Drive-By Truckers are 12 albums and 15 years into a career as America's best, steady rolling, critically acclaimed yet all-but-unknown band.
In that decade and a half no institution in American life has better cataloged the cracked lives of middle and working class Americans, particularly those in the cities, suburbs and rural towns DBT's native south, struggling with the effects of stagnant wages, labor dislocation, shifting cultural sands, and the emotional dissonance of life within American families and communities, places in which people, thrown together by accidents of geography or genealogy, find themselves trapped, abandoned in a crowd, struggling to free themselves, struggling to live within their limits or to just plain cope with forces beyond their control.
Not that DBT's chief songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley write polemically. DBT ain't The Clash or Gang of Four. Hood and Cooley are storytellers. They build their songs around characters we all recognize, people we know, people we are, people who find themselves in situations we understand even if, in their wracked state, the characters themselves can't--the Vietnam vet afraid he's cracking in "Ray's Automatic Weapon," the divorced and disgraced former police officer in "Used To Be A Cop" wallowing in the anger and self-pity of all his loss.
And of course, like all good storytellers, Hood and Cooley pack their songs with telling, cinematic detail. A detail from one of the new songs--a pair of go go boots--provides the title for DBT's latest album. The titular boots belong to the mistress of a small town preacher-- "Missy wore them go-go boots; it did something for him/Made him think his wife back home was homely and boring"-- who pays to have his wife murdered.
"Go-Go Boots", and a second song about the murder-minded preacher--murder ballads of a sort in the grand American tradition--form the core of DBT's new album, possibly the group's most unstintingly dark record, with its minor key explorations of a psychological and physical landscape of American life that's almost unremittingly bleak. Even family and community offers not support and emotional nourishment but another prison in a song like "The Thanksgiving Filter," a nightmarish slice of claustrophobic extended family life.
Recorded mostly at the same sessions that produced last year's The Big To-Do, Go-Go Boots ratchets down the energy and raucous twin guitar riffage that are the band's familiar sonic signatures and which dominated the previous album in favor of a more laid back grove that mixes elements of early 70s southern R&B with explicitly country gestures--dobros, acoustic guitars. It's a mixture the group comes by honestly: Hood's father, David, was the bass player in the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studios house band, The Swampers. DBT has toured with Muscle Shoals keyboard man Spooner Oldham (co-composer of "I Cry Like A Baby" and "I'm Your Puppet"); and in recent years DBT has cut albums as the backup band for R&B greats like Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Jones. The new sound serves the material well, creating space for the stories to develop.
In places the record recalls The Band's 1968 cover of Lefty Frizzell's 1959 murder ballad "Long Black Veil," particularly in the sound of bass player Shonna Tucker's beautiful "Dancin' Ricky," one of Go-Go Boots' rare moments of sunlight (another is the cover of Eddie Hinton's "Everybody Needs Love", which, in the context of this album sounds like a desperate plea for deliverance).
With its central and recurring tale of a murderous preacher, Go-Go Boots calls to mind Willie Nelson's mid-70s classic concept album, The Red Headed Stranger, but without that album's unifying narrative structure or ultimate tale of redemption. The ruined lives of the characters here are just plain ruined. And the strongest force that connects their tales is an overwhelming sense of momentum broken, of dreams and ambitions not deferred but choked off with crushing suddenness and finality, of lives cut short. In that regard Go-Go Boots better reflects the sense of life in America during these years of the great deleveraging than any other pop culture product--music, movie, television show--I've come across in recent years. Go-Go Boots may not be DBT's greatest album--it lacks the hooks, conceptual unity, and diversity of sound of the band's best work. But it damn sure feels like one hell of a keeping-it-real capsule of our broken times.