First full-length book on this quintessentially southern band.
As my colleague, and our Books Editor, Rick Bayles, noted last month, there seems to be a trend towards quite academic writing about music. This may be as a reaction to the standard format for musical biographies, of the “my wild life” variety or something that reads like the band’s Outlook calendar. The fact that this was published by the University of Texas Press did cause a slight sink of the heart, but with Stephen Deusner, a long-time writer for Uncut, No Depression, and Pitchfork at the helm, we were always going to be on safe ground.
While he is not the first to tell a band’s story by setting it in the places they visit, Drive-By Truckers are so rooted in the American south that identifying them with the environment that formed Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley as people and songwriters helps particularly the uncommitted listener, me in this case, understand and appreciate the music. Deusner sets his stall out in the introduction; “When I first heard the band, I had recently moved away from my home in Tennessee for the first time… I was looking for something to make me feel a bit more at home in the world. If you had asked me what exactly I was looking for, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, at least not with any specificity” What he found was the Truckers album ‘Decoration Day’. The answer to understanding his aim with this book is in the sentences: “I write about places here because that’s what the Truckers write about. Their songs are decidedly set in deep corners of the South, with a keen understanding of what those particular locales mean to the characters and what they mean to the listeners”. The first of two chapters on Muscle Shoals is as good an illustration of how music fits into the political and social structure of the south as you could hope for. Hood is of course the son of Swampers session bass player David Hood. Listening again to ‘Southern Rock Opera’, particularly the song ‘Ronnie and Neil’ again after reading this chapter brings the “keen understanding” that Deusner refers to.
Athens Georgia is a key location for the Truckers and Deusner frames the formation of the band in the context of the city and its musical life, as well as Hood’s view that if REM could do it then he could. Dave Schools of the band Widespread Panic provides some interesting insights including the story of helping them get “over the hump” of the costs of recording ‘Pizza Deliverance’ and taking it on tour. The book has plenty of these views from outside the band. The chapter on Richmond Virginia describes how Wes Freeds’ visual style for cover art and other imagery became woven into the band.
There are probably two reasons for reading a book about a band. Either you’re a fan looking for nuggets of new information or a casual listener. I fell into the latter category with The Drive-By Truckers and knowing some of my AUK colleagues’ enthusiasm for them, I wanted to know more. If the objective for a book like this is to get you listening to the music then I am well on the way to becoming a fan. The second chapter on Muscle Shoals should certainly send you off to listen to Bettye LaVette’s ‘The Scene of the Crime” if you don’t already know it. The album ‘American Band’ and the 2016 election is the starting off point for the book, along with the comparison of the rock show to the political rally. And like many good journeys it ends up back where it started in the last chapter ‘Out West’. Deusner explains his passion for the band, without becoming overly fanboy. He analyses them in the context of their place and time, without becoming too academic. This is a book that you should read if you have any interest either in the Drive-By Truckers or in the current state of America.
The book is available from the usual sources as a Hardback or eBook, and Deusner has compiled a Spotify playlist as a soundtrack for the book which you can find here.