Patterson Hood writes the greatest death songs. That’s was always going to be the begnning of this piece. And it was the beginning at the House of Blues in Hollywood last night, as the band he leads — the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world (my current favorite anyways), Drive-by Truckers — kicked off a killer set with the greatest of all their death songs, “The Living Bubba,” about a musician they knew who died of aids, but who spent the last year of his life touring.
“I can’t die now, cuz I got another show to do.”
Of course, the secret to Patterson Hood’s death songs is that they’re really about life: something that’s always been there, but I really never figured out until recently. Maybe he didn’t either.
And the secret to the the greatness of Drive-by Truckers is that they’ve not only figured out to make the three guitars work, but also how to make three singer/songwriters work.
“Name me one great rock and roll band that had three lead singers!” my friend Don once demanded long ago,his point being that normally a great band has a single focal point. Anything else can diffuse the power, dissipate the energy. It took me awhile, but then I realized: “The Beatles.”
And now, Drive-by Truckers. Who, of course, are not The Beatles; much more like the Rolling Stones or the Replacements or Neil Young or Lynyrd Skynyrd.
So it’s not just Patterson Hood’s life songs; it’s Mike Cooley’s gritty voice on his songs and Jason Isbell’s heart-breaking melodies on his songs. And most of all, it’s the stories that they all tell.
Karl Pilkington says that he can only like a song that tells a story, so the one thing he and I should have in common is a love of Drive-by Truckers. They’re all about telling you stories. Stories about people they know; stories about people they wish they knew; legends; myths; icons; cheaters; killers, racers; rockers; a whole goddammed rock opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the people who love them.
So here’s a Drive-by Truckers best-of — in chronological order cos I’m not that fracking crazy — a series of songs that adds up to an anthology full of the best stories you can ever imagine singing along with.
- “Late for Church” – Gangstabilly
When DBT started out, they were lumped in the alt-country movement — not the worst place to be — and this is a perfect example why: a tale of a reluctant church-goer fueled by a sad steel guitar, who ends up realizing that he doesn’t need church to find his heaven.
- “Nine Bullets” – Pizza Deliverance
In his roommate’s gun, so out of courtesy, he’ll only use eight, just in case his roommate needs one.
- “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)” – Pizza Deliverance
If you’re gonna sin, you might as well be joyful about it.
- “The Living Bubba” – Alabama Ass Whuppin’
The live version: a celebration of Gregory Dean Smalley’s life chock full of harmonies and guitars. And more guitars.
- “18 Wheels of Love”- Alabama Ass Whuppin’
True story about Patterson’s moms getting remarried. This version notable for two things: the hilarious monologue that sets it up and the guitars that come crashing in after “They got married in Dollywood/By a Porter Waggoner look-alike!”
- “Ronnie & Neil” – Southern Rock Opera
Here’s where they went from an interesting band into one for the ages: their prime subject became “the duality of the Southern thing,” and their prime sound became a trilogy of guitars. Both of the guys in the title of this manifesto should be proud to be influences.
- “Dead, Drunk and Naked” – Southern Rock Opera
I hate when this happens.
- “Let There Be Rock” – Southern Rock Opera
If you were a teenage boy anywhere in America in the late 1970s, this song could be your life just before punk rock changed it.
- “Women Without Whiskey” – Southern Rock Opera
Mike Cooley knows: Sometimes you make the choice. And sometimes the choice makes you.
- “Life in the Factory” – Southern Rock Opera
Side four of Southern Rock Opera is fully about Lynyrd Skynyrd proper, as we get treated to a story — “more or less the truth” — about their career, the crash, and their legend.
- “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” – Southern Rock Opera
Even — and in this case, especially — if somehow you know it ain’t the best idea.
- “Greenville to Baton Rouge” – Southern Rock Opera
Well, maybe not so much all the way to Baton Rouge. And three guitars make quite a plane crash-y noise.
- “Angels and Fuselage” – Southern Rock Opera
“And I’m scared shitless of what’s coming next / I’m scared shitless, these angels I see in the trees are waiting for me / Waiting for me.”
- “Marry Me” – Decoration Day
“Rock and Roll means well, but it can’t help tellin’ young boys lies.” If the object of this song is smart, she’ll say “no, thanks” and run like hell.
- “My Sweet Annette” – Decoration Day
Annette wasn’t so smart, and ends up losing her fiancee and best friend in one fell swoop.
- “Outfit” – Decoration Day
Jason Isbell makes his DBT debut with a near-perfect song about the best advice any dad could ever give his guitar-slinging son:
“Have fun, but stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister’s birthday
Don’t tell ’em your bigger than Jesus
Don’t give it away
Don’t give it away”
- “Heathens” – Decoration Day — Heathens, sure. But goddammed proud of it, and a musical throwback to the alt-country days.
- “Uncle Disney” – Killers and Stars
From Patterson Hood’s first solo album — according to his website, another one is due this year — a tale of revenge for evils done in the name of good.
- “Miss Me Gone” – Killers and Stars
Sad and lonely and pretty. And that’s just the acoustic guitar. The melody is even more of all of those things.
- “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” – The Dirty South
Some places are too scary for words. Luckily, there’s always those guitars to conjure up the fear.
- “The Day John Henry Died” – The Dirty South
Sometimes you change the world. Sometimes the world changes you.
- “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” – The Dirty South
As told to Elvis, who changed the world: the man the made the millions on the Million Dollar Quartet was the only man Jerry Lee Lewis called “sir.” Mr. Phillips may not have done right by all of his boys, but he did give Carl Perkins that Caddy.
- “Goddamm Lonely Love” – The Dirty South
“I’ll take two of what you’re having and I’ll take everything you got.”
- “Feb 14” – A Blessing and a Curse
And sometimes, you just wanna say this: “Be my valentine.” In the same alternate universe where “I Will Dare,” and “I Got You (at the End of the Century)” were #1 hit singles, this is ruling the charts. In our universe, any “rock” radio station that ain’t playing the shit out of this is just plain lame.
- “Daylight” – A Blessing and a Curse
Yeah, but how much more daylight is left?
- “Space City” – A Blessing and a Curse
A widower’s lament: “Space City’s one hour up the road from me / One hour away from as close to the moon as anybody down here is ever gonna be.”
- “A World of Hurt” – A Blessing and a Curse
Finally saying outright what his music has always told anybody with ears to hear: “It’s great to be alive.” Sure, it’s gonna be a world of hurt, but did you catch that part about still being alive?
And speaking of alive: last night at a packed House, Drive-by Truckers were fully, utterly and joyously alive. And loud. And rocking. Concentrating mostly on their last three albums — didn’t even get into Southern Rock Opera until the encore — Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell & Mike Cooley traded songs, vocals and guitar licks while bassist Shonna Tucker and drummer Brad Morgan made sure that they had a nice solid floor to run and jump and play on.
It was pretty much all you could ask for from a rock show. And Drive-by Truckers are pretty much all you could ask for from a rock band.