after the death of Trayvon Martin, the Truckers are one of the very few Americana bands that have addressed racial inequity at all, much less in such an eloquent and powerful way.
Generally, when us white folks get to telling people about racial issues, bad things happen. We’ve got a habit of talking down to people of color and erasing their experiences in favor of making ourselves feel better. But in this instance, the Truckers are talking to Americana’s overwhelmingly white audience — the kind of people who generally view themselves as “too smart” for mainstream country. The kind of folks that need to be doing a hell of a lot more talking to other white folks about why so many young black men and women end up dead in the street.
On its own, “What It Means” stands as one of Americana’s most brilliant commentaries and one hell of a song. But the really beautiful thing is that American Band has ten more tracks that somehow manage to bring the same levels of trenchant commentary. The gentle and brooding “Guns of Umpqua” tackles the stupidly heavy subject of a veteran wounded in a domestic terrorist attack, and “Kinky Hypocrite” is a barn-burner about exactly who you think. It’s really almost staggering how much ground the Truckers cover in just 11 songs.
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And some might say that we should have seen this one coming. The Drive-By Truckers have never shied away from pissing people off or addressing the tough issues, but this album represents something much bigger than political ideology or commentary on the state of the South. With American Band, the Drive-By Truckers are ultimately redefining the Southern identity.
Despite the assumptions (many of them true) that surround the South, plenty of us here below the Mason-Dixon like to listen to good Southern rock or Americana or country — whatever your poison, the Truckers offer touches of it here — without the Confederate flags and the misogyny and the relentless masculinity. Outside of the politics, Hood and Cooley bring vulnerability, nuance, and context to a sound against which the lyrics are very frequently mind-numbingly simple.
The horribly depressing problem with it all, though, is that the people who most need to hear this album and absorb its messages directly into their bones are the ones who have already left their irate YouTube comments and decided that they don’t want to listen to all this politically correct liberal nonsense. It's a recognition that even Cooley has — "what's the point of post-racial when old prejudices remain?" Perhaps in a less polarized time it would have been different. But for the people who do listen, there are lessons here that must not be ignored.
Perhaps the most important of those is that we are always, always ever South. Regardless of where you go or who you become, the Southern identity is one that impresses itself deeply and permanently on the soul. The difference here, though, is that the Drive-By Truckers tell us that we do not have to continue to “bash our heads against the future” and embrace an identity that does not reflect our values or value the lives of other human beings. That being “Ever South” doesn’t have to mean being quite so ass-backwards.