I guess since it’s been 20 years now, I might as well call the Drive-By Truckers “old favourites”. Their music has soundtracked the most crucial years of my life, where I started to wriggle out of decades of trauma and undiagnosed mental illness and gradually find my callings in life. When I was blasting Southern Rock Opera, marveling at its ambition, attitude, and eloquence, I was a directionless 30 year-old. Today I’m a happily married 50 year-old who somehow worked like a dog to build a pretty rewarding career as a music writer, and while I don’t churn out the copy like I did from 2005 through 2013 (an insane pace which I’m still amazed I survived) I’m writing from a much happier and more mature perspective than I was five or six years ago.
All the while, the Drive-By Truckers were there on my stereo, the MP3 player, the iPhone, Spotify, creating a rugged, soulful soundtrack to moments that ranged from joyful to unbearable pain, from my anxiety-fueled decline to my steady road back to health. “Let There Be Rock” spoke to me on a visceral level, writing my review of Decoration Day was a bit of a personal turning point at the time, The Dirty South felt miraculously good, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark brought the DBTs to Amigos (my home turf) and the most epic show I’ve ever seen there. The boys grew the heck up in the 2010s, as did yours truly: I travelled a whole heckuvalot, the band’s music started to sound more worldly. And in 2016 the band released a phenomenal album that coincided with my own realization that the world was in for a wild, epochal ride that would be anything but good.
When you write an album as inspired and incendiary as American Band, where do you go from there, especially when things just got exponentially worse three, four years later? In the DBTs’ case, they made the bold decision to say, “Well, we thought it was going to get bad but it got worse than we could imagine, and it’s so pervasive that we can’t help but write about anything else at the moment.” Such was The Unraveling, an accomplished but brutally sad album that was best described by AllMusic as an album “they clearly wish they didn’t have to write.”
It’s a beautiful album, but also too effective an album, in that it is so permeated with sadness that a cloud will hang over your head for the rest of the day. Trust me, that will happen. It sure as heck did for me when I listened to the album on the morning of January 31st. I was nearly in tears hearing Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley sing about babies in cages, the cultural decline of America, and the sense of malaise that had built so steadily during the Trump years. It took days to shake the mournfulness and anxiety that record brought on, to the point where I had to set The Unraveling aside for a while to recover mentally. It’s now funny to think how at the time I had no idea how much more difficult the year would get.
You can’t fault the Drive-By Truckers for depressing listeners. They wanted to reflect today’s times, and they’re so damn good at storytelling and musicianship that they happened to do so to devastating effect. I don’t know how many times I’ll ever listen to “Babies in Cages” or “Awaiting Redemption” but they’re two tremendous songs. The two big ones for me that will endure, however, are the hard-rocking “Armageddon’s Back in Town”, as well as “Thoughts and Prayers“, which is as biting a protest song as I’ve heard during the Trump era. The Unraveling is a very, very good album, but a difficult one to address, because the sadness it is rooted in just feels so raw right now. I’ll have to see how it feels in five years’ time.
Released nine months later, The New OK is much more ramshackle than the painstakingly assembled The Unraveling, but that’s a big reason why it’s a lot easier to take in. A mish-mash of tracks recorded during The Unraveling sessions and new music written and recorded during self-isolation, it’s anything but a throwaway. And although the title is deceiving in that the band knows full well that everything isn’t okay, there’s just enough optimism shining through the cracks to at least feel mildly comforting. “The Perilous Night” is Hood’s scathing condemnation of the rise of White Supremacy in Trump America, while Cooley is flat-out hilarious making fun of Sarah Palin on “Sarah’s Flame” (“She made PC worse to mama than the VD daddy brought home from the rodeo”). Written in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests, “Watching the Orange Clouds” will rank as a DBT classic, climaxing with a beautifully honest statement from Hood: “Just didn’t realize the bottom is so damned deep, hoping one day we’ll rise and move on to some better place.”
And just to bring some fun back to the band’s music, it’s a real treat to hear them tear through a sloppy version of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. Ultimately it’s the perfect way to cap off a remarkable three-album run. As bad as things get, we still have the comfort of the music we grew up with. A lot of us dug deep into our past music obsessions for some semblance of comfort, and it’s reassuring to hear the Drive-By Truckers feeling the need to do the same. With Trump hopefully gone, Biden left to clean up the monumental mess, and a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic. Wherever I’ll be in the next year or two or three, the DBTs will still be there with me, playing in the background from time to time.