The Drive – By Truckers are fueling up with their latest release, The Fine Print: A Collection of Oddities and Rarities. In it we are given a gift of b-side songs, creative covers, and treasured tracks that just didn’t make the cut on their previous publications. Current members Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Brad Morgan, John Neff, Shonna Tucker and Jay Gonzalez are southern storytellers with a sense of humor. They are a posse that can’t be pigeonholed into a certain persuasion of music. They are both classic and current, with a past perspective that’s still prevalent, and this collection is firing up with a full tank.
The albums opener, “George Jones’ Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues,” was written as commentary on Jones’s near-fatal car accident in 1999 where he was in critical condition after he wrecked his car into a bridge while talking on a cell phone to his stepdaughter. The lyrics advise, “If you don’t change your ways my friend/You’ll be singing duets with Tammy again,” referring to Jones’s former wife of 6 years, Tammy Wynette. The pair were called The King and Queen of Country Music in the 70’s. It is both a warning and a wish that the wheels keep on turning – give in or get your act together.
Track two, a cover of Tom Petty’s “Rebels,” was feautured in an episode of King of The Hill, which Petty played a character in. With honest lyrics such as “Honey don’t you walk out/I’m too drunk to follow,” the cover is a consummate click within the album and if one didn’t know better, could easily be mistaken for a DBT original. The third and fourth fragments of their unforgotten past parcels are two different views of the Tennessee Valley Authority and how it affected, both positively and negatively, so many lives. “The blurring of the lines between the personal and the musical has always been an integral part of what this band does and part of what sets it apart from the corporate music machines that dominate so much of pop-culture,” Hood elaborates on the cds notes.
The alternate version of Uncle Frank comes first, telling a tale of being taken advantage of. “They flooded out the hollow and all the folks down there moved out/ But they got paid so there ain’t nothin’ else to think about…Uncle Frank lived in a cabin down on Cedar Creek/Bought fifteen acres when he got back home from overseas. ” Uncle Frank, a beaten down war hero, minded his own business and didn’t bother anyone, but “all that backed up water had to have some place to go,” and “the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill.” Reminding us that even dignified plans have their downfalls and that you can’t have a winner without a loser, Uncle Frank eventually commits suicide while his community flourishes under the F.D.R. founded faction.
In rebuttal, they put on the brakes in track 4 which is a prayer thanking God for the T.V.A. It is a slow, soulful salutation for the service the T.V.A. provided. In it, F.D.R. does the community a favor by helping the families find work. Jason Isbell, who sings the song, has a voice that reminds me of horror and hope, smoke and a smirk, fields of fog and flowers, headlights in twilight, moonlight and moonshine.
It has both conviction and a cause that is lost in catchy choruses of synthesized songs. We re told the tale, “He told his dad to put down the plow/He helped bbuild a dam/That gave power to most of the south.” Patterson Hood and his father were in a documentary about the T.V.A. for which a new version of this song was re-recorded, but this is the original version. Much like Bryan Adam’s “Summer of ’69” or John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” “Uncle Frank” and TVA” are histories of the hardworking, songs about past pleasures and pain, blue collar ballads, for the good and the bad.
Following in track five is the alternate version of “Goode’s Field Road.” Written for “The Dirty South,” released in 2004, the song didn’t quite make the cut then, but it later appeared on “Brighter Than Creations Dark,” released in 2008. This version is a fantastic fit at number five. With straightforward, shameless lyrics like “There ain’t much for a man in my position/A man like me won’t last too long in prison…it’s like a mortgage and three college kid’s tuition” the point is palpable and prohibited – what happens at the Goode’s Field Road stays at the Goode’s Field Road as he warns his wife, “you don’t know nothing when the insurance man asks questions bout what went down at the Goode’s Field Road.”
An even better succulent sequel is number six, “The Great Car Dealer War.” Another TDS song that didn’t get a final slot, it not only involves a narrator who is the arsonist hired to burn the dealerships down, but a malicious murder, as well. “Been drinking all night long/Got a job to do/Got paid 500 bucks/?/To pour the gasoline and strike a match.” It is the story of a fierce feud in the bloody business of selling cars. The narrator may be a pyromaniac, but he is not a murderer, telling us “Didn’t kill nobody/But I know the score/I just start the fires/In the great car dealer war.”
Song seven is another great cover, “Momma Bake A Pie, Daddy Kill A Chicken,” originally by Tom T. Hall. Although it was written during the Vietnam War the song is still relevant and re-done quite well. “People staring at me/ As they wheel me down the ramp towards my plane/The war is over for me/I’ve forgotten everything except the pain/Thank you sir and yes sir/It was worth it for the red, white and blue/Since I won’t be walking/I suppose I’ll save some money buying shoes.” Number 8 is “When the Well Runs Dry,” originally recorded for 2006’s “A Blessing and A Curse,” but it didn’t quite make it to the finish line. “There’s a sacrifice you make/There are people along the way/When there’s nowhere to run/And there’s nowhere to stay/And the wheels still move/But won’t slow down/Even when you’re spinning in the same soft ground.”
Number nine is a merry musical contribution, written for a Christmas compilation, which eventually led to the dawning of the Drive By Truckers. Mrs. Klaus’ Kimono is a live take from the studio. It is a tale of dirty deeds: ‘Santa’s little helper/With too much time n my hands/He’s got a fine looking wife/For such an old man.” Track ten is a tight cover of Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long.” Not only does it deliver with its diversity, but it pulls the band right out of the southern rock pigeonhole that people were so prompt to provide them with. It snuggles right with the other songs with lucid lyrics and a sympathetic story, “Grandpa’s pissed his pants again/But he don’t give a damn/Uncle John’s been acting strange/He ain’t been right since Vietnam.”
From the vault at number 11 is “Little Pony and the Great Big Horse.” It sounds like a children’s story with its meaningful message and well-spoken words. “Little pony and great big horse went out in a great big truck/Great big horse could trot real fast/Little pony could not/Great big horse had run so fast for so much of his great big life/Great big world he was running in was getting smaller all the time.” Then comes the role reversal, “Climbing all those hills made little pony’s legs so strong/He could get to the top before the great big horse knew what was going on…Little pony and great big horse went out in a great big truck/Great big horse laid down to rest/Little pony did not.”
They end the evolution of their earlier recording with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Just as I am skeptical about anyone who covers this song, the DBTs were skeptical when asked to do it for a tribute CD. They recorded it despite their reservations, showcasing every vocalist in the bands line-up at the time, including Shonna’s first ever lead vocal performance on a DBT recording. While it is not the best cover (but then again can there ever be a good one), they certainly don’t slay the song as some have done.
With this release, the DBTs wanted a chance to tie up some loose ends, and they did so without even tapping the brakes. They may call themselves the Drive By Truckers, but they will make you want to stop, roll the windows down, and turn the volume up. They have a nice variety – some songs you can sing along to and some that make you want to sit alone in silence. You can put them on at a party and be pleased or open a Coors around a campfire and contemplate.
They hit you in the head and the heart, make you both think and feel. Usually I have no problem picking a favorite song and play it on repeat, but on this cd the song is only my favorite until the next one comes on. Aside from their stellar steering when it comes to their albums, it’s the bands constant touring that has fitted them with a faithful fan following. The Drive-By Trucker’s ninth album is already in the works and is slated for an early 2010 release. I, for one, hope to see them on the road. Honk if you agree!