Essentials: The top ten Drive-By Truckers tracks

A near impossible task made harder by the realisation that they are getting better!

These exercises at distilling artists into print-friendly articles highlighting key tracks or moments in a recording career are often divisive and always different the following day. As such they are a snapshot of appreciation and should encourage deep-diving into an artist’s oeuvre as any artist that inspires a ‘top ten’ must surely have ten others at least. In the Truckers case it runs to the fifties and way, way beyond.

So here it is… for today. Currently boasting two fine songwriters who it could be argued have written some of the most observant and urgent lyrics chronicling the current state of affairs over the pond and it must be remembered that the ‘New Springsteen@Isbell’ cut his teeth touring and writing with Messrs Hood and Cooley but there again that’s probably half the reason he is so good!

It is tempting to put these in some kind of chronological order to demonstrate how the lyricism and polemic has developed over the years but I have decided to just put them in the order I think that will be a fine evening’s listening.

‘Daylight’  from ‘A Blessing and a Curse’ (2006)

A clear confirmation that Jason Isbell was writing songs that would resonate beyond a hard-touring band with a Southern heritage. This track swings in a proper country rock way. Not his most important DBT song but a clear indicator of the future (righteous?) path.

‘Zip City’ from ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (2001)

The first of the Cooley character-driven contributions to the list delivered with his trademark drawl. This is raucous twin guitar driven affirmation of Southern life peppered with the usual Cooley sardonic cynicism. The final couplet is a classic kiss-off ‘I get ten miles to the gallon, I ain’t got no good intentions’

‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ from ‘The Dirty South’ (2004)

Patterson Hood’s narratives are literate and incisive in their observations of the human condition but often also steeped in family histories and narratives. This is just such a song, celebrating with affection, age and experience as well as highlighting injustice and the lot of the working man. With its skiffle beat, guitar shapes and plucked mandolin, this is a story to lose yourself in.

‘Danko / Manuel’ from ‘The Dirty South’ (2004)

The following track on The Dirty South to the track above; this is an Isbell original. Stately, hymnal and lyrically profound this is probably Isbell’s finest DBT vocal. Steeped with emotion as he sings about the members of The Band and the creeping sense of time passing relentlessly. All spiked with some gorgeous guitar shapes and crisp whipsmart drums.

‘Grand Canyon’ from ‘English Oceans’ (2014)

This fond farewell to Craig Lieske, an employee and inspiration to the band and many others in the Athens music scene’ is a widescreen paean. Driven by enormous drums and Patterson’s bittersweet ruminations on passing and our place in the wider scheme of things. The track dissolves into a feedback swirl before emerging once again into a big sky majesty. Melancholy bliss.

‘Daddy’s Cup’ from ‘The Dirty South’ (2004)

Mike Cooley’s working-class narrative observations have recently been overshadowed by his incisive, burning anger at the social injustices he finds at every turn in modern America but this track from the early noughties really highlights his wonderful eye, turn of phrase and deep affection for those he sings about. A brilliant song brim-full of wise-ass humour and deadpan lyricism.

‘Thoughts and Prayers’ from ‘The Unravelling’ (2020)

Patterson Hood has been galvanised to some of his finest work by Trump and Covid and this track is a near-perfect example of the way he has channelled his anger into his music both lyrically and in the urgency of the instrumentation ‘The Powers That Be are in for shame and comeuppance When Generation Lockdown has their day’

‘Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers’

‘Decoration Day’ from ‘Decoration Day’ (2003)

Could have chosen Isbell’s ‘Outfit’ from the same album but this just punches harder. Written by Jason Isbell, supposedly three days after joining the band after touring with them. This is a full-on Southern rocker with an exquisite slide solo and whiskey-soaked vocals from Isbell, relishing the chance to show off not only his musical chops but also his now widely recognised lyric writing prowess in this story of a dark family feud.  Play it loud!

‘Once They Banned Imagine’ from ‘American Band’ (2016)

Possibly Mike Cooley’s finest lyric with his sights firmly fixed on institutional racism and the hammering of the working classes. Delivered in a soft Stonesey shuffle with Cooley’s baritone crooning the anger it wouldn’t have been musically out of place on Goats Head Soup next to Wild Horses as the but lyrically a different beast

‘From baseless enquiry to no knocking entry becoming the law of the land to half-cocked excuses for bullet abuse regarding anything browner than tan.’

‘What It Means’ from ‘American Band’ (2016)

In the liner notes to this album Patterson Hood writes that ‘the time for burying the heads in the sand has passed’ and this track more than any other signalled the band’s political energisation. A raucous cry of anguish railing against the systemic racism of their homeland. ‘You don’t see many white kids lying bleeding on the street.’

 

This band is probably the most important band in the US at this very moment and boy do we need these guys. I urge you to investigate every album as there are whole rafts of material we haven’t even touched on here and they all reward attention. As previously advised – Play it loud!

About Keith Hargreaves 169 Articles
Riding the one eyed horse into dead town the scales fell from his eyes. Music was the only true god at once profane and divine The dust blew through his mind as he considered the offering... And then he scored it out of ten and waited for the world to wake up

5 Comments

  1. Impossible task you have set yourself here 🙂
    Personally would have included Uncle Frank and George Jones talking cell phone blues !

    • There were so many … Uncle Frank being a prime example. Cooley has become a real chronicler of American life, he writes with such clarity and empathy.

  2. as Richard B says above this is a thankless task Richard. I think everyone’s top 10 would be different with so much to choose from. A friend of mine put his top 10 on Twitter and had the temerity to not include Zip City. Boy oh boy did that cause some controversy! Thanks a lot for the article and for the great work you guys are doing.

    • It’s always a pleasure Paul despite the knotty problems of the thankless tasks. Leaving out Zip City – unforgivable! Or is it…??

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