Drive-By Truckers have called their eleventh studio album, American Band, protest music, a descriptor also used by Shearwater for this past January’s Jetplane and Oxbow. And why the hell not? It’s an election year — a particularly bug-shit election year, no less. Of course there’s going to be a lot of political music coming out. But the records are polar opposites of each other, taking decidedly different approaches when examining the current state of our country. Where Jonathan Meiburg kept the protest angle as the undercurrent, the Truckers’ songwriting team of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley lock it in as the overcurrent.
While both methods are valid, I usually prefer Shearwater’s. Usually. Since all of Meiburg’s lyrics hinge on eloquently open metaphors, you can still get lost in the triumphant chug of “Radio Silence” or the biosphere sonics of “Stray Light at Cloud Hill”, even if politics aren’t your thing. And if they are, part of Jetplane‘s enjoyment comes from deciphering its dream journal imagery until you have a concrete message. Hood and Cooley, on the other hand, keep it lean and mean with Stones-like guitar workouts and blunt-as-they-come song titles like “Darkened Flags On the Cusp of Dawn”.
16-year-old me (or hell, even 25-year-old me) would have hated American Band. He would have hated the on-the-nose-ness of every song. He would have hated how the Truckers started filtering their politics through current events rather than fictional yarns, backwoods folklore, and Southern history. He would have hated how cut and dry everything is. He would have hated that, for the first time since 1999’s Pizza Deliverance, the album cover isn’t a Southern gothic painting by Wes Freed, but a shadowy photograph of an American flag being lowered.
Then again, 16-year-old me wasn’t living in 2016, a year that, while not necessarily worse than any other time in modern history (every generation thinks their era is more dire than the one that preceded it), doesn’t exactly benefit from nuance when it comes to politics. Just look at the current Republican presidential nominee. This isn’t the time for subtlety. Not in the slightest.
And Hood and Cooley have no interest in being subtle. They’ve made that clear from the moment they announced American Band. If past songs like “The Deeper In” and the Buford Pusser trilogy from The Dirty South were morally ambiguous (or, in the latter’s case, morally nihilistic), everything on their latest album is morally clarified, coming from real life even when the songwriters stick to the short-story format they’ve perfected over the years. Hood makes a case for stricter gun control on “Guns of Umpqua”, a recounting of last October’s shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, the very state he moved his family to last year. Later, “What It Means” finds him numbed into a stupor over the epidemic of unarmed black men getting shot by police. He even tackles mental health by relating Robin Williams’ depression to his own on “Baggage”. For his part, the deeper-voiced, wiser-assed Cooley praises the shifting of gender roles on “Filthy and Fried” and the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse on “Surrender Under Protest”.
Unlike 2014’s longer, more meditative English Oceans, all of these songs embody American Band‘s mantra of getting right to the point. As soon as the opening hacksaw riff of “Ramon Casiano” cuts its way through the speakers, Cooley wastes no time in taking down Harlon Carter, the NRA President who, as a youth, controversially gunned down the 15-year-old Hispanic boy of the title back in 1931. As Cooley points out, the incident happened near the Mexican border, thus tying it back to today’s national dialogue about immigration.
But while the no-bullshit lyrics and get-in, get-out nature of American Band work to make the band’s politics perfectly clear (at 47 minutes, it’s a contender for DBT’s shortest LP), it still has unique lyrical details that separate it from other protest music, even protest music of the loud and pissed-off variety. Ever the sharpened storyteller, Hood frames “Guns of Umpqua” from the vantage point of a veteran who’s trying to barricade all of the students inside a classroom. Rather than depict the shooting linearly, he toggles back and forth between the horrific present moment and peaceful memories of time spent with his family. Similarly, “What It Means” transcends the typical protest song by also marveling at the advancements of humanity. How come a species blessed with so much scientific intelligence often fails so horribly when it comes to kindness and equality?
American Band ‘s other ace in the hole is its point of view. It’s no secret that Hood and Cooley are middle-aged white guys from Alabama. They fall into a demographic frequently associated with many of the heinous acts, people, and policies they’re railing against. It makes their atypical political stance all that more important, because — as Hood told us in a recent interview — indictments of police brutality need to come from white artists like him, as well as Kendrick Lamar and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not only does that get more people talking about the issue at hand, but it also helps to defeat the stereotypes about where he comes from, a region he still feels connected to on “Ever South”, despite having moved to the Pacific Northwest. As he once growled in “Ronnie and Neil”, there are a lot of good folks down there. There are a lot of good folks in Oregon, too. There are a lot of good folks everywhere. And as American Band pleads, every last one of them deserves compassion and respect.
Essential Tracks: “Ramon Casiano”, “Guns of Umpqua”, and “Ever South”