The Drive-By Truckers crash the political discussion with the most important record of their career, the eloquent and insightful “American Band.”
Their 11th studio album mirrors an America that finds itself fractured and frustrated, wrestling with the burden of embracing the future while reassessing its past.
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the band’s songwriting duo, deliver 11 tracks that manage to be eminently listenable and deeply thought provoking. It also marks the first time they’ve landed a release in the Top 10.
By phone, Hood sounds energized by the new record and the attention it’s getting. “I have always considered myself a writer, first and foremost. I have been writing songs since I was 8 years old,” he says. “I think this is our best writing on this album.”
“Ramon Casiano” kicks things off with an abrasive guitar tone and a steady backbeat, while Cooley tells a tale of gun violence and border politics. The song is based on the true story of Casiano, who was killed at 15 by Harlon Carter. Carter was tried and convicted, only to have the ruling thrown out on a technicality. Carter later joined the U.S. Border Patrol, and eventually rose to executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. Cooley describes Carter as a leader of men “whose triggers pull their fingers / men who would rather fight than win.”
“American Band” takes a panoramic view on current events while avoiding the temptation to paint with a broad brush. Finely honed lyrical observations remain rooted in the specific. And while the record has a lot to say, it isn’t preachy or heavy, even as it asks more questions than it can answer.
The bulk of the album was recorded in a three-day stretch in Nashville in November 2015. It’s a balanced affair, midtempo rockers sitting easily alongside beautiful acoustic ballads. The political point of view is decidedly left-of-center while leaving room for open discourse.
The Truckers long have been based in Athens, Georgia, and have built their reputation writing about the South and touring relentlessly. After years in the same place, Hood needed a change and packed his family off to a new home in Oregon, finding inspiration in the process.
“Guns of Umpqua” is the result, a haunting acoustic number that marries disturbing imagery with a gorgeous melody. The tune tells the story of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in October 2015. Recorded only a month later, the easy, loping pace of the song contrasts with pictures of students frantically barricading classroom doors. Told from the point of view of Chris Mintz, an Army veteran who survived being shot five times, the song stays with the listener, leaving an indelible impression.
“I wrote “Guns of Umpqua” on a plane,” Hood recalls. “I didn’t have a guitar with me and I had to learn to play it when I landed.”
Cooley’s contributions include a scathing look at religious double standards, record burnings and financial misdeeds. On “Kinky Hypocrite” he rails, “the greatest separators of fools from their money party harder than they like to admit.” Hood tackles his battles with depression on “Baggage,” a song triggered in part by the suicide of Robin Williams.
But the album’s centerpiece is Hood’s “What It Means.” In it, he manages to cover a lot of ground in one song, from Ferguson, Missouri, to George Zimmerman, to a certain news network that touts itself as fair and balanced. Underpinned by gently strummed acoustic guitar, it calls to mind another Zimmerman — the newly minted Nobel laureate. Hood’s drawl adds to the Everyman feel of the song’s narrator, a guy who asks himself what it’s all about. Hood compares the tune to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
“The Marvin Gaye song is as much a questioning song as mine is,” Hood says. “It is an invitation to a conversation that I think needs to be had. I’m trying to connect the disconnect.”
As he sings, “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks / it just means that you ain’t black.” The song pulls all of the threads of the album together into a cohesive piece of whole cloth. In the process, “American Band” articulates a deep unrest that simmers near the surface waiting to erupt.
Who are we as a nation? Who do we want to be? Where do we go from here? While those questions are easier to raise than to answer, we need artists who can challenge the sense of comfort we find in our particular paradigm. If there’s any justice in the world, this album will contend for record of the year. S
The Drive-By Truckers perform with Kyle Craft at the National on Nov. 10 and 11. Tickets are $23-$28.