Since 1998, the something-like-Southern-rock band the Drive-By Truckers have released nine studio albums with a total of 133 songs. You can count the complete misses on both hands, maybe one. This band is that consistent, that good.
Together, these tunes cover the complete spectrum of emotion and experience, creating a Faulkner-like landscape of criminal sheriffs and respectable criminals, vengeful children and bad parents, natural disasters and man-made wonder. Led by a team of three songwriters, they're one of the most literate and consistently compelling bands in America, telling tales in three minutes that feel like they should consume 8,000 words in The New Yorker. In other words, they should be a bookish indie rock kid's dream—bold, smart and eloquent. But they're not, even if the Truckers cut their teeth as young punks.
About 20 minutes into The Secret to a Happy Ending, the new and excellent career-spanning Truckers documentary, filmmaker Barr Weissman applies the Ken Burns effect to photos of Adam's House Cat, the outfit that eventually birthed the Truckers. Weissman zooms in and out on old black-and-white stills, focusing on Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the pair of songwriters who started the Truckers about a decade after Adam's House Cat called it quits. The technique is meant to be romantic and nostalgic, but maybe Burns' method is best left to nameless Civil War veterans and forgotten jazz cats: Cooley and Hood, turns out, were two pretty ugly dudes.
Hood, the hulky son of a former Muscle Shoals bassist, had remarkably pronounced jowls for a man so young; a chin best described as undefined and a mouth that hung wide, as though still waiting for the words to say something his young brain couldn't quiet articulate, didn't do those cheeks any favors. Cooley, on the other hand, was a beanstalk from the poor side of the river. His sharp features—sunken and sad eyes, razor lips, an Adam's apple that could open a soda pop—came capped by a drape of brown hair that suggested the awkward indecision of someone uncertain if he wanted to be a hippie, a punk or a hick. Cooley and Hood looked like misfit indie rockers.
"As long as I remember, he's had a pen and a paper, and he's been writing," says Jan Adams, Hood's mother, of her son about 10 minutes before the snaps of Adam's House Cat appear. "It made him very odd. I don't think a lot of kids at that time probably knew what to think of him."
"I never really even thought I had a choice about doing this or not doing it. It's literally, truly all I can do. I'm not good for anything else," Hood affirms. "I'm a lousy line cook. I'm a lousy waiter. I was a lousy student, so I never made it through college. But I've written songs a real, real long time, and I know I know how to do that."
All of this affirms a familiar narrative: Hood and Cooley were outcasts who found retreat and expression in writing and singing songs about their lives. In their small Southern towns, they were the only people writing their own music, which, as Hood explains in Happy Ending, naturally made them even stranger. They wrote a song about home called "Buttholeville," where every line rhymed with the town that tortured them: "Tired of living in Buttholeville ... The food here tastes the way I feel." Consider Dinosaur Jr.'s "Freak Scene" and Superchunk's "Slack Motherfucker"; doesn't "Buttholeville," an Adam's House Cat number rerecorded for the first Drive-By Truckers album, sound exactly like early indie rock?
Yes, except for the distinct Southern accents. Cooley, Hood and bassist Shonna Tucker sing like the region that raised them, with rich, round drawls that—depending on your ears or maybe your upbringing—charm or disgust. They sound more than a little bit like rednecks. At least so far, that's one of the few things indie rock hasn't learned to tolerate.
During the last decade, the artistic expanse of indie rock has grown as inclusive as it has amorphous, annexing genres and ideas with each new moon. In 2011, for instance, James Blake—a young British dubstep producer writing sweet, weepy songs—vies for the same ears and attentions as Smith Westerns, a Chicago quartet that focuses its glam rock through a disaffected garage-band lens. In the indie rock press, hip-hop shares space with twee pop, drone records with glitchy electronics. Even honest-to-goodness, double-neck-guitar rock 'n' roll has found its cool-kid keep, thanks mostly to New York's The Hold Steady, a hard-driving band fronted by a poet who seems to have swallowed a bunch of uppers and eaten a bunch of high school diaries. They've toured as openers for the Truckers, and their tales of hard life and possible redemption almost make them the Northern brethren to Hood and Cooley's Dixie insurgence. Except, of course, there's that whole Southern accent thing, and the occasional use of ain't, y'all and subjects and verbs that don't agree.
To wit, Pitchfork Media, the arbiter of musical cool (for whom I've also written since 2006), has reviewed every studio album by the Drive-By Truckers except Southern Rock Opera, giving each of the band's albums at least a respectable 7.0. They've broken 8.0 three times but never received one of the website's ultimate coronations, the classification of Best New Music. The website's brief that covered the announcement of The Big To-Do even took a jab at the band's blue-collar fan base: "Good news for everyone—especially the Jack Daniel's-downing guy in the American flag bandanna who I stood next to at that one DBT show (nice guy)." Spin's review of 2003's Decoration Day managed to nail the essence of the disc, at least until Joe Gross smothered his assessment with enough who-knew-the-South-could-do-this penance that you finished reading with the sense that the Truckers were only good relative to the rest of this region's unfortunate schlock.
What's most frustrating about indie rock's general omission of the Truckers is that their career has been more full—and, really, closer to flawless—than almost any other band in the world during the last decade. They've built their own mythology, branding themselves with consistent artwork that gives their Southern scenes visual support. What's more, The Secret to a Happy Ending paints a Behind the Music-like portrait of a complex band of best friends, husbands and wives, full of tension and perseverance. It's a rewarding story, behooving a band that's told perfect tales for the last dozen years. Within the Truckers' deep discography, there's birth and death, cancer and killings, love and lust, wisdom and wit. Gay rights get their mention, as do civil rights. Drug dealers and drug users get their due, as do parents, sometimes as good as they are bad. The Truckers can do destructively sad—Cooley's "Space City" details a lifelong romance ending, while Hood's "Santa Fe" outlines the extremes of love's emotional aches. Hood is a master at creating a creep scene, too, especially when it comes to patriarchal Southern preachers: On last year's The Big To-Do, a preacher's wife kills her husband after finally growing tired within his fiefdom of sexual perversion. On the new Go-Go Boots, the son of a mega-church minister ponders patricide on behalf of his mother; eight songs later, another son indeed kills his reverend father after paying a pack of hooligans to shoot his mother.
And then there are those tunes that simply feel like hard-won life lessons, full of the sort of aphorisms that serve as lifelong guiding lights. "I was my mama's little angel and my daddy's second chance," Cooley sings on "Daddy's Cup," a song about giving respect where it's due, another Truckers specialty. "Do It Yourself" turns suicide into a fistfight, challenging the dead guy to accept his own responsibility. "Some should say I should cut you slack, but you worked so hard at unhappiness," Hood snaps during one of the band's punchiest, most cocksure tunes. "Living too hard just couldn't kill you/ In the end you had to do it yourself." Happy Ending traces many of these songs to their origins, and it's clear that these stories belong to the Truckers and the people around them. They convey their region with empathy and exactitude—and, of course, with thick Southern accents.
Jason Isbell, another Alabama songwriter who's about a decade younger than Hood and Cooley, was a Drive-By Trucker for three albums. Decoration Day was his first record as a Trucker, and his two contributions—the title track and "Outfit"—proved essential. "Outfit" gathers the advice his father gave him over the years and unknowingly underlines both why the Truckers matter so much and why they've been ostracized by certain audiences.
"Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/ Don't ever say your car is broke," he sings, detailing a working man's machismo in a voice as thick as chew. "Don't worry about losing your accent/ A Southern man tells better jokes."
For more than a decade, the Drive-By Truckers have told better stories—jokes, tears, deaths and all—than most any other band working. It's just that some people treat that accent like a Mason-Dixon Line and then refuse to cross it.