As Drive-By Truckers‘ skimpy greatest hits album proves, trying to assemble a best-of collection for the band is a fool’s errand. They simply have too many good songs. Lucky for you, we’re pretty foolish over here at Consequence of Sound. So, just in time for the release of English Oceans (their tenth album), consider this your gateway drug to the rest of the Truckers’ catalog. It’s an easy and unique narcotic to get addicted to, a potent blend of southern rock tropes and nuanced, non-judgmental storytelling that’s unlike anything else on the streets. Of course, those of you who are already hooked will probably disagree with our list, so disagree away in the comments section.
10. “The Living Bubba”
Admittedly, “The Living Bubba” is a lot thinner than the Truckers’ later output. But what it lacks in musical muscle it makes up for in context, with Patterson Hood never martyrizing the song’s protagonist. That would be Gregory Dean Smalley, an Atlanta songwriter who died of AIDS in the late ’90s. Once diagnosed with his illness, Smalley played with as many bands as possible right up until his death, regardless of how small the crowd was. While Hood only knew Smalley casually (at the time, he was the sound guy for The High Hat Club in Athens), he memorialized his fellow musician’s drive and refusal to be pitied in one of the earliest Truckers songs. “I can’t die now/ ’cause I got another show to do”, he stubbornly sings from Smalley’s point of view, kicking off a career-long trend of treating his characters—both true and imagined—with unsentimental realism.
Best line: “Ain’t got no message for the youth of America/ ‘cept ‘Wear a rubber and be careful who you screw'”
9. “Shut Up and Get on the Plane/Greenville to Baton Rouge/Angels and Fuselage”
Album: Southern Rock Opera (Act II)
There was a period where it seemed like every Drive-By Truckers album had at least one great trilogy of thematically linked songs. The Dirty South views Sheriff Buford Pusser’s crusade through the eyes of the criminals he hunted, while Decoration Day features back-to-back triptychs about divorce and suicide. Still, their dramatic weight pales in comparison to Southern Rock Opera‘s final three tunes, which chronicle the death of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mike Cooley’s raucous “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” finds the band ignoring deathly premonitions to board their aircraft before Hood comes in with the more cautious “Greenville to Baton Rouge”. The mechanical problems increase, the pace slows, and the Truckers replicate a plane crash with nothing more than bass, drums, and, of course, three—not two—guitars. Things come to an eerie conclusion with “Angels and Fuselage”, where Ronnie Van Zant shudders at the ghosts waiting for him in the trees of a Mississippi swamp that grows bigger and bigger in the cockpit window.
Best line: “Once we hit Louisiana, baby, I don’t care/ Got a brand-new airplane waiting for us there/ Give this piece of shit back to Aerosmith/ Wake me up when we get there”
8. “Used To Be a Cop”
Album: Go-Go Boots
Although the Truckers have written about everyone from Neil Young to circus act The Flying Wallendas, their character studies also follow the non-famous. Here, we meet a corrupt former police officer who spends his time being paranoid and stalking his ex-wife. It’s easy enough to hate the guy, but Patterson Hood’s greatest trick is making us feel just a little sorry for him through a musical shift. The defeated faux-disco beat propels into Jay Gonzalez’s triumphant piano as the cop remembers his glory days, when he played football in high school before passing the police entrance exam on his first try. Then the song’s back to normal, and we’re reminded of how dark and sad his life has become.
Best line: “Sometimes late at night, I hear the beat a-bumping/ I reach for my holster and I wake up all alone”
7. “A Ghost to Most”
Album: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Whereas Patterson Hood almost always sticks to narratives, the Truckers’ secret weapon Mike Cooley often keeps things more ambiguous. (We think) “A Ghost to Most” is his own smartass take on a self-help book, one that tells people to do what they want, not hurt anybody, and, most importantly, mind their own goddamn business. Regardless of the song’s true meaning, it’s filled with Cooley’s maddeningly clever one-liners that sound even better sung than read.
Best line: “Talking tough is easy when it’s other peoples’ evil/ and you’re judging what they do or don’t believe/ It seems to me you’d have to have a hole in your own/ to point a finger at somebody else’s sheet”
Album: The Dirty South
Every story’s a winner on The Dirty South, Drive-By Truckers’ third concept album in just as many years. And while the widowed drug dealer of “Puttin’ People on the Moon” and the shyster side of Sam Phillips in “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” both fought hard for spots on this list, our personal O. Henry Award goes to “Tornadoes”. Patterson Hood’s trump card is a dash of meta-fiction, a literary device the Truckers rarely use in their yarn spinning. After several doomed folks get swept away by a cyclone, it touches down at a theater where Hood’s old band, Adam’s House Cat, is in the middle of a set. Needless to say, things don’t fare well for the audience. Bonus points for the storm-like guitar effects. I just listened to “Tornadoes” in downtown Chicago and thought the sirens nearby were part of the song.
Best line: “A homecoming concert, the night the tornadoes hit my hometown/ The few who braved the weather were sucked out of the auditorium/ I can still remember the sound of their applause in the rain/ As it echoed through the storm clouds, I swear/ it sounded like a train”
5. “3 Dimes Down”
Album: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
You don’t have to read Robert W. Chambers’The King in Yellow to understand True Detective, but it sure makes you appreciate the show more. The same could be said for Tom T. Hall’s “A Week in a Country Jail” when listening to “3 Dimes Down”, Mike Cooley’s tale of bottom-feeding debauchery. I won’t spoil anything here. Let’s just say Hall gets off easier than him when he’s out of the slammer, making off with the jailer’s wife while Cooley gets stuck with his vomit-splattered car.
Best line: “If the part about being who he was didn’t help Tom get loose/ what’s a guy without a T. gonna get?/ Totally screwed while chicken wing puke eats the candy apple red off his Corvette”
Album: Decoration Day
Patterson Hood’s lyrics are almost always in the first person, even when he’s not talking about himself. “Heathens”, however, feels downright autobiographical. Hood (or whoever it is) has a hard time settling down in a marriage, although not in a sexual sense. To paraphrase The Royal Tenenbaums, he’s more of a sonofabitch than an asshole, refusing to cut back on drinking and driving around town. He reconsiders his behavior when a child enters the picture, but we’re never sure if he’ll actually stop being reckless. Musically, “Heathens” is one of the Truckers’ softest. Lyrically, though, it’s one of the hardest because it’s so relatable. We’ve all had difficulty making compromises in a relationship.
Best line: “And I don’t need to be forsaken/ by you or anybody else/ And I never had a shortage of people trying to warn me / about the dangers I pose to myself”
3. “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”
Album: The Dirty South
Wes Freed’s lush and spooky cover art has become as much a part of Drive-By Truckers as the songs themselves. In fact, the two are often directly connected. Take The Dirty South, for example. You get more details about the front image as soon as you press play. Over a flurry of nocturnal twang, Mike Cooley sings a poem written by his Uncle Ed. Ed’s words depict his father taking rich folks’ money in the woods during Prohibition, either by selling them moonshine or conning them at poker. But who’s the devil on the cover? Cooley’s uncle or one of his customers? Or is it both?
Even with audio and visual hints, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” remains shrouded in mystery, as is often the case with Cooley’s best work. Things become even more complicated when the protagonist gets hauled to jail, transforming the Southern Gothic yarn into an ambiguous history lesson in class warfare.
Best line: “I call to the Lord with all my soul/ I can hear him rattling the chains on the door/ He couldn’t get in/ I could see he tried/ through the shadows of the cage around the 40-watt light”
Album: Decoration Day
Jason Isbell only wrote 10 songs (all of them great) with Drive-By Truckers over three albums and one B-sides collection, but fans will always remember him as an indispensable part of the band’s legacy. And even if he’d only written one song, they’d still feel the same way as long as it was “Outfit”. Told from the perspective of Isbell’s father, the lyrics cast out pearls of wisdom that could apply to anyone’s child, rock star or not. Hell, I’m just a lowly music critic, and yet I still choke up every time Mr. Isbell tells his son “Don’t act like your family’s a joke.” I’m pretty sure my own Dad’s told me the same thing, hopefully not more than once.
Best line: “Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit/ Don’t ever say your car is broke/ Don’t worry about losing your accent/ A Southern man tells better jokes”
1. “Zip City”
Album: Southern Rock Opera (Act I)
No matter how noble the person, there are two thoughts that plague the mind of every 17-year-old boy: getting laid and being pissed off about not getting laid. Place that 17-year-old in a small town where nothing happens, and you’ve got a recipe for angst, boredom, and the longing to escape. Yes, Drive-By Truckers’ best song is about being a teenager.
You wouldn’t know it, though, unless you read along with the lyrics or listened closely; the band rumbles and stomps like they’re predicting a scorched-earth attack on Alabama. In reality, they’re building a story about a young Cooley driving 26 miles to see his girlfriend, who won’t put out. As things progress, he fears that he’ll be stuck in Colbert Heights forever if he doesn’t end their relationship. All things considered, he kind of treats her like shit, although he probably won’t realize it for another decade or so, if he even remembers her at all.
The epic nature of Cooley’s, Hood’s, and Rob Malone’s three-ax attack is, of course, appropriate, no matter how trivial teenage frustration looks in the rearview mirror. Everyone knows teenagers can be melodramatic. I’ve been there. So has Cooley. We all have. And sometimes the best way to get through those tender, melodramatic years is to write a song about them. If you’re lucky, maybe it’ll be half as good as “Zip City”.
Best line: “Keep your drawers on, girl/ It ain’t worth the fight/ By the time you drop them, I’ll be gone/ And you’ll be right where they fall the rest of your life”