Heathens: Belief & Believing in the Drive-by Truckers

I finally saw the Drive-by Truckers live at the Bluebird a couple nights ago.   Great show! In a usefully thorough recent overview piece, Robert Christgau dubs them “the most productive good band on the planet” since 1998.  It’s not as catchy as “the only band that matters” or something like that, but there is something about the DBT’s that calls for that kind of measured exuberance.  I think it may be partly a matter of genre.  I’m tempted to call them the best/ most consistently good “rock” band of the past decade or so (all of their albums are good and there are really no crappy songs; Xgau considers Brighter Than Creation’s Dark clearly their best, but they tend to blend together for me on my ipod), but what is “rock” these days?  For my own archival purposes on iTunes, “rock” basically is only older pre-punk music.  I have the DBT’s under “Americana,” an admittedly stupid genre category that serves an organizational purpose in capturing a particular slice of a Venn diagram between country and “alternative” w/ people like Gillian Welch, Frazey Ford, etc.  They live in the contemporary world, musically — they’re not throwbacks or classicists, and in a way, their Southern Rock Opera is to Lynyrd Skynyrd what the Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above is to the Black Flag original — a rethinking and appropriation that recognizes the musical past as a set of codes to play with and re-deploy. But they also stick to a country/soul/ rock approach to pre-punk structured song-craft, and work within pre-existing forms in a mode of acceptance that is technically “conservative,” that makes “rock” seem like the best catch-all category for them.  (That is, they lack that attitude, pretty basic to all post-punk or “alternative” rock, of needing to defy tradition and signal emphatically that they are something very much other than what you might hear on a classic rock station.)

They went on around 10:20.  I had just come back from a conference so was beat and left early, and heard the next day that they ended up playing until 1:00.   For a while I felt slightly confused by the crowd at the Bluebird.  It wasn’t a hipster crowd at all, but also didn’t quite seem like the roots/country/Americana Bloomington audience.  It finally hit me that there seemed to be a bunch of jam-band fans in the room — white guys with dreads, a number of Widespread Panic t-shirts.  I don’t fully understand the jam-band world, but the DBT are a great live band and they get a bit loosely stretched-out on the guitar solos — they really shred — so I guess I can see why a Dead and Phish fan might get into it.

A few of my favorite DBT songs–

“Dead, Drunk and Naked” (Southern Rock Opera). When I was a young boy I sniffed a lot of glue/Mom sent me to rehab, they told me what to do/ We didn’t have much money; the lord picked up the tab/ They made me write him love songs, sitting in my room./ Now I just drink whiskey and drive around my friends./ Get a haircut, get a job, maybe born again/ And if you’re living badly, we’ll tell you how to live/ Dead, drunk, and naked.”  This probably has their single catchiest/ most irresistible guitar riff. (“The Day John Henry Died” too, maybe.)

“Heathens” (Decoration Day).  A gently strumming one w/ pedal steel and plangent fiddle. The lyrics to this one absolutely kill me: “Something about the wrinkle in your forehead tells me there’s a fit about to get thrown / If we get the van out of the ditch before morning ain’t nobody got to know what I done/ And I never hear a single word you say when you tell me not to have my fun / It’s the same old shit that I ain’t gonna take off anyone./ And I don’t need to be forgiven by them people in the neighborhood/ When we first hooked up, you looked me in the eye/ And said Pa, we just ain’t no good/ We were heathens in their eyes at the time, I guess I am just a heathen still/ And I never have repented from the wrongs that they say I have done/ I done what I feel.” Patterson Hood describes this as one of a “divorce trilogy” of songs on the album, also including the very sad “Something’s Gotta Give:” “Something’s got to give, got to give pretty soon/ Or else we’re gonna hate each other/ And that would be the saddest thing I ever seen.”

So many of their songs are about religion, ministers, churches, god (the new album’s title track, “Go-Go Boots,” is about a minister who has his wife murdered: “He was a pillar and his alibi was sturdy/ It only took a little bit of cash and the deed was done”).   Whether or not there’s actual “belief,” even if they are “heathens,” they live in a world saturated with religion.  Even their early album title, Pizza Deliverance — they can’t stop making jokes about it; I guess growing up in Alabama does that to you.  “Heathens” is (like most of their songs) about class as well as religion: “Pa, we just ain’t no good” — growing up feeling like you’re not worth that much or don’t matter. (The deep South as a geographical ghetto of the U.S.; the DBT’s first album was called Gangstabilly.)  Patterson Hood has at least a touch of ministerial charisma at the mike, too, testifying with outstretched arms.

“I Do Believe” on the new one is interesting to consider in relation to belief.  It’s a super-catchy, poppy one, and one of those devastating lyrics, really moving, about Hood’s memories from childhood of his mother: “I do believe I do believe, I know that you would never leave me/ And when you slipped the earthly binds you still live in my mind/ And when I’m gone, again I’ll find/ My way back into your kitchen/ And see you standing there in the window’s shine.” So it’s not about belief as “faith” exactly, but belief that he can still picture or imagine his mother: “I do believe I saw you standing there/ Sunlight in your hair/ Reflecting in your eyes/ I was only five years old.”  So, maybe it’s belief in something supernatural or spiritually transcendent, or maybe it’s just an expression, i.e. “I do believe I can still picture you.”  But as often happens in their songs, some sense of “faith” or “belief” accompanies the song in a way that’s hard to pin down precisely.  Maybe it’s that see yourself as a “heathen” is to accept a religious worldview in a way that few non-country (or gospel) bands/singers today do.  They’re not exactly still writing the Lord love songs in their bedrooms — well, or maybe they are, the songs just got a lot more complicated and ambivalent. [Reader AS reminded me of another line that captures this dynamic well, from Hood’s “The Righteous Path:” “I don’t know God, but I fear his wrath/I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path.”]

They played “Box of Spiders” on Sunday, that’s a great and weird one: “My great-grandmother’s about ninety-seven/ And she is sure when she gets to heaven,/ Old St. Peter’s gonna throw his arms around her and say/ ‘I’ve waited so long for us to meet’.”  Gran Gran seems to be losing it, and the song ends:”Too mean to die. Too mean to die. Too mean.”  It’s dedicated to Gran Gran.

[p.s.  I realize I’ve only written about Hood’s songs, but Mike Cooley has tons of great ones as well…]

They are so good!  As I’m writing this I’m poking around and remembering absolutely amazing songs I had forgotten (e.g. “One of These Days” from Pizza Deliverance). Go see them!

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